As much as 90% of the Burmese population practice Buddhism, making it the main religion in Myanmar. Buddhism in Burma is attached to the Theravada branch which is the oldest and more conservative branch of Buddhism, following the Buddha’s teachings, without modification. Buddhism does not have a creator god like other religions and it does not contain theories either. It is a doctrine, a philosophy based on the teaching of the Buddha contained in the Four Noble Truths: 1) The truth of suffering; 2) the cause of suffering; 3) the cessation of suffering and; 4) the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.
The founder of Buddhism is the Buddha, Siddharta Gautama who lived in the 5th century BC. The prince of a small kingdom in India, he lived in opulence thanks to his family’s wealth without having the slightest contact with anything outside the palace, neither with poverty, nor with misery, nor death. It was during an outing to the outside world that he witnessed illness and poverty for the first time. It was then that he undertook a quest to understand the origin of suffering with the aim of eradicating it. The Buddha lived an ascetic life with several monks and priests. He experienced enlightenment, a kind of extraordinary clairvoyance, a great wisdom where he understood that man causes his own suffering by undertaking and carrying out negative actions.
Each Buddhist aspires to achieve this experience of enlightenment. Burmese Buddhists, as in all of South East Asia, believe in reincarnation and Karma, the natural law of causes and their consequences. In Myanmar, each village has a pagoda and a monastery for worship and religious ceremonies. There is no doubt that during your trip to Myanmar you will see plenty of Buddhist pagodas, a reminder of the importance of religion in Myanmar.
Christianity is the second largest religion in Myanmar, making up around 8% of the population. Many of the ethnic minorities in Myanmar are Christian, such as the Chin, the Kachins, the Karen and the Naga. This Christian presence dates back to the time when European and American missionaries came to settle and evangelize Myanmar. In the 19th century, many tribes who had been treated as inferior due to their animistic beliefs, such as the Chins, converted to Christianity.
In general, Christian ethnic minorities are have faced discrimination in Myanmar and treatment as second-class citizens. Their children are often forced to participate in Buddhist rituals which take place at school every morning before class begins. That being said, the situation is improving, especially in towns and cities where education has increased and the population are more open-minded about religion in Myanmar.
After Christianity, the third-largest religion in Myanmar is Islam. Officially, 4% of the inhabitants of Myanmar are Muslim. In this predominantly Buddhist country, Muslims are often discriminated against by the powerful nationalist movement that strives to protect Buddhist identity, thus creating a struggle for minority groups. This is especially the case for the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group who have been living for generations on the northwestern facade of Myanmar in Rakhine State. Today, these people live in refugee camps in their own country. They are second-class citizens and even stateless people (the Rohingya were deprived of Burmese citizenship in 1982). While the majority of Myanmar’s Muslim population reside in Rakhine State, in the rest of the country many Muslims are present and are accepted into their communities.
Although religion in Myanmar can be tense at times due to the friction between the different religious groups, in reality, it is a very peaceful country. A city like Yangon can be proud of sheltering within it many religions and their monuments (mosques, cathedrals, pagodas, Sikh temples, Hindu temples and even a Synagogue!). Be respectful of the different cultures and keep an open mind as you explore this beautiful country!