Can Burma Save Buddhism From the Politicians?

By Christian Caryl, Foreign Policy, October 30, 2015

An unholy alliance between the government and extremist Buddhist monks is threatening to derail the transition to democracy.

Yangon, Myanmar - There’s a specter haunting Burma. It’s the specter of politicized religion.

On Nov 8, Burmese voters will head to the polls to choose members of a new parliament. It will be the country’s first national election since it started opening up four years ago, and the first relatively democratic one in 25 years.

Preparations for the poll have been rocky. Election monitors are already warning about cases of intimidation, sporadic violence, flawed voter lists, and a whole host of other concerns. And even if the authorities get those kinks straightened out, there’s a broader problem: the entire process is taking place in an environment that has been skewed against the opposition.

The ground rules for the vote are based on a constitution created under the auspices of the then-ruling military junta back in 2008. The constitution stipulates, for example, that at last a quarter of the members of the lower house have to be appointed by the military. That means that the old political establishment is putting a pretty heavy thumb on the political scales even before the vote gets under way.

All of this poses serious risks to Burma’s nascent political transition. Yet even these problems pale into insignificance compared with the biggest threat of all: the cynical exploitation of powerful religious sentiments for political ends.

Earlier this month, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, staged a political rally in a sports arena in Rangoon, the country’s biggest city. At least 10,000 Buddhist monks, nuns, and their supporters crowded in to celebrate their recent success at lobbying parliament to pass four discriminatory laws aimed at the country’s minority Muslims. (One of the measures gives the government the power to decide when Muslim women are allowed to have children.) “These laws are needed by our country and our people and to protect them,” declared Bhadanta Tilawka Bivamsa, the head of the organization. “We want to urge people to protect them and stay away from those who want to destroy them.”

Ma Ba Tha’s most prominent member, the monk Ashin Wirathu, is famous for describing the average Burmese Muslim as a “mad dog” intent on destroying Buddhists.

When a United Nations representative dared to challenge his policies earlier this year, he called her a “whore.”

It’s bad enough that Burma has such a vocal extremist Buddhist movement. But many countries — perhaps all — have some religious extremism. What’s really ominous is how effective this movement has been at ingratiating itself with the authorities — and how willing they have been to exploit it. Ma Ba Tha staged its stadium rally with the explicit support of the authorities, who, in a virtually unprecedented move, broadcast the proceedings on state TV (a favor never extended to any other private organization in recent memory). The group was able to hold their event in the arena thanks to the personal intercession of President Thein Sein, who granted them special permission to use the facility. Small wonder that Wirathu wound up the proceedings by giving his endorsement to the president.

Over the past few years Ma Ba Tha has enthusiastically intervened in Burmese politics, and with time it’s become increasingly clear that the group is in close cahoots with the government. Lately Ma Ba Tha activists have been putting opposition candidates on the spot by publicly quizzing them on their support for the laws the group has promoted. Perhaps it’s an odd coincidence, but it turns out that pretty much all of the candidates the group favors come from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which consists mainly of military officers or their friends. Ma Ba Tha members have been actively campaigning for its members.

It’s gotten so bad that, last month, nine Western embassies felt compelled to issue an unprecedented joint statement expressing concern “about the prospect of religion being used as a tool of division and conflict during the campaign season.”

For their part, USDP members and government officials have repeatedly attacked opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) by accusing them of undue sympathy for Muslims. (The NLD, clearly on the defensive, has refrained from including Muslims, who make up between 4 and 10 percent of the population, in its candidate list. The USDP list doesn’t have any either, needless to say.) The powerful head of the military has urged voters to choose “correct candidates” who can “protect race and religion” and who are free of foreign influence — a coded reference for Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was a UK citizen, and whose children hold British passports).

This trend towards the exploitation of religion for political ends is problematic for several reasons. First, it’s illegal. The current constitution, as flawed as it is, explicitly prohibits religious-based discrimination and contains several provisions that clearly outlaw direct religious interference in politics. The government has made it clear that it regards the 2008 constitution as sacrosanct, and has strongly resisted the opposition’s campaign to change it. Yet at the same time the government blithely ignores the very same ground rules it professes to defend.

Second, the conflation of officialdom and religious extremism lowers the bar for state-sanctioned violence against religious minorities. Tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya have already been interned in squalid detention camps since an outbreak of sectarian violence three years ago. The continuing drumbeat of racist invective against them has prompted international organizations to warn of the risk of outright genocide.

Third, Ma Ba Tha’s coziness with the government poses a palpable risk that Burma could morph into a sort of religious dictatorship. If current trends continue, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the more extreme parts of the Buddhist religious establishment gain real political power. This could provide the pretext for a new form of autocracy (based on a coalition between the old establishment’s nationalists and the religious populism of the extremist monks). That, in turn, could enflame internal conflict in a country that is trying to emerge from the world’s longest-running civil war.

What we do know, from theocracies past and present, is that the fusion of government and faith can ultimately be damaging to both.

The worst way to protect religion is by installing it in the halls of power.

There’s still a chance this movement will burn itself out. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that may Burmese are starting to question its coziness with the same regime that oppressed them for so long.

Burma has a rich and diverse religious tradition, and Burmese Buddhism is at its heart. I may be an ignorant foreigner, but I see Buddhism as a vibrant and beautiful faith – not least because it preaches profound respect for all living things. Let’s hope that tolerance wins.