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Walton, Schissler and Phyu Phyu Thi -- Behind Myanmar's religious tensions

Muslim women and children wait for a boat to take them from their village of Tha Yel Tha in Bago region, near Yangon, after a Buddhist mob ransacked and destroyed a mosque and madrassa, or religious school, in June. (Photo: Steve Tickner)

July 2016 brought a remarkable fall from grace for Ma Ba Tha, the Buddhist "race and religion protection" organization that has become internationally infamous for promoting anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar.

Members of Myanmar's National League for Democracy government have led the charge, followed by religious leaders, social activists and ordinary people across the country. Behind this remarkable rush of sentiment, we believe an examination of the dynamics preceding these events can both help to explain them and underscore concerns for the future.

Despite the pushback against Ma Ba Tha, anti-Muslim sentiment remains prevalent in Myanmar and more consistent action on the part of the state will be required to reverse the permissive environment for inter-religious violence that took root under the previous regime.

The anti-Ma Ba Tha reaction would have seemed improbable (if not impossible) in mid-2015. At that time, the group's influence appeared extensive, even dominant. Four laws it had championed were adopted by parliament, state authorities were quick to meet its other demands, and its mass rallies attracted tens of thousands of people. These events featured anti-Muslim vitriol and attacks on Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD, as well as calls for people to support the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in the November 2015 elections.

But after the NLD's overwhelming victory in November, an outbreak of internal squabbling and at least one high-profile resignation, Ma Ba Tha's seeming aura of untouchability appeared to be dissipating. This impression gained added impetus in July, when the Chief Minister of Yangon Region Phyo Min Thein repeatedly criticized the group, publicly calling it "unnecessary" and "redundant." When Ma Ba Tha raised objections and threatened nationwide retaliatory protests, other NLD leaders backed Phyo Min Thein.

Three Muslim women with very young children wait in Waw township in the Bago region after fleeing their village of Tha Yel Tha when a Buddhist mob ransacked and destroyed a mosque and madrassa, or religious school, in June (Photo: Steve Tickner)

On July 7, following a private meeting between the chief minister and members of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a government-appointed body that oversees the Buddhist clergy, the committee issued a statement clarifying that Ma Ba Tha was not an officially sanctioned or endorsed group. The committee's statement did not go as far as most media coverage suggests, but it nonetheless contradicted the widespread assumption of official sanction. Religious Affairs Minister Thura Aung Ko also explicitly warned the group against spreading hate speech and division.

Social activists and ordinary people, in everyday life and in Myanmar's exceedingly popular social media sphere, quickly joined in. Some Myanmar Facebook users began changing their profile pictures to say, "I stand with U Phyo Min Thein," using an honorary title for the chief minister. A "No Ma Ba Tha" signature campaign was launched, and memes ridiculing the group jumped in popularity. Defamation lawsuits have also been filed against the prominent Ma Ba Tha monk Wirathu and other nationalist figures.

Perhaps most striking was the response from other monks, many of whom had been subdued in their criticism up to this point. Some respected monks have accused Ma Ba Tha of creating a schism in the monkhood, and some even recounted instances of being threatened or attacked for espousing positions that did not align with Ma Ba Tha.

Egregious incidents

These recent efforts mark the first widespread, generalized and explicit opposition to Ma Ba Tha on record. They also stand in marked contrast to the previous USDP government's repeated refusal to take action over even the most egregious incidents. In this context, we should not underestimate the importance of the NLD government's recent actions in helping to accelerate a gradual shift in popular perception that we believe was already underway.

We are not pollsters, but in our research we encountered many people in Myanmar who initially saw the group as accomplishing a widely supported goal: The protection of Buddhism and the maintenance of Myanmar as a majority Buddhist polity. We have spent hundreds of hours listening to Buddhists explain their concerns about the loss of their religion -- concerns which we have previously described as a narrative of existential threat. Most of the time, this narrative has identified Islam globally and Muslims in Myanmar as the source of such threat. But we have also noted that there are those who express reservations about this narrative.

In central Yangon, Buddhist and Muslim communities live side by side despite rising sectarian tensions outside Myanmar's commercial hub. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

People repeatedly stressed to us that they had long coexisted peacefully alongside those with different religions. There was thus a strong sense of contradiction between such memories and the inter-religious tension of the present, a contradiction we often heard resolved through the belief that emotions were being fanned by invisible hands seeking to undermine the transition away from military rule.

