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Myanmar’s young government, led by the party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been beset in recent months by protests, violence at sacred sites, and confrontations between the state’s monastic council (the official body that regulates the Buddhist monkhood) and Buddhist nationalist groups.
Anti-Muslim violence and discrimination—and religious conflict more generally—persist in Myanmar and are understandably high atop the priority lists of many Western countries and international organizations. Yet the country’s continued fragility makes it all the more important for international involvement to be carefully calibrated. If outside actors come with a clear and nuanced assessment of Myanmar’s complex domestic politics, the country’s diverse communities can flourish and a primary driver of violent conflict will be erased. More importantly, success or failure will be an indicator of the broader prospects of religious pluralism at a time when religious discrimination and conflict are ascendant.
In late April, crowds of Burmese Buddhist protesters demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. Organized by the Myanmar Nationalist Network with support and participation of monks from MaBaTha (a monk-led group whose name is an acronym for the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion), protestors objected to U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel’s use of the term “Rohingya” in reference to an ethnic minority Muslim population in Rakhine State. They demanded that the newly arrived ambassador be evicted from the country. The ambassador had used the term in discussing victims in of a ferry accident off the coast of Rakhine State, although it was later revealed that most of those who died were from the Kaman Muslim minority rather than Rohingya.
Many people in Myanmar reject the term “Rohingya” because they are worried that it provides political standing to a group largely seen to be “Bengali” foreign nationals and, thus, not part of Myanmar’s national community. People outside of Myanmar generally recognize that many Rohingya have lived in the country for generations and that they deserve to have their basic rights (including the right to self-identify) recognized. Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent calls for people to use less “emotive” identity terms in the dispute, and to find alternatives to both “Rohingya” and “Bengali,” have also been rejected by some protesters.
In more recent violence in late June, a mob of two hundred Buddhists destroyed a mosque in Bago in central Myanmar. A week later, a similar mob razed a Muslim prayer hall in Kachin State. Both incidents echoed violence targeting Muslim communities that has plagued Myanmar’s transition since 2012, and seemed to be sparked by arguments over the construction of new Muslim buildings. Most recently, Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein sparked an angry backlash by MaBaTha and its supporters when he called the organization unnecessary and redundant of the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the official state-sponsored body of senior monks. Several days later, a statement from the Sangha Maha Nayaka was leaked online clarifying that MaBaTha was not formed in accordance with official protocols and thus was not an officially sanctioned Buddhist organization. Meanwhile, several online civil society groups voiced their support for U Phyo Min Thein. A charity group filed a defamation suit against prominent MaBaTha monk U Wirathu. In response, MaBaTha did cancel antigovernment protests, but U Wirathu called Aung San Suu Kyi a “dictator.”
These developments indicate a willingness on the part of the new government (and civil society) to confront the group, which is particularly welcome given the permissive environment that the previous government had created for anti-Muslim prejudice and violence. But these events should not be interpreted as an eradication of the sentiments that led to the group’s rise—namely, widespread views of Muslims in and outside of the country as a threat to Buddhism in Myanmar and the need to defend the prominent place of Buddhism in the state in the midst of its dramatic reform process. The new government’s other recent efforts to reduce religious violence are also a welcome development, although it will still need encouragement (and possibly pressure) to include the brave civil society groups that have been doing the heavy lifting on preventing religious conflict over the past few years. Moreover, history has shown that outlawing religious or nationalist groups such as these only entrenches and inflames them, so both the government and the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee should carefully calibrate their responses to target violent, discriminatory, or exclusionary rhetoric and actions, rather than particular groups or individuals.
Although anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiments have received the most global media attention in recent years, many groups in Myanmar have experienced religious discrimination and persecution, and they seem to resent the neglect of their own issues. Rights groups continue to document arrests, detentions, torture, cross burnings, and refusals of permission for Christians to preach or hold church services. Alleged perpetrators have included local officials and military officers.
That these reports continue reflects the Burmese military’s sense of impunity in the border regions and the precarious position of non-Buddhist ethnic leaders. They are also reminders of the vast gulf between life in urban spaces and the experiences of people living in rural regions.
