Guest Column

Nationalism Undermines Myanmar’s Transition to Democracy

By Mon Mon Myat 27 December 2018

Political scientist Benedict Anderson observes in his book “Imagined Communities” that nationalism has “roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and affinities with racism.” As some political parties and local institutions revitalize nationalism, Myanmar’s democratic transition has not progressed far as expected.

Racism and extreme religious beliefs have regenerated nationalism in Myanmar after it was concealed inside a closed society under authoritarian rule for almost six decades. During the so-called democratic transition under former president U Thein Sein’s government, nationalism was officially endorsed.

The new NLD government has been carefully trying to control nationalist groups in order to avoid racial discrimination and religious conflict in the country. One year after the NLD took office, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee ordered the disbanding of Myanmar’s largest nationalist association Ma Ba Tha, which is the Burmese acronym for The Association of Safeguarding Race, Faith and Religion.

Without government support, nationalist groups are not as powerful as they were under U Thein Sein’s government. Their activities mostly revolve around showing and encouraging strong support for the military through various patriotic and pro-military campaigns that arise around the country.

The key leader of the opposition party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), recently raised the idea that “safeguarding race” is the crucial responsibility of women. It can be seen that the USDP is promoting nationalism in the name of race in the women’s community. During a women’s conference organized by the party this month, USDP party chairman U Than Htay also made a statement that the USDP government was the one that made interfaith marriage law available for Buddhist women.

Despite claiming that the USDP is working to promote women’s rights, the party appears not to be applying gender equality in its own practices. There are only three women members of parliament representing the USDP despite more than 40 percent of party members being women. The party’s spokesperson told media that they intend to appoint women in ministerial positions if the party is elected to government in the next elections in 2020.

Women representatives in other political parties are often numbered as low as five or less. Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Asia Foundation and Phan Tee Eain “Women’s Political Participation in Myanmar” shows the NLD has 134 women members of parliament.

Misuse of women’s rights in nationalism

Renewed nationalism arose around the time in 2012 when the rape of a young Buddhist women in Rakhine State spurred an outbreak of communal violence in Rakhine State.

Since the 2012 conflicts in Rakhine State, about 200 people have been killed, countless numbers have been injured and more than 70,000 have been left homeless.

The rise of nationalism spurred conflicts in 14 different cities. A wave of violence in 2013 left 43 people dead, 86 injured and more than 1,300 buildings—mostly mosques, schools and the homes of Muslims—were destroyed.

In a recent interview with the BBC, USDP chairman U Than Htay said patriotism needs to be revitalized by using examples of nationalist monks and anti-colonial movements that arose during colonial rule.

“Political awakening took place in Myanmar since before the country gained independence and while struggling for independence. There were [groups like] We Burman Association and GCBA (General Council of Burmese Association). How was patriotism revitalized? It was revitalized by Race, Faith and Religion. With that spirit, we escaped from [colonial rule]. It is unforgettable history for a [Myanmar] citizen,” U Than Htay told BBC.

Ma Ba Tha was formed during U Thein Sein’s government term and promoted “official nationalism” across the country. Benedict Anderson describes official nationalism as taking the form of “compulsory state-controlled primary education, state-organized propaganda, official rewriting of history, militarism and endless affirmations of the identity of dynasty and nation.”

To spread islamophobia within Myanmar’s Buddhist community, ultranationalist monks from Ma Ba Tha organized 969, an anti-Muslim campaign which urged the Buddhist community to boycott Muslim businesses. U Thein Sein’s government failed to take any action against the instigators of these nationalistic campaigns.

The controversial interfaith marriage law was proposed during a Buddhist convention in Yangon, attended by more than 1,500 monks and nuns in 2013. The proposal focused mainly on marriage between Buddhist women and men of other faiths. It demands that any man who wishes to marry a Buddhist woman must first convert to Buddhism.

The nationalist monks organized a signature campaign and collected more than 2 million signatures which were submitted to the parliament. The interfaith marriage law was passed under U Thein Sein’s government before the 2015 elections.

The USDP’s recent women’s conference discussed how “to safeguard race in the women community and to promote women rights according to tradition and culture.” In fact, the party has tried to misuse the term “women’s rights” to promote nationalism among women, resuming a colonial-era concept that safeguarding race is the crucial responsibility of women.

Nationalism divides nations and undermines democracy and human rights. State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is often portrayed in nationalist campaigns as a leader who is unable to safeguard Myanmar’s race, faith and religion because she married a foreigner.

Myanmar politics and women’s participation

The interfaith marriage law doesn’t meet democratic standards because it is drafted only for Buddhist women and overlooks gender equality. The creating of the law excluded women’s voices and it drafted with nationalistic intentions of “safeguarding race” rather than protecting women’s rights.

The Women’s Political Participation in Myanmar paper states that women are being excluded from male-dominated discussions on policy.

It attributes the low level of women’s political participation to “a lack of experience and certain skills; a lack of confidence; restrictions on women’s travel; a broad social perception that politics is both dangerous and a man’s realm; traditional norms that ascribe authority to men; and resistance to female leadership.”

Although the number of women MPs has more than doubled since the 2015 elections, there is only one woman in the government cabinet—Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—and only two of the 14 chief ministers of the states and regions are women.

Myanmar’s transition between nationalism and liberal democracy

Myanmar is now accused of committing “ethnic cleansing and genocide” against a particular group of people recognized as “Bengali” in the local community and as “Rohingya” in the international community. The Rohingya refugee crisis is one of the most pressing of contemporary refugee crises. With nearly a million stateless Rohingya people, the Kutupalong refugee camp in neighbouring Bangladesh has become the world’s largest.

Religious conflict between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State occurred often in history. The latest attack initiated by the Muslim militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) provoked the military to carry out clearance operations which in turn caused over 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Myanmar has faced enormous international pressure over the refugee exodus since then.

The international community has questioned the moral authority of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi over her silence on the Rohingya crisis and she has been stripped of many awards. At the same time, she has faced criticism from local nationalist groups over the repatriation process for Rohingya refugees returning from Bangladesh.

The State Counselor’s political image has rapidly declined in both the local and international community and it is proving very hard for the head of state to maintain a neutral stance between nationalists and international human rights campaigners. The decline of her popularity has a large impact on support for the NLD party. Many people predict that the party won’t be able to win another landslide victory in the 2020 elections.

Racial and religious conflict caused by ultranationalism takes Myanmar backwards on the road to democracy. Narrow-minded nationalism undermines democracy, human rights and gender equality. Rivalry between nationalism and liberal democracy in the country creates a hindrance for Myanmar political reform.

Whether Myanmar will continue on the path of a democratic transition or turn back to authoritarian rule, we need to wait and see the results of the upcoming elections in 2020.

Mon Mon Myat is a freelance writer/journalist and a graduate student of the PhD program in peace building at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.