As anti-Muslim nationalist groups lash out at the stateless Rohingya, Myanmar’s next generation of interfaith activists is struggling to promote compassion
Jue Jue Than, Htet Aung Lin and Phone Htet Naung face an uncertain future. The three students at Yangon School of Political Science received a phone call from police in mid-May, warning that they could soon face up to three months in prison. Their crime: steering a few dozen college students on an unauthorised march in downtown Yangon to pay their respects at religious monuments and promote diversity. The group defied an order to walk on a route that would have prevented them from passing mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist pagodas and churches.
While the self-described “interfaith activists” wait for a dreaded knock on the door, other, arguably less peaceful, demonstrators rest at ease. Thar Htet is a supporter of the Myanmar National Network, an ultra-nationalist group that has staged large demonstrations outside the US Embassy and in towns throughout the country. Htet said the group has felt “no pressure from the authorities”. The movement has claimed a number of causes, but its primary agenda has been to deny Myanmar’s Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority, the rights of citizenship and political agency in the predominantly Buddhist country.
“I feel worried, but I am not afraid,” Jue Than told Southeast Asia Globe, days after she was notified of the potential charges. She and her classmates, a group of twentysomethings from various parts of Myanmar, said they saw an urgent need to counter discriminatory rhetoric as the country slowly begins to shed its authoritarian legacy.
“We don’t want to be famous, we just want to spread our democratic values as much as possible,” said Htet Naung. “Respect and diversity – that’s what we want.”
The interfaith movement is new and small, branded less as a reaction to the rise in Buddhist nationalism than a promotion of metta, a Pali term for compassion. These activists – who are mostly young students, bright and well versed in English – joined by friends and supporters, said they simply want to provide an alternative to intolerance. Jue Than, a 29-year-old Muslim from central Myanmar, said she has endured discrimination since early childhood, often being called derogatory names and facing difficulty finding employment and obtaining government documents.
“It is really difficult to get a job, in companies and in the government, if you are wearing the hijab and you are being Muslim,” she said candidly in her school’s Yangon classroom surrounded by her peers: a mix of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim youths. “I don’t want to be discriminated [against]; I would like to be equal in human dignity.”
The rise of the Ma Ba Tha
Not everyone in Myanmar embraces multiculturalism. In 2011, the country began a transition to civilian rule after decades of military dictatorship, but new freedoms of expression have made space for more negative elements, leaving authorities struggling to balance the right of free speech against a growing tide of divisive and inflammatory language. Several permutations of ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups have grown in both public support and political influence, appealing to a Buddhist majority that feels under threat by other demographics.
First was a group called 969, led by firebrand monk Ashin Wirathu, which came to prominence in the wake of 2012 violence between Buddhists and Muslims. On the premise of protecting Myanmar’s Theravada tradition against a perceived threat of Islamic expansion, 969 advocated for boycotts of Muslim businesses, its leadership regularly travelling to the countryside to deliver riling and often anti-Muslim sermons. The group slipped into the shadows after much public controversy, giving way to another monk-led movement called the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha.
With support from the previous military-backed government, Ma Ba Tha became a powerful social and political force, even successfully lobbying for passage of discriminatory laws restricting interfaith marriage, birth rates and religious conversion. While it claims to be apolitical, the group has been accused of interference in last year’s election, urging its supporters to vote for the incumbent party, which would “protect Buddhism”. Smaller, grassroots organisations, such as the Myanmar National Network, later sprung up as proxies. Though they claim to be independent, monks associated with Ma Ba Tha have been seen giving speeches at Myanmar National Network rallies.
“The aim is to protect race and religion in our country, and to take part in national politics,” said Win Ko Ko Latt, director of the Myanmar National Network. The group supports a list of 135 “national races” that were recognised by the former government as indigenous, and firmly believes that those not on the list do not deserve equal rights. Ko Latt proudly said the network was at the forefront of a movement to “make sure” that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were disenfranchised during last year’s election.
