Burmese Buddhist Exceptionalism and the Violence of Religious Tolerance

CEAS/TRAP Faculty Working Group Public Lecture
Alicia Turner, York University
Apr 25, 2024 at - | ANNS 111

Early European accounts of Burma expressed shock at the presence of what they understood to be liberal modern values imbedded in what would soon be a British colony in Southeast Asia. Burma was, to them, an exception in Asia, where religious tolerance and freedom for women were enshrined. After a half a century of this discourse, that elevated Burmese above Indians and Chinese, late nineteenth century scholars the origin of these surprisingly modern values in Buddhism, shifting them from the essence of a people to a World Religion. In these depictions the Buddha becomes a great liberator, who has freed Asian people to live in line with European Liberalism. And yet as much as this discourse valorized Burmese people and Buddhism, it worked to racialize Hindus and Muslims with devastating implications into the present. Working with Wendy Brown’s theories I develop an account of how tolerance racializes religious difference.

Alicia Turner is Associate Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies. She is interested in the intersections of religion, colonialism, secularism and nationalism in Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on Buddhism in Burma (Myanmar) over the past 150 years. Her book Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma explores the fluid nature of the concepts of sāsana, identity and religion through a study of Buddhist lay associations in colonial Burma. Her current projects include a jointed written biography of U Dhammaloka: an Irish sailor and agitator turned Buddhist monk, work on the history and concept of Buddhist secularisms and a genealogy of religious difference and tolerance in Burma (Myanmar).