YANGON—The latest outbreak of violence in northern Rakhine State has resulted in some significant shifts in the Buddhist nationalist movement, the most notable being how it has become closer to the army than ever before.
On Sunday, thousands of people, including Buddhist monks, joined two mass rallies in Mandalay Region and Karen State that were held simultaneously by the so-called “Tatmadaw (military) Admirer Group” to primarily show support for the army’s actions in Rakhine State. One of the slogans shouted by participants at the rally was “Good health to the army chief, who is defending the country’s sovereignty, race and religion.”
While not present at the rally in Mandalay, nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu sent a message to praise the army and security forces for protecting people in northern Rakhine after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched a series of attacks in August. He condemned the international community for its censure of the military, describing the army’s operations as just and saying it had been the victim of “bullying”.
“Monks and people are the ones who will take care of the helpless army like their sons,” the monk wrote in a message that was read out on his behalf at the rally.
The army has been accused by the international community of using excessive force and carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State during its clearance operations in the area after Muslim militants attacked 30 police outposts in late August. The army operation sent more than 600,000 refugees fleeing to Bangladesh. The U.S. and E.U. have imposed sanctions on top military leaders in response to the alleged atrocities.
The pro-army rallies on Sunday were not the first to be held. Downtown Yangon saw a similar demonstration organized by the same group late last month, which attracted thousands of supporters. So did Mon State’s capital Mawlamyein earlier this month. At those mass rallies, apart from members of the country’s opposition party – and the army’s political proxy – the Union Solidarity and Development Party, nationalist Buddhist monks and their followers have turned out to be active participants. Why?
Since the National League for Democracy government took power in 2016, Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar has experienced several turning points after enjoying the unofficial blessing of the previous government.
With the outbreak of communal strife between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State in 2012, nationalist groups claimed that the country’s Buddhist foundations were under assault and needed to be protected. They expressed fears that the Muslim population was growing faster than the Buddhist one and that Myanmar needed to be vigilant against fundamentalist influence. They saw the Rohingya issue as one of sovereignty.
In their heyday from 2012 to 2015, nationalist groups, led by prominent Buddhist monks across the country, organized activities and talks to encourage followers to boycott Muslim businesses and spread anti-Muslim hate speech—sparking a series of deadly communal clashes between Buddhists and Muslims from 2012 to 2014. As a result, the image of compassionate Buddhism, in which much of the country believes in, was distorted internationally as a religion that favors bigotry and antagonism.
The hatemongers were rarely punished by the then government despite the country’s Constitution forbidding the promotion of enmity or discord between racial or religious communities. Instead, for example, they were favored by the general-turned President U Thein Sein of the former administration, who endorsed passage of the ‘Protection of Race and Religion Laws’, a quartet of controversial laws drafted by nationalists, viewed by many as discriminatory toward women and religious minorities, particularly Muslims.
However, the nationalists, who had operated under the “Protection of Race and Religion” banner, lost their safe haven when the NLD-led government came to power in March 2016. The first big blow from the new government came in July last year when the nationalist umbrella organization, Ma Ba Tha, was denounced by the State Buddhist Sangha authority as an unlawful association.
The unprecedented move was followed by a series of government actions this year: the arrest of nationalists for committing offenses against the state, restrictions on ultranationalist monk U Wirathu from preaching, a ban on Ma Ba Tha operating under its current name and ordering that their signboards be taken down across the country, a crackdown on sit-ins by nationalist monks in Yangon and Mandalay and the latest arrest of a prominent nationalist monk.
The antagonism between the NLD and the nationalists was not new. Even before the party took power in 2016, leading monks like U Wirathu had condemned Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to denounce the Muslim Rohingya and campaigned against her party in the general elections in 2015.
But, after Ma Ba Tha was banned in 2016, the relationship between the NLD government and nationalists soured notably. The nationalists accused the ruling party of failing to promote and protect Buddhism while favoring the human rights of other groups, especially Muslims. They demanded the resignation of the country’s religious affairs minister to no avail. When the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the Muslim militant group denounced by the government as terrorists, launched a series of attacks in northern Rakhine last year, nationalists saw them as a threat to national security and interests.
Within this climate of distrust and unease, it is little wonder that the nationalists have found common cause with the army, who took the attacks as seriously as the nationalists.
Less than one month after the attacks in August, some leading Buddhist monks from Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foudnation (formerly known as Ma Ba Tha) flew to Rakhine State. They personally donated 200 million kyats to the army chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, to be distributed to security forces deployed in the area and displaced people and used for the rehabilitation process. In October, U Wirathu and his followers traveled under state security escort to the affected area in northern Rakhine to distribute donations. Then the pro-army rallies in Yangon, Mandalay, Karen and Mon States followed.
One of the country’s most prominent Buddhist monks, Sitagu Sayadaw, said during a sermon delivered to army officers at a garrison town in Karen State last month, that he wanted to see unity among the government, the military, the Sangha (monks) and the people for the good of the country. The sermon was heartily welcomed by the nationalists.
For the NLD government, it may be a headache to see the nationalists getting closer to the military, which already has the backing of its proxy, the USDP.
It has been reported that the relationship between the government and the military—the most powerful and established institution in Myanmar—is not stable. When asked in an interview with Radio Free Asia, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi described relations as “normal.” But other signs suggest ties are not good, the most recent example being the declaration of a state of emergency in Rakhine State.
In contrast, there is no question about the strength of the alliance between the military and USDP as the party has been the Tatmadaw’s proxy since it was founded in 2010. Similar to the nationalist groups, the former ruling party has repeatedly expressed concerns about the way the NLD government has tackled the Rakhine issue.
Despite the government’s bans on Ma Ba Tha and rising anti-nationalism sentiment among liberal-minded Myanmar people, the organization is still active and popular, especially at the grass-root levels, under a new name Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, for dedicating time to humanitarian relief for Buddhists and their education efforts. One of its leading monks, Ashin Sopaka, acknowledged name change was made to avoid confrontation with the State Sangha.
“Only the name has changed. The rest is the same,” he told Myanmar Udan Weekly, a publication run by nationalists.
It should be noted that the organization’s subchapters in Mandalay and Karen State are still defying the government’s order not to use the name Ma Ba Tha. The authorities there remain silent on the issue. It is worth noting that the pro-army mass rallies took place in those areas on Sunday as well.
With hundreds of sub-chapters and hundreds of thousands of followers across the country, Ma Ba Tha should not be underestimated. Embittered by their marginalization under the new government, while inflamed by radical nationalism, these groups may turn reactionary anytime soon. If that happens, they are vulnerable to being manipulated by anyone who wants to undermine the current democratic transition, and Myanmar’s democratic development will be placed at risk.