Time for a Separation of Church and State

By Aung.Q.Citizen 24 June 2015

It is not uncommon for religious authority to make a moral intervention in secular affairs. This month’s encyclical on climate change by Pope Francis and the mobilization of Buddhist monks during Burma’s 2007 Saffron Revolution are two recent examples where spiritual leaders considered it necessary to participate in addressing universal problems for the sake of the common good.

Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, represents an altogether different kind of intervention. Their movement exploits the perceived threat of Islamic intrusion into Burmese society, and its chief recruiting tool is anti-Muslim sentiment. Not content with its mere activism, Ma Ba Tha is now attempting to influence the outcome of the upcoming election. This narrow form of religious intervention foments a toxic mixture of religion and politics. It goes without saying that the movement does not represent the views of all Buddhists, and not all of Ma Ba Tha’s followers are extremists—but its rise to infamy is not without a basis in existing social and ethnic divisions, and could not have occurred without support, by deliberate action or inaction, from elements within the state apparatus.

The Oslo-based Peace Research Institute has warned that Burma was facing a high risk of election-related violence when the nation goes to the polls this year, noting the emergence of a fresh round of intercommunal clashes nine weeks after the 2012 byelections. It is highly concerning that the election may portend a repeat of these religious riots, during which the armed forces and police were slow to act and in some instances appeared to tacitly condone the actions of the anti-Muslim mobs.

The ultimate responsibility to prevent religious or ethnic violence lies with the government, as it alone has the authority and resources to keep the peace. If the government condones the encroachment of Ma Ba Tha into the political realm, either intentionally or through inaction, it is playing with fire. The recent historical precedents of countries spiraling into ethnic division, distrust and barbarism are endless—Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan. Burma’s leaders must ask themselves if they wish their country to be similarly torn apart, right at the outset of the nation’s halting economic and political renaissance.

It is time for the government to set the boundary between state and religion. It must decide when in which circumstances prevent religious groups from intervening in public affairs, and the incitement of ethnic and religious hatred, outlawed under Burma’s Penal Code, is one such circumstance. Enforcement of the rule of law and protection of the rights of all citizens are the most fundamental duties of any government. Leaders of the Buddhist community should also come out and declare that campaigning for the election of one party is inappropriate, and religious interventions in the public sphere should be focused on larger goals, like peace, development and the rule of law.

Exploiting religion for myopic political reasons does not stand the country’s long-term interest in good stead. We do not need to look far to understand the potential consequences. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, has left foreign investors reluctant to invest in the country because of his support from Hindu nationalist groups, who are pressuring him to abandon the country’s secular foundations and stoking sectarian tensions. As Burma democratizes, it will become incumbent upon all citizens to hold the government to account on these issues, and to do their utmost to prevent another outbreak of senseless religious violence. Burma cannot be allowed, at this critical juncture, to become a failed state.

The views expressed here are those of the author, an outside contributor who requested anonymity on account of the sensitive subject matter.