"I have doubts," a Buddhist youth from Mandalay told us in March 2015, "that religious conflict [July 2014 riots] was created by the government. But I don't think they can make it happen again, because people have noticed it ... Not long ago conflict happened, but I understood what was going on [that it had been manufactured] because Muslims and Buddhists got along in the past."

The way that leading Ma Ba Tha monks seemed more focused on attacking Suu Kyi than on defending Buddhism confirmed for many their suspicions that "dark forces" were behind anti-Muslim paranoia, riots, and the monk-led organization itself. Others have noted that many in Myanmar believe that Ma Ba Tha's role in inciting anti-Muslim sentiment was part of an attempt to undermine the NLD, though some have dismissed this as a conspiracy theory.

But there are benefits to stressing that religious conflict in Myanmar has resulted from active organization and facilitation behind the scenes, rather than being proof -- and a result -- of intractable religious divisions and communal hostilities. Not least, this view amounts to a counter-narrative that can be a powerful tool for reconciliation and peace-building. Such a counter-narrative can indict the claims of Ma Ba Tha, insofar as the group is taken to be a pawn in a larger political game. And it can leverage a set of countervailing desires, for life to be better than it was under military rule and for a Suu Kyi-led government to achieve such a transformation.

The remains of a small madrassa, or religious school, destroyed by a Buddhist mob in Tha Yel Tha Mein village in Bago region near Yangon in June (Photo: Steve Tickner).

Primary target

There are thus reasons to hope that Ma Ba Tha's fall from grace may be followed by a decline in inter-religious tension. However, our analysis also raises four concerns. First, mobilization to oppose Ma Ba Tha that is predicated on distaste for the former military government and support for Suu Kyi is vulnerable to an eventual decline if people grow dissatisfied with the NLD government. We believe that people in Myanmar are more patient on this count than most outside observers assume, but their patience is not infinite.

Second, nothing that has happened in recent weeks in Myanmar suggests that concerns about the existential vulnerability of Buddhism or views of Muslims as a threat have decreased. Recent data on religion from the 2014 census contradicted claims made by Ma Ba Tha and others by showing that the Muslim population in Myanmar has remained essentially stable since 1973. That may help. But recent responses to Ma Ba Tha are notable for their lack of explicit recognition that it is a small religious minority -- Muslims, particularly those identifying as Rohingya -- that has been the primary target of hate speech and other destructive rhetoric.

Third, the prevention of religious violence will require a more consistent and robust response from state authorities, which raises larger questions about Myanmar's constitutional structure and the authority of the NLD government. After a mob burned down a mosque in Bago on June 23, the Bago Chief Minister Win Thein announced that no legal action would be taken against those responsible. His explanation, that action might trigger more incidents, made the NLD's repeated emphasis on the rule of law seem hollow. Local and international organizations rightly denounced the inaction for fostering a "culture of impunity."

When a mosque in Kachin State was burned down just a week later, the police did make arrests. But accounts of local authorities' unwillingness to protect this religious structure in the face of mob violence suggest that state authorities need to do much more to protect vulnerable populations. It is vital to prevent such destructive acts when possible and punish the perpetrators. Past examples show that local residents, religious leaders and civil society organizations can make great efforts to prevent riots and other violence, but they need the support provided by a sure and swift response from the authorities. Inaction and impunity weaken their efforts.

In Dala, a township across the river from Yangon, young Muslim children study their Quran at the local mosque. (Photo Steve Tickner)

Finally, although a stronger stance from Myanmar's religious and political authorities against hate speech and violence is a welcome development, the current sentiment appears to be primarily anti-Ma Ba Tha rather than promoting a more positive ideology of religious and ethnic inclusion. To be sure, courageous groups have attempted to champion these values in Myanmar during the past few years. But more needs to be done beyond opposing an individual group that promotes hate or preventing individual instances of riotous violence.

Violence can also manifest itself in the form of systematic discrimination and denial of even the basic right to have rights. This is notably the case in Rakhine State, where about one third of the population is Muslim, but it is not limited to that area -- nor is it limited to the treatment of groups defined by their outsider religion or citizenship status. Myanmar has a long and vibrant history of religious and ethnic diversity that must come to be embraced. Recent events in Myanmar show a laudable popular rejection of hate, but the task of building a constructive alternative remains.

Matthew J. Walton is Aung San Suu Kyi senior research fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, Oxford. Matt Schissler is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Michigan. Phyu Phyu Thi is a co-founder and research manager of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization. The authors co-founded the Myanmar Media and Society Research Project.

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