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Buddhist nationalism challenges Myanmar's government

Monastic leaders signal fear of sudden social change as public protests resume

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

The current crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine State, following coordinated attacks by a Rohingya militant group on some 30 police posts, is a grave threat to the security and stability of that restive state. While driven by mainly local dynamics and grievances, it also feeds Buddhist nationalism across the country.

Recent weeks have seen some striking scenes in Myanmar: a renewed military crackdown on Rohingya Muslim communities in western Rakhine State after militants attacked a series of police checkpoints and bases; prominent monks rallying outside courts in Yangon in support of nationalist agitators on trial for inciting anti-Muslim violence; heavily armed militia in Kayin State guarding Buddhist nationalist signboards to prevent their removal by the authorities; and the forcible clearing of anti-government protest camps at some of the country's most sacred pagodas. Together with a worrying spate of small-scale communal clashes outside of Rakhine. Even before the tensions in Rakhine peaked, some observers are drawing parallels with the months leading up to the deadly 2013 religious riots across Myanmar.

This was not how it was supposed to be. After the 2015 landslide election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and the vanquishing of nationalist parties and candidates, many declared that Burmese Buddhist nationalist groups had been effectively neutralized. This message was reinforced by the willingness of the new government to confront Buddhist nationalist organizations -- the NLD chief minister of Yangon last year called them "unnecessary and redundant," and gained the full backing of his party amid nationalist demands for his ouster.

Then in May this year, Myanmar's high Buddhist authority took the extreme step of imposing a ban on the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, the most prominent Buddhist nationalist group better known by its Burmese-language acronym, MaBaTha.

Yet, far from sustaining a decisive blow against the movement, nationalist organizations have bounced back, and their problematic ideologies appear as popular as ever. Understanding the difficulties for the government in addressing the challenges posed by Buddhist nationalism and the associated risk of communal conflict requires a more nuanced understanding of MaBaTha's ideology and organizational activities.

MaBaTha rose to prominence rallying for the adoption of four "protection of race and religion" laws, through which the movement's leaders were able to extend awareness of nationalist ideology and the MaBaTha brand far into rural and remote parts of the country. As the 2015 elections drew closer, some -- although not all -- leaders of the group began urging people to vote for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party rather than the NLD, which they said did not prioritize the protection of Buddhism.

The election results were a shock to many nationalists. But they were commonly misinterpreted by observers: Widespread adoration of Aung San Suu Kyi, and hatred of the former military regime with which the USDP was closely associated, had won out over nationalist concerns. But as subsequent events have made clear, the NLD landslide was not a rejection of MaBaTha's ideology, merely a vote for hope and change.

Spiralling communal tensions

The October 2016 attacks on several Border Guard Police bases along Myanmar's northern border with Bangladesh by a new Rohingya militant group boosted Buddhist nationalist rhetoric across Myanmar. Communal tensions rose in neighborhoods of Yangon with large Muslim populations amid growing activism by nationalist organizations.

There were violent protests demanding the shuttering of two Muslim schools that doubled as prayer centers, as well as demands by young nationalists that police raid an apartment they alleged to be a safehouse for illegal "Bengali" migrants as Rohingya Muslims are commonly called (none were found). There have been other threatening or violent incidents aimed at Muslim communities throughout the country. The recent attacks by Muslim militants in Rakhine State, which the government claims were carried out by the same group behind the October raids, have fuelled further hostility from Buddhist groups.

The Sangha Council, a government-appointed body of monks that oversees and regulates the Myanmar Buddhist clergy, then issued a statement declaring MaBaTha in violation of Sangha Law. The decision -- issued on May 23 in the presence of MaBaTha leaders -- banned use of the MaBaTha name and logo and required all MaBaTha signboards across the country to be removed by July 15. The leaders signed their acceptance.

The decision pitted a government widely seen as weak on religious issues and a Sangha Council regarded as a rubber stamp for government against a popular organization led by some of the most revered -- if often controversial -- monks in the country. Some of MaBaTha's local chapters easily sidestepped the Sangha Council decision by rebranding under a new name. Many others have simply refused to comply, daring the authorities to enforce their decision.

MaBaTha's real agenda

The confrontation in Myanmar is about far more than Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim hate speech. These are just populist elements of a much larger debate over the role of Buddhism in a rapidly modernizing country, and the latest chapter in the never-ending negotiation of relations between Buddhism and the state. This includes not only moral and religious issues but the broader wellbeing of society, seen in monastic tradition as indistinguishable from the vitality of monasteries and the monastic order, and the social and educational services they provide.

