Since independence, Myanmar’s military (and civilian) leaders have attempted to shape social morality in the image of Buddhist political ideologies in order to legitimatise their rule (Schober 2011; Walton 2016). In recent years as upsurge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and acts of state violence against the Rohingya community, has taken centre stage in discussions of the country’s social and political transition. However, the ways in which the growing strength of military-aligned Buddhist nationalist networks reflects a broader crisis in moral community and communal identity from the perspective of everyday people is poorly understood, especially amongst Myanmar’s ethnic minority peoples.

In this seminar I interrogate how a primarily majority-Bamar nationalist movement has built strong alliances and flourished amongst the Karen, an ethnic minority group broadly categorised in opposition to the central Myanmar state (see South 2011; Thawnghmaung 2012). I argue that defending Buddhism against perceived threats helps to cultivate a form of  “cultural citizenship” (Rosaldo 1994, 2003) in which Karen people are positioned inside the nation and political community of Myanmar in ways that resonate with state ideologies of citizenship. What it means to be ‘good’ according to a Buddhist understanding of morality and moral community strikes at the core of the way many Plong Karen Buddhists craft themselves as moral beings in their everyday lives. For many Buddhist Plong Karen, these military-aligned Buddhist nationalist networks also engender a form of moral agency and an affective experience of power in what is a rapidly changing social and political landscape.


Justine Chambers, Research Scholar, School of Culture, History and Languages, Australian National University.

About Anthropology Working Papers

The Working Papers in Anthropology seminar series provides a forum for dissemination of anthropological research and ideas among UQ scholars and invited researchers. All students are invited to attend the series and postgraduate students, from honours upwards, are invited to present their research. The aim is to provide opportunities for students, staff and those from outside UQ, to present and discuss their work in an informal environment.


Michie Building (09), The University of Queensland, St Lucia