Religious Intolerance Must Be Resolved for Myanmar to Advance Democratic Transition

May 31st, 2017  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  7 minute read
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Outbreaks of violence fueled by religious intolerance has led to the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na) banning the Association for Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) from continuing activities under its current name and ordering the organization to remove their signboards throughout Myanmar [1] by July 2017. The decision is the latest in a series of attempts to dismantle the organization’s influence following Ma Ha Na’s judgment last year that declared Ma Ba Tha an ‘unlawful monks association’ having been formed in violation of monastic rules.

Ma Ba Tha was established in 2013 and has been largely influenced by Buddhist extremist, U Wirathu, who is notorious for his slurs against Muslims and propagating a nationalist agenda. Ma Ba Tha’s movement maintains popular support among ultra nationalist Buddhists in the country and is well known for using populist propaganda to justify their hate speech and incitement to violence against Muslim communities. Ma Ba Tha was a driving force behind the four controversial “Race and Religion Protection Laws”, which place restrictions on the rights of women and religious minority groups. In response to the order by Ma Ha Na, Ma Ba Tha has announced plans to form a political party under the name ‘135 United Patriots,’ to extend their efforts to “protect race and religion.” The response represents a flagrant disregard for separating national politics and religion and reinforces a need for stronger political will and the strengthening of the rule of law to hold Ma Ba Tha accountable for their hate speech and instigation of violence.

A series of religiously motivated attacks, influenced by Ma Ba Tha, that have targeted Muslim communities on the backdrop of a distorted narrative against Islam, has left many innocent civilians exposed to violence. At the beginning of the May 2017, one person was left injured in a confrontation between Buddhist nationalists and Muslims in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township, Yangon. It was reported that nationalists turned ‘hostile’ towards Muslims after an organized search for Rohingya in the area, whom nationalists allege are illegal immigrants, was fruitless. Prior to this attack was the closing of two Yangon madrasas in April 2016, again largely fueled by accusations of an alleged-Buddhist nationalist group who asserted the Islamic schools were “operating as mosques, without official permission.” The incident provoked further violence when a mob of 50 nationalists gathered and attacked a videographer for documenting the event.

“A series of religiously motivated attacks, influenced by Ma Ba Tha, that have targeted Muslim communities on the backdrop of a distorted narrative against Islam, has left many innocent civilians exposed to violence.”

These incidents of intolerance have been met with controversial protests against the Religious Affairs Ministry, which have sought to undermine the Government’s efforts to suppress hate speech by Ma Ba Tha.. A gathering of 300 protesters in Naypyidaw accused the Government of ‘neglecting Buddhism and favoring Islam’ and issued demands including an apology from the religious affairs minister for not showing remorse to Buddhist monks, to release nationalists accused of crimes and to lift the one year preaching ban against U Wirathu imposed for glorifying the assassination of constitutional lawyer and NLD senior legal advisor, U Ko Ni. Allegations have since emerged that suggest the protesters were paid to participate. However, details on where the money came from and how it was used remain unclear as the religion minister is currently seeking the help of banks to track the accounts of nationalists who may have been involved.

Many Muslim communities across the country remain on high alert in the wake of religiously motivated attacks and have been deterred from speaking out through fear-mongering tactics. While in recent years, incidents of anti-Muslim sentiments have flared up sporadically, it is important to note that in the wake of such violence, many Buddhist monks and those of the Buddhist faith have offered food and security. One such example is U Ponnanda, the sayadaw of the Thirimingalar Mansu Monastery who welcomed refugees fleeing Lashio after a rumor that a Buddhist woman had been set alight by a Muslim man sent mobs burning Muslim-operated businesses and torching homes in May 2013. In November 2015 in Mandalay, U Uttara, a monk at the Myawady Mingyi monastery, spoke out against Ma Ba Tha’s messaging stating, “The aim of Buddhism is to benefit humans. The teachings of the Buddha were about peace, not about fighting.” These spaces of support and solidarity need to be shared more often to demonstrate alternative discourses that Buddhism is taking to promote equality within different religious sectors.

“The aim of Buddhism is to benefit humans. The teachings of the Buddha were about peace, not about fighting.”

As anti-Muslim sentiment undermines prospects for peace in the country, ultra-nationalism and religious intolerance must be curbed through state efforts to address hate crime immediately and hold accountable those who incite violence. In addition, the voices of monks and religious figureheads coming together to support victims of hate crime must be amplified to demonstrate that Ma Ba Tha does not represent all Buddhists in the country. It is vital in these times of religious and ethnic tensions that freedom of religion is protected, that the rule of law is applied, and stronger, proactive efforts are made towards promoting harmony in Myanmar’s religiously diverse society.

[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”