The post-election future of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar

Author: Matthew J Walton, University of Oxford

The last of the 2015 Myanmar election results have yet to be confirmed by the Union Election Commission, but it is clear that the National League for Democracy (NLD) has won an overwhelming victory.The NLD’s triumph is all the more remarkable given that the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had the advantages of incumbency, almost unlimited resources and the explicit support of Buddhist nationalist groups like the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha). So what is in store for MaBaTha and similar groups moving forward?

Controversial Myanmar monk Wirathu attends a celebration of the MaBaTha organisation (Committee to Protect Race and Religion) in Mandalay, 21 September 2015. (Photo: AAP)

An NLD victory does not represent a complete rejection of either MaBaTha or its narrative that Buddhism is under threat. Rather, it seems that most voters’ desire for overall political change ranked higher than their concerns about religious issues, at least for the moment.

Religious issues are likely to remain both important and divisive in the months to come. A triumphant NLD should tread cautiously as it formulates its policy plans. The monk-led MaBaTha and its allies will still be able to influence Burmese politics and develop their largely anti-Muslim narrative. But observers can expect the organisation, and the religious and political environments within which it operates, to change in significant ways in 2016.

MaBaTha (and the 969 Movement that preceded it) effectively stepped into an institutional vacuum when it argued that Buddhism is under threat from Islam. While other strong Buddhist institutions are active in the country, they have mostly been engaged in religious and social welfare activities. MaBaTha quickly dominated the political space for discussing Buddhism in Myanmar. In a very short period of time, they made it difficult — even life-threatening — to express an alternate view on the protection of Buddhism.

That is slowly starting to change. Civil society, interfaith, youth and other groups have organised community networks dedicated to resisting inter-religious violence. Residents of Mawlamyine were able to prevent several pre-election attacks from spiralling into wider violence. And voting in Meikhtila proceeded without incident, despite divisive religious campaigning there.

Prominent monks have started to speak out more boldly against anti-Muslim sentiment. In the week before the election, the influential monk Ashin Sandartika gave an interview that rejected the MaBaTha argument and asserted that Myanmar’s political transition needed inter-religious understanding and cooperation.

MaBaTha has benefited from being able to organise around a key issue: the four ‘Laws for the Protection of Race and Religion’ that Myanmar’s parliament passed in stages in 2015. But there have been signs of divergent priorities among the group’s leadership and membership. Prominent anti-Muslim monk U Wirathu has stated that he will continue to work in the political arena to ban Muslim dress and other customary practices. Other monks connected to MaBaTha have discussed a campaign to give monks and nuns the vote, which would be very controversial in Myanmar as monks are expected to remain separate from worldly concerns. A campaign against cattle slaughtering (for economic and Islamic religious purposes) also reportedly produced a dispute within the organisation. The popular Sitagu Sayadaw endorsed making Buddhism the state religion at the MaBaTha rally on 4 October, another potentially controversial issue.

The political context in which MaBaTha operates will change after an NLD government assumes power. Recent reports have provided further evidence that some in the USDP government have been supporting anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, as well as condoning and permitting extreme hate speech. Observers might reasonably expect an NLD government not to directly support anti-Muslim violence. But the actions of the military and other security forces will remain out of the government’s control.

None of this is to say that MaBaTha is no longer a potent political force or that an NLD victory ensures an end to anti-Muslim discrimination. Huge numbers attended MaBaTha rallies celebrating the passage of the four religious laws. This served as a testament to its appeal and, as leading MaBaTha monk U Parmaukkha said, ‘a warning for people who try to attack these laws’. As much as many outside Myanmar might hope that the NLD makes repealing the laws a priority, a direct assault on MaBaTha’s primary accomplishment would be one of the best ways to galvanise and refocus the group and its extensive network.

And despite the large numbers of Muslims voting for the NLD, the party has not yet proven itself to be an effective defender of the rights of religious or ethnic minorities. Its Central Executive Committee refused to run a single Muslim candidate in the election (as did the USDP). The incoming NLD government should develop additional means to ensure that religious, ethnic and other minority groups have a direct voice in governance.

It is also important to note that, while some in MaBaTha might be virulent ‘ultra-nationalists’, this label does not describe all of its supporters. Many primarily endorse its pro-Buddhist activities such as organising ‘Buddhist Sunday Schools’. Creating space to develop an alternate platform of strengthening Buddhism that is not hostile to non-Buddhists could challenge MaBaTha’s monopoly and erode some of its support.

The converse is also true: an endorsement of the NLD’s political project is not inconsistent with anti-Muslim attitudes or discrimination against other religious, ethnic or national groups. Those interested in advancing political reform in Myanmar must ensure that the NLD does not succumb to pressure from groups like MaBaTha or to anti-Muslim individuals in its own ranks or among its allies.

The NLD’s election win signified a number of things. It indicated that people wanted more change than the USDP government has provided. It signalled that most Burmese voters rejected the politics of fear and hatred that many MaBaTha monks sought to sow. But the underlying issues that facilitated MaBaTha’s rapid rise still exist, exacerbated by prejudice amplified by years of divide-and-rule policies and the uncertainties of the current transition. The NLD’s electoral victory represents a great opportunity to entrench democracy in Myanmar, but discriminatory and exclusionary politics could still derail its prospects.

Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.