Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar

Executive Summary

The August 2017 attacks by al-Yaqin or Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which the Myanmar government has designated a terrorist organisation, have pushed Rakhine state into renewed crisis. They also are being used by radical Buddhist nationalists in the rest of the country to promote their agenda. While dynamics at play in Rakhine are mostly driven by local fears and grievances, the current crisis has led to a broader spike in anti-Muslim sentiment, raising anew the spectre of communal violence across the country that could imperil the country’s transition.

Since the start of the political liberalisation in 2011, Myanmar has been troubled by an upsurge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and deadly communal violence, not only in Rakhine state but across the country. The most prominent nationalist organisation is the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (commonly referred to by its Burmese-language acronym, MaBaTha), made up of monks, nuns and laypeople. The government has focused considerable effort on curtailing this group and pushing the top Buddhist authority in Myanmar to ban it. Yet these efforts have been largely ineffective at weakening the appeal of nationalist narratives and organisations, and have probably even enhanced them. However uncomfortable it may be, a more nuanced understanding of the sources of social support for MaBaTha, as opposed to simplistic one-dimensional portrayals, is vital if the government and Myanmar’s international partners are to find effective ways to address the challenges posed by radical nationalism and reduce risks of violence.

The nature of MaBaTha and the extent of its popularity are widely misunderstood, including by the government. Far from being an organisation narrowly focused on political or anti-Muslim goals, it sees itself – and is viewed by many of its supporters – as a broad-based social and religious movement dedicated above all else to the protection and promotion of Buddhism at a time of unparalleled change and uncertainty in a country and society where historically Buddhism and the state have been inseparable.

While State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party command enormous respect and support in the political realm, there is a widespread nationalist perception that they have a generally Western liberal outlook that privileges minority rights and diversity (including religious diversity) over protection of the Buddhist faith – notwithstanding the fact that many minorities feel that the government is not taking account of their concerns. Efforts by the government to crack down on MaBaTha have only amplified the perception that they are weak protectors of the faith. If the government makes good on its threat to declare MaBaTha an unlawful association, there will be severe, likely violent, reverberations across the country.

MaBaTha is led by widely-revered and charismatic monks who have far greater legitimacy on religious issues in the eyes of many Myanmar Buddhists than the government or state religious authorities. MaBaTha also appeals to a broad range of people, including those who oppose its forays into party politics or hate speech, through its engagement in a wide range of “good causes” at the community level – from Buddhist Sunday schools, social service and secular education provision to legal aid and disaster relief. Nowhere is this clearer than in the strong support for MaBaTha among nuns and numerous laywomen’s organisations – despite MaBaTha’s support for what many see as misogynistic objectives such as laws that restrict women’s right to marry whom they choose. For many – male and female – MaBaTha provides not only a powerful, well-funded channel for participation in community-support activities, but also a sense of belonging and direction in a context of rapid societal change and few jobs or other opportunities for youth.

In light of the realities of simmering intercommunal tensions and outbreaks of violence linked to hate speech and nationalist provocations, the stakes for the country are extremely high. Some prominent monks and laypeople within MaBaTha espouse extreme bigoted and anti-Muslim views, and incite or condone violence in the name of protecting race and religion. In a context of tense intercommunal relations, there is a real risk that these actions could contribute to major communal violence. The biggest threat may not be MaBaTha itself, but the dynamics it has created and individuals it has empowered that may be beyond its control.

While the government must continue to take robust action against hate speech, incitement and violence, it is unlikely that confrontation and legal action will be effective in dealing with the broader phenomenon of Buddhist nationalism and groups such as MaBaTha. Indeed, these arguably may play to their advantage, given the wide resonance of MaBaTha narratives combined with the popularity of the community services provided under its banner.

In Myanmar’s new, more democratic era, the debate over the proper place of Buddhism, and the role of political leadership in protecting it, is being recast. Given the deep, mutually legitimising historical relationship between the state and the clergy, this debate, which is unlikely to end soon, cannot be seen only in terms of politics and nationalism, divorced from moral and spiritual issues. The government should take control of the narrative by reframing, on its terms, the place of Buddhism in a more democratic context and setting out its own positive vision.

In parallel, it should address the underlying grievances that lead people to support exclusionary nationalist narratives, which are partly economic. A much more visible focus on the economy would give people confidence that the government is prioritising better opportunities and jobs and a more prosperous future for ordinary people. The more that people can feel they have a role to play in this, and the more channels they have to do so outside nationalist networks, the greater their sense of control over their destiny. International development actors must also recognise the diverse social role of monasteries and nunneries, including those aligned with or sympathetic to MaBaTha, and find ways to positively influence their activities and promote credible alternative channels to problematic nationalist networks.

Yangon/Brussels, 5 September 2017

I.Introduction

Rising Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar since the start of the political transition in 2011 has prompted domestic and international concern. The largest Buddhist nationalist organisation, the Association for Protection of Race and Religion (known by its Burmese-language acronym, MaBaTha) enjoys widespread grassroots support despite government-led attempts to undermine its religious authority. Forays into party politics are controversial – even within MaBaTha – but its view that Buddhism is under threat is widely shared among Myanmar Buddhists. Many members and supporters also see the organisation as primarily focused on protection and promotion of Buddhism and provision of social services, complicating government efforts to ban or weaken MaBaTha.

This report provides a detailed and nuanced understanding of the activities of MaBaTha and other nationalist groups as well as of the motivations and views of its members and supporters. Such understanding is indispensable in formulating effective policy responses.

The report is based on six months of detailed research and interviews in 2017, including: interviews with high ranking members of MaBaTha and other nationalist groups; Buddhist monks and nuns who support MaBaTha; women’s groups that support MaBaTha; high ranking members of the National League for Democracy party; and civil society and human rights activists. The research also draws on Crisis Group observations of MaBaTha events and outreach activities, including rallies, dispute resolution activities, civic education, and gathering of signatures for petitions. Relevant academic and policy research has been reviewed, particularly where it draws on in-country interviews. Most of the primary interviews were conducted in the Burmese language; many of these were of female religious nationalists interviewed by female researchers. Interviews were carried out in both upper and lower parts of central Myanmar, as well as in Kayin state.

The focus on female religious nationalists was deliberate, intended to shed light on an aspect of nationalism in Myanmar that is rarely studied or discussed, and because understanding the motivations and views of female nationalists challenges assumptions commonly-held domestically and internationally about Buddhist nationalism in the country.

The report describes the rationales members have for their participation in MaBaTha and its activities. Whether or not these are cogent or fact-based, they are genuinely felt and therefore important to understand to design effective policy responses. The report does not provide a definitive account of MaBaTha membership, structure or activities, given the fluid nature of the organisation and ongoing changes in response to recent government and religious pressure. It also does not analyse the August 2017 attacks in Rakhine state by the militant group known as al-Yaqin or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the military’s response, which continued at the time of publication. This serious episode and its implications will be explored in a report to be published in the fall of 2017.

II.Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar and the Region

A.Historical Roots in Myanmar