Myanmar’s toughest challenge lies ahead

Myanmar’s toughest challenge lies ahead

Myanmar’s controversial race and religion laws could be a trigger for a revolt against the country’s newly elected government, warns JONATHAN BOGAIS.

Speaking at his Masoe-yin monastery quarters in Mandalay about the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) victory in the historic Myanmar elections, U Wirathu, the leader of the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion—a body of ultranationalist monks known locally as Ma Ba Tha—said that if the NLD were to attack the race and religion laws, he would speak out.

His comments were a chilling warning to Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD that if they attempted to challenge the four ‘protection of race and religion’ laws passed in September 2015, Ma Ba Tha would revolt against the new government.

Tensions were running high already in Myanmar’s north-western Rakhine state ahead of the 8 November general elections, as Ma Ba Tha accused Aung San Suu Kyi of being pro-Muslim and told its supporters to vote for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDL) against the NLD. Ma Ba Tha encouraged people to vote for candidates who ‘will not let the Buddhist race and religion disappear’, and slogans like ’keep our blood pure’ and ’protect our race’ abounded.

During a two-week-long rally in Yangon, an estimated 1,300 monks celebrated the passage in September of the four controversial and internationally criticised protection of race and religion laws that experts say discriminate against people based on religion and gender. The laws strictly regulate matters of interfaith marriage, population control and monogamy and are perceived as being largely targeted against Muslims, considered by Ma Ba Tha a dangerous threat to Myanmar’s traditionally Buddhist culture. U Wirathu’s call for a radical anti-Muslim campaign has created fear that a new wave of sectarian violence could erupt at any time, especially if the laws are contested by the newly elected government.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been in a difficult position in Rakhine, torn between showing compassion for the Rohingya’s struggle—and being called pro-Muslim—or being perceived as indifferent to religious violence and the suffering of nearly 800,000 Rohingya, who have been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Her three-day visit one week before the elections, and her call for unity and an end to violence, prompted angry reactions from some ultranationalist monks accusing her and her party of being ‘weak on Islam, ‘the religion of about 5 per cent of the population.

While in Rakhine, she did not meet with Rohingya representatives and stayed away from the regional capital, Sittwe, a city from which most Muslims were removed in 2012. To this day, aid to the displaced Rohingya—especially medical assistance—is barely filtering through the strict restrictions imposed by local Rakhine nationalists.

International pressure

Aung San Suu Kyi is also under pressure from the international community to take action to prevent further violence and recognise the existence of the Rohingya. Until now, she has refused to acknowledge the term ‘Rohingya’, referring instead to the people she claims are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as ‘Bengalis’.

Reports of repeated, systematic violent abuses of the Rohingya following sectarian clashes in 2012 and 2014 prompted President Barack Obama, during his visit to Myanmar last November, to call for an end to incitement and violence and for the government to address issues of injustice against religious minorities.

Despite Obama’s call, little happened. Instead, in an effort to appease the overwhelming Buddhist majority, Aung San Suu Kyi acquiesced to the government’s decision to exclude the estimated 800,000 Muslim Rohingya from eligibility to vote in the upcoming elections.

In a statement following his visit to Myanmar two days before the elections, Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the president and US Deputy National Security Advisor,– said that ‘there were endemic problems in Burma, but Buddhist extremism would not have been on anyone’s list of predictions’. According to Rhodes, when politics enters a public sphere, it sometimes unleashes negative forces as well as positive ones. ‘We are witnessing the opening in a country that has been entirely closed to the world for decades, and it could be easy to overstate a problem,’ he said referring to the plight of the Rohingya.

This approach has also been used by Aung San Suu Kyi. When asked about the claims of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine state, she said: ‘It is very important that we should not exaggerate the problems in this country.’ Both, it seems, are trying to phase down what appears to be an unsolvable problem at the moment.

Rhodes also referred to Indonesia and how long it took for democracy to take a foothold, suggesting the international community should be patient with Myanmar. His comments will no doubt reassure foreign investors likely to gain enormously from an untapped market of 52 million people eager to reap the economic benefits of the democratisation process, and also reassure some US military strategists eager to engage in military-to-military exercises with Myanmar in the rebalance context as part of the US China policy.

Rhodes and Suu Kyi’s comments, however, are of little comfort to many Rohingya living in precarious conditions in camps with inadequate facilities, struggling to access medical help (especially for pregnant women) and in constant fear for their safety—at times for their lives.

Calling for the protection of the race’s purity, Ma Ba Tha justifies its violent actions in the ‘name of the people’, whose faith is Buddhism.

Religion has been used in these elections, which is inconsistent with the 2008 Constitution that separates religion and politics. To what degree issues of religion are the extension of a political strategy by elements of the political parties and to what extent those issues are part of an organic process of religious extremism are questions that need to be addressed.

There is no antidote to this type of activity. People making incitement speeches are aware that they will not be held accountable even if violence occurs. The international expectation that there will be voices speaking up for diversity and pluralism and support for minorities is misguided, as those traditions are not politically rooted in the social and political culture in Myanmar.

Calling for the protection of the race’s purity, Ma Ba Tha justifies its violent actions in the ‘name of the people’, whose faith is Buddhism. If the people (or the state) are seen as organic—as a perfect union—then the leadership of the movement can easily be tempted to seek to enhance the purity by suppressing the ‘other-world’ diversity of its perceived members and exhibit a pronounced tendency toward ethnic and political cleansing. By claiming legitimacy in the name of the people, perpetrators of ethnic cleansing can claim kinship to movements that are usually recognised as the bearers of true modernity, like liberalism or democracy.

Indifferent to abuses

The critical issue in Myanmar is less the fact that Ma Ba Tha’s leaders are capable of advocating such brutal measures than that so many ordinary citizens are prepared to participate in or remain indifferent to such abuses. One plausible explanation for this is to link these actions to the forces of modernity that seem to promote the ‘banality of evil’, introduced by Hannah Arendt in 1964 when discussing national socialism, where systemic discrimination and abuse are seen as involving groups of ordinary people, albeit being instructed by a few psychopaths for the sake of their own beliefs.

At this juncture, if ethnic cleansing has become in some sense banal, it is precisely because it is committed systematically on a daily basis without being adequately named and opposed. Calling ethnic cleansing banal refers to the way in which the crime has become accepted by the perpetrators, routinised, and implemented without moral revulsion or political indignation and resistance.

By greeting the protection of race and religion laws with indifference, people in Myanmar and the international community are supporting the implementation of an abuse process against a religious minority that would have no place in western society. Engaging with Myanmar’s new leadership must include demands for inclusivity and accountability when acts of violence against religious minorities are committed to comply with the rule of law. International actors must help all parties search for a common ground to prevent more conflict and further violence.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya now find themselves squeezed into camps near the Rakhine state capital Sittwe, living in cramped barrack-type shelters. Source: Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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Jonathan Bogais Dr Jean Jonathan Bogais, is a psycho-sociologist, analyst and negotiator specialising in conflict, violence ethics and complex systems - and in Southeast Asia. He is also an associate professor (adjunct) at the University of Sydney (School of Social and Political Sciences) and a senior fellow at the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance in the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University, Bangkok. His website is

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