“The impact from these [Buddhist] groups has been significant,” said Matthew Walton, a senior research fellow at Oxford University who specialises in Myanmar’s religious dynamics. “While it can be difficult to directly connect them to anti-Muslim violence that’s occurred since 2012, their actions and rhetoric have certainly created an enabling environment and especially given anti-Muslim sentiment a sense of religious legitimacy.”
Walton said that while not everyone connected to these groups is anti-Muslim or even ‘nationalist’, they are united by a fear, often perpetrated by monks, that Buddhism faces an existential threat.
“We’re going to see the impact of that down the line if there aren’t alternative voices and narratives there, as a whole generation of young Buddhists are growing up with this message,” Walton said. “We have to admit that it’s much easier to rally people around fear and hatred rather than a shared sense of identity or peaceful coexistence. And this is the challenge that the counter-narrative movements continue to face.”
The Rohingya issue
The Myanmar National Network has taken particular aim at the Rohingya, who bore the brunt of ethno-religious riots in Myanmar’s Rakhine State beginning in 2012. More than 100,000 people still live in squalid displacement camps after losing their homes in the deadly conflict. They are also denied freedom of movement, education and access to healthcare.
“When communal violence broke out between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine in May 2012, I realised that there was a gap between Muslim and Buddhist societies in general,” said Htoo Lou Rae Den, the founder of an interfaith group called Coexist. “It was an elephant in the room. Nobody was visibly doing anything about it.”
Speaking out against extremism has already landed a number of activists in prison, he said, mostly under the previous government. The new administration, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is undertaking a massive overhaul of laws that have long been used to suppress dissent, but Rae Den said that the legal system “remains a significant barrier for advocates”.
Jue Than and her peers, for instance, were threatened with charges under Myanmar’s Peaceful Assembly Law, a controversial, military-backed provision that is under review by the new legislature. The law carries criminal penalties for assembly on unauthorised routes, or for demonstrators whose messaging was not approved by local authorities. Authors of the new amendments, many of whom are former political prisoners themselves, say that while they hope to prevent the mistakes of the past, they still believe in principle that criminal measures may be necessary to guard against potential “troublemakers”.
But while retaining these punitive tools could help curb hate speech and rein in provocateurs, the law does not meet international standards, according to Vani Sathisan, an international legal advisor with the International Commission of Jurists, which consults with the new government on how to bring antiquated laws in line with international norms and protect human rights.
“Overly vague or broad laws open themselves up to selective interpretation by the state and prosecutors,” Sathisan said, expressing concern that authorities at the local level could misuse the provision, however well intended it may be. Prosecutors at the attorney general’s office, she urged, “must exercise their discretion and not push for wrongful charges under this law”.
Aung San Suu Kyi under fire
Rae Den pointed out that while the interfaith activists may face prison, authorities have done little to temper the nationalist movement. An anti-Rohingya rally in Mandalay in mid-April was given the green light, while a rogue monk in southeastern Myanmar has faced no consequences after erecting Buddhist stupas at a number of Christian and Muslim sites, angering religious communities.
Police threatened to take action against members of the Myanmar National Network who led a rally outside the US embassy in late April, but Ko Latt said that no one has yet been charged. Donning headbands reading “No Rohingya” and carrying banners denouncing the group as foreign, hundreds of protesters withstood blazing Yangon heat, chastising the embassy’s use of the word “Rohingya” in a statement of condolence for the deaths of more than 20 people in a recent boat accident. Suu Kyi later advised US ambassador Scot Marciel against using the word Rohingya to describe the group, fearing that it would “just add fuel to the fire”.
“We are not trying to say that any particular stance with regard to nomenclature is better than another,” Suu Kyi said in her defence, standing beside US Secretary of State John Kerry in Naypyidaw in late May. “What we are saying is that there are more important things for us to cope with than just the issue of nomenclature.”
Suu Kyi urged the international community to give her “enough space” to address the crisis at hand, which has spread in scope from the dire conditions for displaced persons in Rakhine to broader resentment toward the country’s Muslims. Her government appears reluctant to tackle head-on what has come to be viewed as a tinderbox of distrust; rumours spread by nationalists portray Muslims as dangerous and invasive, and even insinuate that Islamic communities could become a breeding ground for violent extremists.
