In Myanmar, the Ma Ba Tha monks are a political force exploited by the military government for its own nefarious purposes. A racist ideology is eroding religious tolerance and social justice.
Burma’s indigenous name – Myanmar – has been used for centuries in titles, literature, and official documents. The English language version of the 1947 Constitution, prepared the year before the country regained its independence, referred to the “Union of Burma”, while the Burmese language version used Myanmar.
The name can be traced back to the pre-colonial period when successive kings ruled the central lowlands of Burma and periodically clashed with the states and societies around them. Today, Myanmar implies the continuing political dominance of the major ethnic group living within the geographical boundaries inherited from the British in 1948. This is a problem for many of the country’s ethnic nationalities.
To call the country Myanmar is deemed by activists to denote sympathy for the military regime. To the government, continued use of the country’s former name is considered insulting. Yet, many who prefer to use “Burma” do so without such connotations, arguing that “Burma” is more easily recognised than “Myanmar” and lends itself to the adjective “Burmese”. Myanmar does not have an equivalent adjective in English.
Such linguistic tensions are symptomatic of turmoil in a country of over 51 million people with 135 distinct ethnic groups speaking 11 languages. The Bamar form an estimated 68% of the population; the Shan 10%; the Kayin 7%; the Rakhine people 4%; and overseas Chinese approximately 3%. They prefer the term “ethnic nationality” to “ethnic minority” since “minority” deepens their sense of insecurity in the face of what is often described as “Burmanisation” – the proliferation and domination of the Bamar culture over other groups.
And then there are the Rohingya, a relatively small ethnic group who practice Islam and whose origin is disputed. Some say they are indigenous to the state of Rakhine and others contend they are migrants from East Bengal – today’s Bangladesh – who came to Burma during the period of British rule. In 2012 riots took place between Rohingya and Arakanese in northern Rakhine State. The government responded by imposing curfews, deploying troops in the region and declaring a state of emergency allowing the military to administer the region.
Enter the Ma Ba Tha or “Association to Protect Race and Religion”, a large and powerful group of Buddhist monks founded in mid-2013 most of whose members spout anti-Muslim rhetoric and spread extremist, ultra-nationalist propaganda. As a political lobby, the Ma Ba Tha has successfully introduced a package of “reformist” bills into Parliament that smack of Nazi Germany’s “Nuremberg Laws”.
The “Population Control Bill”, passed into law in May 2015 by both Parliament and the President, allows authorities to order “birth spacing” so that married couples must wait 36 months between each child. It is aimed at Muslims in the fear that Islam might one day replace Buddhism as the country’s dominant religion – a notion fuelled and exacerbated by groups such as Ma Ba Tha.
A second bill passed by Parliament in July 2015 but yet to be signed into law by President Thein Sein is the “Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law”, otherwise known as the “interfaith marriage bill”. This law requires permission for Buddhist women to marry outside their faith. It plays on the deliberately spread rumour that Muslim men are marrying Buddhist women in an attempt to strengthen Islam throughout the country.
Two more highly discriminatory bills were passed by Parliament in August 2015. The “Religious Conversion Bill” stipulates that any person wishing to change religion must get permission from the authorities and the “Monogamy Bill” prohibits polygamy.
The laws are a setback for the political reform process currently gaining ground and they contradict international human rights norms. In particular, they contravene the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which calls on governments to “eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.”
Wirathu, Ma Ba Tha’s symbolic leader, speaks the language of ethnic superiority. Of Buddhists he says “We came down from the sky … We are brilliant people” and referring to Muslims “You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog.” He uses hate speech to imply that those who do not belong to the dominant ethnic group and who are not ideologically aligned with it are less than human. Where have we heard that before?
The lessons of history tell us that when religion is allowed to interfere in politics, the consequences are often monstrous. How long before Myanmar’s Muslims are denied their human rights and locked away in camps or worse? How long before a civil war in which the military takes the side of the Ma Ba Tha monks?