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Nationalism and religious conservatism a toxic mix in Myanmar

Prominent Buddhist monk U Pamaukkha, right, takes part in a nationalist demonstration in Yangon on May 27. (Photo by Simon Lewis)

Yangon -- In years gone by, decisions in Myanmar's courts were largely dictated to the judge by the military, with instructions given in sealed envelopes or by telephone. In early June, however, a court in central Myanmar caved to a different kind of pressure.

     From the start of Htin Lin Oo's trial to his sentencing on June 2, Buddhist monks and nationalist activists demonstrated outside the Chaung-U Township Court in Sagaing Region, in Myanmar's central west region, demanding a tough punishment. The writer and political activist was finally sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor.

     "The court is afraid of the monks," said Thein Than Oo, the lawyer representing Htin Lin Oo. "They put on maximum pressure in this case."

     He was convicted under Article 295(a) of the country's criminal code: "Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs."

     Htin Lin Oo was taken to court over a speech he gave at a literature festival in October when he was an information officer for the opposition National League for Democracy. In that speech, he questioned the Buddhist credentials of those involved in resurgent nationalism in Myanmar. 

     "Buddha is not Bamar, not Shan, not Karen," Htin Lin Oo, himself a devout Buddhist, reportedly said in October, referring to different ethnic groups living in Myanmar. "If you want to be an extreme nationalist and if you love to maintain your race that much, don't believe in Buddhism."

     Extreme nationalist groups have been blamed for attacks on Muslim communities across the country since mid-2012, when intercommunal violence flared between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and a stateless Muslim minority who identify themselves as "Rohingya," in western Myanmar. About 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya --  or "Bengalis" as they are widely known among the majority Bamar or Burman population, were displaced by the riots and are now in temporary camps.

     Anti-Muslim sentiment is fueled by many of the country's half a million Buddhist monks, including firebrands like the infamous Wirathu, leader of the 969 movement of activist monks. Religious chauvinism has spread in a population whose majority is devout Buddhist. Most of the country's Muslim minority arrived in the country during British colonial rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and has been the target of resentment among the Bamar majority for decades.

     Nationalist and religious groups have called for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses, and racist abuse has proliferated on social media as the population rapidly gains access to the Internet. 

     A video of Htin Lin Oo's October speech was posted online, prompting complaints from monks aligned with the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, known in the local language as Ma Ba Tha. The local government's religious affairs officer responded by filing a legal complaint against Htin Lin Oo, which led ultimately to his sentencing.

     "This was a fair trial, and the judge listened to my arguments," Thein Than Oo told the Nikkei Asian Review. "But the judge lives in the township, and there are many monks there linked with Ma Ba Tha. They always intimidate and protest. This is psychological pressure."

     The case as well as another recent ruling reflect the influence that religious and nationalist activists have over law and regulations in Myanmar, which has been under civilian rule since 2011. In March, a court in Yangon passed down sentences of two-and-a-half years with hard labor to three bar managers in another case that drew nationalists and monks to protest outside the courthouse.

     The men, one of whom is a New Zealand national, had produced a flyer with an image of Buddha wearing headphones, which the court ruled to be a criminal insult to Buddhism.

Nationalist Agenda

Amnesty International, which has called for the immediate release of Htin Lin Oo, said both cases "raise serious concerns about the authorities' ability to stand up to pressure from extremist groups pushing [a] nationalist agenda."

     "The jailing of Htin Lin Oo ... for speaking out against extremism is deeply alarming, and likely to foster an environment where any discussions related to religion will be further inhibited," Rupert Abbott, Amnesty's research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, wrote in an email to the Nikkei Asian Review. "He must be released immediately and without conditions."

     Ma Ba Tha as a self-styled guardian of Buddhist values, is also campaigning on other issues, including recent protests against five controversial construction projects planned near Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the country's most revered Buddhist sites. The group has threatened nationwide protests if the government refuses to cancel the developments, and has called a conference this weekend in Yangon to discuss action.

     Extremist groups may wield even more power when Myanmar goes to the polls in November, as politicians rally for votes. As well as the revered Buddhist monks, the nationalist movement also has radical outriders like Nay Myo Wai, a long-time activist who is also a contender in the elections. In May, he caused the cancellation of a conference of the country's Muslim leaders by threatening to cook a pork curry at the venue. That led local authorities to call off the conference.

     Nay Myo Wai, who says he is an atheist, heads the Peace and Diversity Party. He said his party and others labeled as "ultra-nationalist" would use the election campaign to draw attention to the alleged threat posed to Myanmar by global Islam.

     "We want those who understand the dangers of Islamization to be members of parliament," he said. "Extreme Islamization exists around the world, and we want our MPs [members of parliament] to be people who can protect us against this problem."

Majority Support

Already, the nationalist extremists have influenced legislation. The government, led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party, has introduced to parliament legislation initially proposed by Ma Ba Tha targeted at Muslim communities.

     A population control law that limits how often women in certain areas have children has already passed, although questions about its enforcement remain. Three other so-called "protection of race and religion" laws -- restricting interfaith marriage and religious conversion, and outlawing polygamy -- are now being discussed in parliament.

     These bills have so far won the approval of the majority of lawmakers each time they have been put to vote, with USDP members, military representatives and some ethnic minority parties backing them. In addition, in a campaign by Buddhist activitsts, some 1.3 million civilians signed a petition showing their support. Opponents meanwhile have faced threats of violence, quelling public debate about the legislation.

     Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD has voted consistently against the four race and religion laws and has publicly denounced them as contrary to human rights principles. But with less than 7% of parliament's seats, the party has little power to stop them.

Patriotic duty

With national elections looming, how politicians deal with the so-called "Rohingya problem" will have a real impact on their chances of being voted into office. Within Myanmar, Suu Kyi has been accused of being too soft on the Rohingya, who most believe should not be given citizenship. Outside of the country, she has faced criticism for failing to take a stronger stance in their defense. The NLD has also been criticized for sacking Htin Lin Oo after his speech sparked controversy.

     In Yangon on May 27, hundreds of monks and demonstrators marched in a protest, claiming Myanmar had no responsibility for those cast adrift at sea. Most of the "boat people" are thought to be Rohingya, who are stateless despite many being born in Myanmar, while some are economic migrants from Bangladesh.

     At the rally, prominent nationalist monk U Pamaukkha spoke angrily about the Muslims, who he claimed were making the lives of Buddhists more difficult all over Myanmar.

     U Pamaukkha cited a local dispute between two communities on the outskirts of Yangon over access to clean water. "Buddhists have been living in that place for many years. This is why there is a problem with the kalar," he said, using a pejorative for people of South Asian descent.

     This kind of attitude is a major concern for those hoping the coming elections will be inclusive, as well as free and fair. But with less than six months until polling, the sway of nationalist rhetoric is set to grow.

     In a hint at what is to come, U Pamaukkha said: "Patriots have a duty to pay attention to Burmese politics."

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