The United States and other international supporters also must understand the diversity within Buddhism itself in Myanmar and within each of the country’s religious communities. Understanding the complexity of Buddhism in Myanmar, particularly as it relates to political issues, requires greater care in categorizing Buddhist activists. Much of the international media coverage of religious conflict in Myanmar has demonized Buddhists en masse rather than targeting criticism at violent or hateful rhetoric and actions. Such rhetoric has spurred people in the country to close ranks in the face of perceived universal attacks on Buddhism. In many instances, international condemnation has more often played into the hands of groups such as MaBaTha by strengthening their argument that Buddhism is under attack.
When Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the November elections and subsequently took office, Suu Kyi asked the United States and other foreign supporters for space to allow her government to work on persistent religious and ethnic conflict and discrimination without exacerbating existing tensions. Admittedly, the new government has a seemingly endless list of priorities, including most especially the advance of the political dialogue process with ethnic armed groups to negotiate a peace deal, constitutional reform, and the continued democratic reform process. At the same time, patience does not require backing down from basic principles such as the overall commitment to religious freedom.
The new government will need regular pressure to ensure that religious freedom issues remain on the agenda but will sometimes need to be supported and empowered to put pressure on the military (and the ministries it controls) when necessary to advance human rights. Because Myanmar’s constitution gives the military power over key institutions such as the police and the General Administration Department (which controls the bureaucracy at almost every level), the government often does not have sufficient authority to act in areas related to security and policy implementation. And in the areas that it does control, the government will need to be encouraged to balance freedom of expression with restrictions on hate speech, so that the need to combat extremism does not justify a crackdown on civil liberties.
Myanmar’s leaders will also need to demonstrate to the world that they are sincerely seeking a resolution to the treatment and political status of the Rohingya, of course within a wider context of addressing the conditions in western Rakhine State, home to a multitude of ethnic and religious groups in addition to the Rohingya. Although measures to restore livelihoods and basic services ought to be prioritized, large-scale development projects should be delayed until critical questions regarding decentralization of power and resource-sharing are resolved. The raised economic stakes of projects such as deep-sea ports and special economic zones are likely to further exacerbate conflict. Trust-building and reintegration of communities will be a painstakingly slow—but absolutely necessary—part of the resolution, yet it needs to occur at the most local levels.
Another important role, given the West’s strong financial support for the peace process, would be to ensure that the ongoing political dialogue between the government and ethnic armed groups addresses issues of religious diversity and freedom. Participants in the dialogue must also be prepared to tackle sensitive and thorny questions related to the future relationship between religion and the state, including the role of the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs and the official status of Buddhism as described in the constitution. These issues will inevitably arise as the political dialogue proceeds, and have the potential to provoke nationalist sentiment. National reconciliation in Myanmar will have to occur on multiple fronts in the coming years.
One of the most basic strategies ought to be continued engagement with groups such as MaBaTha in creative and constructive ways. Under Derek Mitchell, who served as U.S. ambassador in Yangon from 2012 to 2016, U.S. Embassy staff made doing so a major component of their public outreach, a policy continued under the current ambassador. But others concerned about peace and human rights in and outside the country are also trying to better understand the concerns and motivations of such Buddhist organizations, even as these observers insist on respect for minority groups.
Finally, another small-scale but effective strategy has been to create opportunities for the people of Myanmar to gain international experience, usually in non-Buddhist majority countries, as a means to challenge some of the common misperceptions about foreign contexts and demonstrate models of peaceful, diverse democratic societies. One goal of this engagement needs to be strengthening and promoting alternative narratives that do not demonize Muslims or non-Buddhists and that remind people in Myanmar that peaceful interreligious coexistence has been the norm in their country, not the other way around. Monks and other respected figures will be important allies in this process.
Myanmar’s progress toward democracy and peace since 2012 has been undeniably remarkable, but its continued advancement will require committed and careful attention to these complicated issues of religious identity and practice. The U.S. and other foreign governments and organizations will need to navigate their roles carefully to prevent doing more harm than good.