Commentary

Myanmar Can No Longer Afford to Ignore the Threat of Nationalism

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 14 May 2019

The relative freedom with which Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalists have been allowed to operate reflects poorly on the concerned authorities.

That’s not to say that the NLD government has totally turned a blind eye to the far right groups, as the previous U Thein Sein government did. When it came to power in 2016, the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led government outlawed Ma Ba Tha and banned ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu from preaching sermons for one year due to his use of fiery anti-Muslim rhetoric on stage.

But we have seen little impact from this so far. Despite the ban, nationalists across the country have remained active under new names, such as “Nationalist Forces”. With the sanction long behind him, the monk is on the move again.

But this time, rather than spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric (though he still does that occasionally), the monk and other nationalists are staging pro-military campaigns across the country. They oppose major constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling National League for Democracy and supported by the majority of the country’s population, who believe the current military-drafted charter is unfit for the democratic federal union the country is transitioning to. The nationalists have asserted that the military-appointed representatives in Parliament “should be worshipped.They accuse the current government of prioritizing human rights over the country’s majority religion, Buddhism. They ridicule the country’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with personal and obscene comments.

In other words, their movement now looks increasingly political and less like the self-proclaimed mission to protect Buddhism it was previously cast as. They used to claim the foundations of Myanmar’s majority religion were under assault and that Buddhists must be vigilant against the influence of other, fundamentalist religions. But now they are taking a different tack.

Looking at the bigger picture, the nationalists could pose a threat at next year’s general election. Based on their activities dating back to 2012, which—despite their denials—reportedly included instigating communal unrest in the country, it can be seen that fomenting hatred within Myanmar’s diverse religious communities (particularly between Buddhists and Muslims, in their case) is their timeworn tactic—and it can still work for them.

Furthermore, with the election looming, and with easy access to smartphones and social media, they could spread fake news about communal tensions. We saw what happened in the countryside during the 2015 election campaign, when nationalist monks openly backed political parties that favor nationalism by dictating to villagers whom they should and should not vote for. At the same time they can act as hate-mongers. With their nationwide subchapters, they are in a position to launch a campaign of misinformation across the country prior to the election with a simple purpose: to destabilize the country.

The reasons for such a mission would be simply to discredit the government as best as they can in order to give a boost to those they support. They want to frame the government as incapable of doing its job; of failing to protect peoples’ lives and welfare. They want to show how incompetent it is at handling domestic affairs, especially when it comes to the rule of law. In a nutshell, through its provocations, it wants to create the impression that the government doesn’t deserve to govern, and so had better “leave”.

Luckily, so far, the majority of Myanmar people have not been so naïve as to fall for the nationalists’ hidden agenda. But this is no cause for complacency.

Make no mistake: the nationalists are cunning and the threat should be taken seriously. We cannot show any tolerance toward them. History shows that the country pays a serious price for instability. So, there should be no more room given to destructive nationalists. At the same time, any interference in a free and fair election is the last thing we want, because only polls can guarantee the survival of the democratic transformation in a fledgling democracy like Myanmar.

So, for the sake the country’s development, and social and political stability, the NLD government should not hesitate to take more serious action against the nationalists. Over the years, Myanmar citizens have grown tired of hate-mongering. Through their sermons and actions, sadly, the image of the compassionate Buddhism practiced by the majority of Myanmar’s people has been globally shattered.

A recent remark made by the country’s religious affairs minister about plans to prosecute the firebrand U Wirathu for his obscene comments against national leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is to be welcomed. The whole country is watching with interest to see how the case unfolds. The previous ban against him proved ineffective. So a harsher and lengthier penalty is advisable for the good of the country and Buddhism. As the monk is the face of Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalism, any serious punishment against him would set a serious example for his followers, and would come as a big blow to other nationalists. No one will regret their demise.

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