Buddhist chauvinism thriving in Myanmar

Buddhist chauvinism thriving in Myanmar
Monks and protesters taking part in a march to denounce foreign criticism of Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Yangon last Wednesday. Nationalist monks have been provocatively targeting Muslims with impunity

Burmese-Buddhist chauvinism - always a factor in Myanmar - is thriving today as it redefines itself in the new, more open environment after decades of stifling military rule, analysts say.

New legislation on birth control and interfaith marriage has been passed, which appears aimed squarely at the Muslim minority but could also be applied to other ethnic minorities, and which critics say also infringes women's rights.

Two more Bills are due to become law soon, one of which requires anyone who wants to change his religion to seek permission from the authorities.

The United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Ms Yanghee Lee, said in a statement last Wednesday: "These Bills risk deepening discrimination against minorities and setting back women's rights in Myanmar.

"At a time when thousands of Rohingya are already fleeing the country by boat, this sends precisely the wrong signal to these communities."

However, in Yangon on the same day, several hundred nationalists led by monks denounced "boat people" and castigated foreign media, the UN and the international community for blaming Myanmar for the flood of desperate migrants washing up on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

The nationalist Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, has been allowed free reign. Nationalist monks, such as the 969 movement's ideologue U Wirathu, have been provocatively targeting Muslims with impunity.

Last Friday, Myanmar announced that its population was 51.5 million. About 90 per cent of its people are Buddhists and the state religion is Buddhism.

The rest are Muslims, Christians or of another faith. There has largely been peaceful co-existence among followers of different religions; Yangon once had a Jewish mayor and Myanmar's current Attorney-General is reported to be a Christian.

But there have also been waves of anti-Muslim and anti-Indian sentiments in the country's modern history.

The current wave of Buddhist nationalism is feeding off a more open environment and pluralistic politics.

There is some resistance from civil society.

In January, a group of 180 civil society organisations urged Parliament to drop the four religion-related Bills, saying they violated the Constitution and international law, and warning that, if enacted, they could "destroy" social stability.

Nevertheless, two have already become law. The Bills' passage and the hard line taken towards Muslim Rohingya run somewhat contrary to the public positions of the mild-mannered President Thein Sein.

Since taking power in 2011 as the head of the quasi- military government, he has repeatedly stressed the need for tolerance in a diverse country.

But the reality of Myanmar is complex. During the dictatorship years, the international community admired the vibrant democratic aspirations of its people, but missed the fact that Myanmar remains a deeply conservative society, sometimes prone to seeing its culture as under threat, says historian-author Thant Myint-U.

Since a degree of ethnic and religious nationalism had always been a feature of Myanmar, it was not clear whether recent developments represented a rise or were simply more apparent than under the former military regime.

It was also not clear to what degree the sentiment had been politically manipulated, said Dr Thant Myint-U.

But he added: "The first instinct of any government is not to stray too far from the public mood, and it is clear that the Bills have public support."

Yangon-based independent analyst Richard Horsey, a former top UN official in the country, said: "What's become very clear is how widely and strongly held these (Buddhist nationalist) views are.

"No political party can afford to ignore them. At a moment of new political openings, of setting directions for the country, they are playing a role in defining the political landscape."


This article was first published on May 31, 2015.
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