Buddhist education centres for children and young adults are multiplying across Myanmar, but while they claim to be politically neutral, critics say they teach toxic nationalism and military propaganda.
Ma May Lwin* was taken aback earlier this month when her nine-year-old daughter suddenly refused to meet her best friend, a Muslim girl.
“Mother, I don’t want to play with her anymore because she is one of the kalars who kill animals,” Ma Yadanar Phoo* told her mother, using a derogatory term for people of South Asian descent, and especially Muslims.
“I was in shock. My daughter and her friend have played together since they were toddlers, because they’re the same age and our homes are just separated by a fence. When I asked her where she had heard such things, she told me she learned them from a teacher at her Dhamma school,” she said.
May Lwin had sent Yadanar Phoo to the Dhamma school in the local monastery on the girl’s grandmother’s urging. The older woman had wanted the child to learn about Buddhism under the guidance of a monk held in high regard by the village in Ayeyarwady Region’s Danubyu Township.
“I thought that it wouldn’t be bad for my daughter to learn how to talk and behave respectfully with adults, and to control her negative emotions through mindfulness. But all she learned was hate speech and racist ideas,” she said.
May Lwin decided to withdraw her daughter from the Dhamma school that very same day, but she was afraid to air her grievances because most of her neighbours wouldn’t tolerate criticism of the monastery.
“I told the monastery that I couldn’t send my daughter there anymore because she needed to study before her high school starts. If I told them my true feelings, the abbot would cut ties with our family,” she said.
Amyo, batha and thathana
According to social media advertisements, Dhamma schools are opening this summer in almost all village tracts in Ayeyarwady and Yangon regions, and some in Mon and Rakhine states.
“Before the pandemic, there were Dhamma schools in some villages. But this year I have noticed that monasteries in many villages seem to be competing to open their own schools. Monks ask their followers for funds and help to establish them,” U Aung Kyaw*, a former village tract administrator in Ayeyarwady’s Danubyu Township, told Frontier.
He also claimed that most of the monks opening those schools are former members or supporters of Ma Ba Tha, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion.
Founded in 2014, Ma Ba Tha was created at a moment of political and social change, when many Buddhists in Myanmar believed their religion was under threat. The organisation was established a few months after several incidents of anti-Muslim violence rocked Mandalay Region’s Meiktila town and other parts of central Myanmar. The 969 Movement, a precursor of Ma Ba Tha led by ultranationalist monks, had allegedly contributed to the violence by stoking sectarian tensions.
Myanmar monasteries have a centuries-old tradition of providing religious and some secular forms of education to children, and Ma Ba Tha drew from that in sponsoring schools similar to the one May Lwin’s daughter attended, with a focus on Buddhist instruction. Many of those schools were funded and run by the Dhamma School Foundation, an organisation founded in 2012 that soon established a vast network of Buddhist education centres throughout the country.
The crowning achievement of Ma Ba Tha was the passing in 2015 of the controversial Race and Religion Protection Laws by a parliament dominated by the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party. Two of these laws, which Ma Ba Tha had lobbied for and even helped to draft, placed obstacles on inter-faith marriages and religious conversions.
Ma Ba Tha campaigned for the USDP in the 2015 election and its members often accused the National League for Democracy of being part of a conspiracy to make Myanmar a Muslim country. Seemingly responding to this pressure, the NLD failed to put forward a single Muslim candidate in that election, but did ban Ma Ba Tha in 2017, one year after forming a government.
Not all of the schools are new. U Sandaw*, the head of a Dhamma school in a different village in Danubyu Township, told Frontier that the school has held classes at the monastery since 2013.
“We want the children to be more polite and to know more about Buddhism, so they become good Buddhists. Therefore, we opened the classes free of charge. We supply all the textbooks and all the stationary the kids use. They only need to attend the lessons,” he said.
Some villagers interviewed by Frontier claimed that U Sandaw has been a Ma Ba Tha supporter since the organisation was founded.
Long before the 2021 military coup, Dhamma schools have been supported by the Tatmadaw, who justify their role in politics as necessary to defend amyo, batha and thathana (race, religion and the Buddha’s teachings), a slogan borrowed from nationalists who fought for independence from the British in the 1930s. Both before and after the recent military takeover, the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has repeatedly urged in state media for people to open Dhamma schools.
Now some parents feel compelled to send their children to the Dhamma schools against their will. Daw Zinmar Aye*, a civil servant, told Frontier that her boss made her entire department send their children to the school at the monastery that he usually donates to.
“Although he said we can send our children voluntarily, we are obligated to do it if we want to maintain a good relationship with our superiors. If he asks me whether my son is attending or not and I say no, his attitude to me will change,” she said.
‘Nowadays, young people are rude and become terrorists’
Dhamma schools in monasteries are not the only source of Buddhist instruction for laypeople. A Yangon-based member of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, a nationalist civil society organisation that is more than a century old, said members are regularly invited to give lessons to family members of Tatmadaw soldiers and the police.
“We send lecturers to the battalions and donate our textbooks. We train them to keep Buddhism alive, to spread Buddhist literature and to foster solidarity among Buddhists,” he said.