The test for Suu Kyi will be whether alternative narratives, such as the peaceful agenda of Jue Than and her classmates, will become casualties of a legal system that is designed to contain the very problem the students are attempting to counter.
“At the time, we were thinking that we needed to create a new culture,” Htet Naung said. “Yeah, we broke the law, but we hope that both society and the government understand what we are doing.”
This is the only known sample of natural kyawthuite known to humans. The rough was mined in the Mogok Stone Tract of Burma and spotted as something unusual in a gem market by the mineralogist after whom the mineral was named. When he got the waterworn frosted pebble home and had a closer gander, it emerged that as a mineral the substance was previously unknown, though this bismuth antimony oxide is well known as a synthetic compound. It took five years to confirm its identity and it was accepted by the International Mineralogical Association last year. The mineral is soft (5.5 on Mohs scale) and has a very bright lustre (the amount of light the surface reflects) The rough has been cut into this 1.61 carat (5 of them to a gram) rectangular reddish orange cushion currently being exhibited at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
The Hsinbyume Pagoda is a uniquely shaped, white washed pagoda just outside of Mandalay. The Pagoda is topped with a gold spire, that enshrines an image of Buddha. The seven tiers of the pagoda feature niches, that contain small statues of mythological figures.
It is possible to climb to the top of the structure, where you will be treated to a great view of the Irrawaddy river, and nearby Mingun Pagoda.
Aung San Suu Kyi (b. 1945) is a Burmese politician and diplomat
who served as the first female Minister of Foreign Affairs in her country of
Myanmar, and held several other important positions: First and incumbent State
Counsellor, Minister of President’s Office, and Leader of the National League
for Democracy. She is a winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, among other
international recognitions of her democratic and pacifist efforts.
In the context of the
1988 Burmese uprisings, she founded the National League for Democracy in an
attempt to create a stable and peaceful government, but was arrested a year later,
after the military refused to yield power. She was still on house arrest when
she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and many other laureates around the
world called for her release. She used her 1.3 million USD prize to establish a
health and education trust for the people of Myanmar.
The following is an excerpt from the new book The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim (Hurst, 2016):
The reality facing the Rohingyas, a Muslim confessional ethnic group living in Rakhine province in western Myanmar, is the threat of genocide. Ever since Burma became independent in 1948 they have been targeted whenever ambitious (or desperate) politicians need to deflect attention from other matters. Both government officials and party leaders have called for their expulsion from their homeland, and the main opposition ignores their plight. The build up to the elections in late 2015 witnessed the final destruction of their civic rights in Myanmar (completing a process that began with the 1947 Constitution) and increasingly they are detained in what are now permanent internal refugee camps, where they are denied food, work and medical care.
If the regime fails to reign in the persecution of the Rohingyas (which only sustained international pressure will achieve) we will see a repeat of the by now familiar refugee crises, as the Rohingyas flee oppression. Moreover it is almost inevitable that there will be further inter-communal violence, aimed at forcing the remaining Rohingyas either to run away or succumb to mass murder. The charge of genocide is a serious one to make; the current situation in Myanmar fully justifies the use of this word.
Till recently the Rohingyas had attracted relatively little attention from the international press, even in the critical period leading up to only the third round of parliamentary elections to be held since 1990. If there is a common narrative it is that Burma (the name ‘Myanmar’ was adopted as part of a new set of laws in 1989) was a closed country of little direct interest to the world; that Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), having endured years of house arrest, is fully committed to a democratic future for all of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious groups; and that instances of inter-ethnic or inter-confessional violence are to be expected in a country making the difficult transition from authoritarian military rule to democracy. The problem is that all three of these beliefs are false.
Burma may have turned its back on the British-led Commonwealth when it gained independence in 1948, but it maintained substantial external links as a democracy (until 1962), under military rule (1962–2011) and subsequently. It is just that those links have been essentially pragmatic (especially under military rule), designed to allow the ruling elite to make money by trading away the country’s wealth while at the same time buying arms. As we will see, the military regime (which remains essentially in power despite the notional return of democracy and the electoral defeat of its political party in 2015) does not like international criticism of its actions, but is far more responsive than is often believed. This means those who decide not to criticize it, or to set it red lines, are failing in their duty under international law.
