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Against the euphoric victory of the democracy movement in Burma, many are disillusioned by the new government’s refusal to denounce anti-Muslim sentiment and practice robust religious tolerance. Foreign observers are dismayed because they understood Buddhism to be quintessentially peaceful and tolerant, a view developed through English-language works on modern Buddhism, including those written by Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Those inside the country, who have struggled for so long against the hatred they saw as intrinsic to the military government, are shocked that the secular promised land of de-mo-cra-cy had proven so barren of the peace and pluralism they imagined. While many accuse the new government of being insufficiently secular, the problem is not a lack of embrace for secularism, but that the production of religious difference and division lies at the heart of both the modern state and the institutions of modern Buddhism. As Saba Mahmood has recently elucidated, “The modern secular liberal state is not simply a neutral arbiter of religious differences, it also produces and creates them. To think though this problem, one has to begin by recognizing the contradictions and inequalities the political secularism generates and the religious presuppositions it embeds in the legal and political life of the nation” (2016, 22). Moreover, contemporary Buddhist organizations across the political spectrum are indebted to a model of Buddhism as a religion in which identity is both exclusive and under threat. And yet, in contrast to the institutional production and enforcement of religious difference, pockets of pluralist interaction and robust deconstruction of the boundaries of religion persist. Even as the logic of both the state and modernist Buddhist institutions require greater difference, some interpret Buddhism instead as a mechanism for movement, connection and interaction that defy and deconstruct boundaries.
In this talk Professor Turner explores two concrete instances of the construction of religious difference and Buddhist practices that deconstruct such differences in the nineteenth century. The first is the Thayettaw monastic complex in Rangoon, “the most democratic of monasteries.” The product of the physical erection of religious and ethic boundaries at the foundation of the colonial city, it defiantly disregarded religion and ethnicity, welcoming all comers, to the distain of both colonial officials and elite Buddhist reformers alike. The second is a monastic reform sect in Tavoy (Dawei) that participated in the growing modernist logic which increasing defined Buddhism in terms of a bounded and regulated community, but used its participation in such schemes to negotiate relative autonomy from the center and a space for greater participation with local religious and ethnic minorities.
Alicia Turner is Associate Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at York University in Toronto and the Editor of The Journal of Burma Studies. Her book Saving Buddhism: Moral Community and the Impermanence of Colonial Religion explores the fluid nature of the concepts of sāsana, identity and religion through a study of Buddhist lay associations in colonial Burma. She is currently finishing a co-authored biography of an Irish sailor turned monk and anticolonial agitator and a study of Buddhist networks from the margins in colonial Southeast Asia. Her next project is a genealogy of secularism and religious tolerance in Buddhist Southeast Asia.