Generally portrayed in international media as a fundamentally political entity, MaBaTha bases its efforts for "promotion and protection of Buddhism"  around a range of activities that greatly enhance its grassroots support: running a large network of Buddhist Sunday schools, promoting shared Buddhist cultural values, providing a social safety net, disaster relief, secular education, dispute resolution, women's rights and pro bono legal aid.

The role of women in religious nationalist and extremist movements throughout Asia offers a unique insight into how these groups develop and nurture grassroot support in the face of concerted national and international efforts to deter or delegitimize them.

In Myanmar, although MaBaTha is often seen as pursuing a misogynistic agenda, it enjoys strong support from many women and nuns, who see themselves as protecting women's freedom of choice -- in who they marry and how they practice their religion. This is overlooked by accounts that do not take MaBaTha's grassroot popularity seriously.

Female lawyers provide pro bono pastoral support and legal aid through MaBaTha to women in abusive family or work situations who would not otherwise have the means to bring a case through the courts. To many in the justice sector, MaBaTha's prominent role in local dispute resolution comes as a surprise. However, it reflects the often unseen work of monastic communities in supporting local society -- a result of the absence of accessible and credible official channels for redress, and the moral authority that monks command.

Many women's groups across Myanmar came to MaBaTha to offer their support for its mission. They were not co-opted by influential monks as is typically assumed; they approached MaBaTha because they supported the group's message and objectives, or felt that working through the organization would help them achieve their own goals.

These are views widely held among members of the country's most prestigious nunneries  and among highly educated women, including lawyers, educators and medical professionals. In addition to many women in their 40s and 50s, there is a dedicated cadre of tertiary-educated, feminist-identifying women and nuns in their 20s and 30s.

Although many community supporters of MaBaTha do not see themselves as pursuing an extreme nationalist or anti-Muslim agenda, the popularity and profile gained by the group's community activities lend momentum to more extreme political agendas; and the popularity of its leading monks and large membership is used to boost their credibility and dissemination.

While there is strong support in Buddhist communities for MaBaTha and its nationalist agenda, this is by no means universal. Even those who support the organization and others like it do not necessarily endorse all its viewpoints and activities. But while many people are uncomfortable with the involvement of monks in secular activities, particularly party politics, most Myanmar Buddhists see their participation as a reflection of the government's failings -- not necessarily those of the Sangha.

In Myanmar's new, more democratic era, debate over the proper place of Buddhism and the role of political leadership in protecting it is being recast. This debate is unlikely to end soon, and it cannot be seen merely in terms of politics and nationalism, divorced from moral and spiritual issues.

In light of the realities of simmering intercommunal tensions and outbreaks of violence linked to hate speech and nationalist provocations, the stakes for the country are extremely high. Religious nationalists play an important role in promoting such provocations -- and, even more worryingly, normalizing and legitimizing bigoted agendas. To craft effective responses, an accurate and nuanced understanding of the situation -- rather than simplistic one-dimensional portrayals -- is vital.

While the government must continue to take robust action against hate speech, incitement and violence, it is unlikely that confrontation and legal action will be effective in dealing with the broader phenomenon of Buddhist nationalism and groups such as MaBaTha -- and may even play to their advantage. Rather, it should address the underlying causes, which is much more difficult.

Fundamentally, these relate to the angst in monastic communities and society at large over the rapid changes in Myanmar's social and political make up. Such shifts have generated worries about secularism and modernity that threaten the traditional role of Buddhism and see success defined in material terms rather than religious achievements. More broadly, many disaffected and unemployed youth are searching for a cause, a sense of belonging and of direction. The government, the NLD and society as a whole must find ways to channel this enormous energy in a positive direction.

Yet the NLD has a new handicap with which it has not yet fully grappled. Until it came to power, the party embodied Myanmar's biggest cause -- the struggle against authoritarianism and repression. But once in government, it has been unable to harness the energy of the grassroots and the youth who supported that cause. Nationalist organizations are partly filling this space. Better opportunities for people to participate in community development, social welfare, education and environmental conservation would all resonate strongly and give people a greater sense of control of their destiny.

Also underlying the popularity of nationalist narratives is a sense of economic anxiety and a feeling that ordinary people are not seeing tangible benefits from the reforms. This increases their concern about the future and the resilience of their communities. A much more visible focus on the economy by government would give people confidence that it is prioritizing better opportunities and jobs, and a more prosperous future for ordinary people.

Melyn McKay is a research anthropologist and DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford specializing in women's participation in religious nationalist movements, and peace building. Richard Horsey is a Yangon-based political analyst; he serves as Myanmar adviser to the International Crisis Group, and to various organizations on political and conflict risk.

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