As in its response to the political dynamics in regions such as the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the Western media likes to identify clear heroes and villains. In Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi clearly fits the hero category for this type of analysis. She has spent over twenty years of her life imprisoned in her own home, she has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and she leads the main opposition party. However, as so often in the former Soviet Union, our chosen heroes are actually far more nuanced than our narratives demand. The other side of the story is that Aung San Suu Kyi herself is part of the Myanmar elite. Her father fought for the Japanese during World War II (albeit reluctantly) and was one of the leaders of the independence movement; her mother was a government minister from 1948–62. The NLD’s deputy chairman was the commander in chief of the Burmese Army until 1976 when he was ousted after leading a failed coup. Equally, while the NLD may aim for democracy, in an ethnically complex country its electoral support comes almost entirely from the ethnically Burman community. Thus, in terms of its senior officials and the ethnicity of its electorate, the NLD shares much with the regime and the wider elite, and has had a difficult relationship with the ethnic minorities in Burma ever since independence. In particular, Aung San Suu Kyi has usually opted to avoid direct comment when the question of the systematic persecution of the Rohingyas is raised.
Another easy assumption is that Buddhism is a peaceful religion that shows no sign of the intolerance to other faiths that scars some forms of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. Unfortunately this is not the case. Some who subscribe to Theravada Buddhism (which is also dominant in Sri Lanka and Thailand, where it is also associated with inter-communal violence) argue that for Buddhism to be safe all other religious beliefs must be eliminated. They also tend to look to the state for support and in a few extreme cases regard those who are not Buddhists as less than human.
In Myanmar, extremist Buddhist organizations have been at the heart of inter-communal violence ever since the return to relative democracy in 2011. Both the major political parties (the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, USDP, and the opposition NLD) are reliant on these organizations for much of their electoral support, giving them substantial influence over the political process. Equally there is emerging evidence that the old military regime funded and supported one major faction among the extremists to foster unrest. In turn, the existence of inter-communal violence keeps open the possibility of a return to military rule—in order, of course, to save the nation from violence.
This matters, as it means that Myanmar is not on a clear road to democracy. The violence against the Rohingyas is not an unpleasant, though predictable, side-effect of a society moving from authoritarian rule to liberalism. The repression of the Rohingyas is orchestrated, in part by those who believe there is no place in Myanmar for anyone who is not a Buddhist (and especially if they are Muslim), in part by ethnic extremists in other communities who want a racially pure state, and in part by the military regime, which is content to see a degree of unrest.
Global indifference supports the regime and is leading to genocide. There is nothing to gain from not challenging the military and the notional opposition since, if they are left unchallenged, each year will see refugee crises, which are already destabilizing the region. And, sooner or later, the world will wake up to a genocide on the scale that shocked the world in Rwanda in 1994.
Bangladesh and Burma at risk from megathrust earthquake
Some of the most powerful earthquakes occur when a plate is subducting under another back into the depths of the mantle. The overlying plate downwarps, dragged by the friction of the descending crustal slab until the stress overcomes the resistance and it springs back up in one fell swoop. Needless to say if you’re sitting close by on the surface at that point, things won’t be looking good.
Mingalabar! That is hello in Burmese, the official language of Myanmar
Such joy! After realizing that there isn’t a ‘useless-facts’ blog for Myanmar, I brazenly decided to take on the duty of creating this blog to spread the love from our nation. Now I’m not too sure how large the Burmese community is on Tumblr, but if you’re Burmese and you see this blog, do drop in to say hi! For others, I hope that this blog can enlighten you on mainland south-east Asia’s largest country.
I will try my best to post regularly, perhaps one fact a day, as I have to balance my schoolwork as well.
British Colonial forces of the 11th East African Division (composed of soldiers from present-day Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania) and Indian soldiers of the Fourteenth Army cross the Chindwin River by ferry before moving towards the village of Shwegyin during the Burma Campaign in pursuit of Japanese forces. Near Shwegyin, Sagaing Region, Burma (Myanmar). December 1944.