Formed in 1906, the YMBA played a crucial role in the struggle against the British. When Myanmar finally got its independence in 1948, the organisation pledged to never again be involved in politics, and for a while, it kept its word.
However, it returned to the political arena in 2019, when it conferred its highest honour on Min Aung Hlaing and appointed him as the association’s lifelong patron. The YMBA has also developed a close relationship with the USDP and former members of Ma Ba Tha, with some believing it’s meant to serve as a successor to the banned organisation.
According to the YMBA Facebook page, it has been continuously offering Dhamma training across the country through its township chapters. In a recent statement, the group claimed to have opened 32 new Dhamma summer schools this year.
YMBA chair U Ye Htun refused repeated interview requests from Frontier. However, he explained why the organisation was opening more Dhamma schools during an interview on May 4 with pro-military ultranationalist group Buddha Gone Yi.
“Nowadays, young people are rude and become terrorists. They kill monks and throw insults at famous monks like Sitagu Sayadaw and the chair of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee,” he said, referring to a government-appointed council that regulates the monkhood. He added this behaviour “is a consequence of being brainwashed by other political forces. That’s why we wish to train the younger generation to be peaceful.”
Sitagu, also known as Ashin Nyanissara, is Myanmar’s most famous Buddhist monk and has grown increasingly close to the military, even praising Min Aung Hlaing after the coup for his “great generosity” and “wisdom” as the “head of state”.
According to YMBA chair Ye Htun, the junta-appointed mayor of Nay Pyi Taw U Tin Oo Lwin has instructed the organisation to provide Dhamma summer courses in all state primary schools in the capital, and has pledged funding to print textbooks.
The Myanmar Women and Children Development Foundation is also sponsoring Dhamma courses. According to its Facebook page, it’s working with the YMBA to teach high school students in Nay Pyi Taw. The MWCDF is chaired by the wives of some senior members of the junta, including Daw May Myint Maung, wife of the Nay Pyi Taw mayor.
Because of its links to the regime, YMBA has come under attack by resistance forces. Two of its township chapter chairs were assassinated in Mon State in 2021 and multiple offices have reportedly been attacked with explosives.
Repeated requests for comment by Frontier to the junta’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture and the MWCDF also went unanswered.
Raising a new generation of Buddhists
There is no standardised curriculum for Dhamma schools, with different organisations using different teaching materials.
Ko Min Lwin*, a teacher working for the Dhamma School Foundation, claimed that his organisation mainly teaches children about the Buddha’s teachings.
“We use one book published by the Department for Promotion and Propagation of Sasana that’s mainly about how to worship the Buddha. We also teach them how to recite the scriptures,” he said.
The YMBA uses its own textbook, which a member said teaches students the 38 Mingalar Dhamma (the 38 highest blessings in life) preached by the Buddha himself.
“The list of 38 Mingalar Dhamma is something every child should know. When I was a kid, our parents taught us how to behave in accordance with them,” said the man, who is in his 60s. “But nowadays parents have to work to meet the family’s needs, so they don’t have to time to educate their children. That’s why we are teaching ethics in their place.”
Bhadanta Sunanda, a member of another association, the Buddha Mar Ma Ka, told Frontier that their primary concern is to “prevent Buddhism from disappearing”.
He said the group operates both summer schools and Sunday classes throughout the year, with about 1,500 students from grades 1 to 10 attending.
“We teach them using our own curriculum. We also arrange three meals per day for our students and arrange ferry transport for them. We have four goals: to raise a new generation of Buddhists, and to make these kids devoted to Buddhism, excel in education and be charitable,” he said.
The association also gives awards to high-achieving students. “The prizes are a gold ring, a bicycle and a phone handset,” he said.
While Dhamma schools portray themselves and their curricula as politically neutral, activist and former political prisoner U Htun Kyi says the military regime has nefarious reasons for backing them.
“These courses amount to psychological violence, one of the worst kinds of violence. They are teaching children that the difficult situation we are suffering is a consequence of sins we committed in past lives, not because of the junta’s injustices. The junta is using religion as a weapon,” he said.
Sayadaw U Waryama, a spokesman for the Spring Revolution Sangha Network, agreed. “Our rulers are brutal. These [ultranationalist] monks never criticise their abuses, but instead teach children to be tolerant and well-behaved. It amounts to telling the people not to react when they are treated unfairly,” said the monk.
Anti-junta activists also say the military supports Dhamma schools to stoke inter-faith tensions, which serve to justify harsh security measures and prevent society from uniting against the regime.
Ko Chit Win Maung, spokesperson for the Magway People’s Strike Committee, said that people have to fight all forms of dictatorship, including racist ideologies, and that his committee is trying to educate people about religious and ethnic discrimination.
“We are spreading our knowledge on these issues by writing on social media and organising panel discussions. We are also constantly telling our comrades on the ground that religious and ethnic discrimination will destroy harmony, friendship and stability,” he said.
U Waryama believes that junta-sponsored Dhamma schools won’t doom the anti-junta struggle but could have long-term negative effects.
“This revolution will not be destroyed because the children who are attending the schools are not old enough to get involved in it. But they are part of a master plan by the junta to preserve their power in the long run,” he said.
*denotes use of a pseudonym for security reasons