Whither MaBaTha?

One of the factors that made election observers skeptical about the prospects of an NLD sweep at the polls was the campaign mounted by nationalist monks affiliated with MaBaTha to paint the opposition as the “party of Islamists” and incapable of or unwilling to sufficiently protect Myanmar’s Buddhist heritage. This, combined with influential MaBaTha monks’ explicit endorsement of current President Thein Sein and the ruling USDP, was expected to erode popular support for the NLD. As we now know, the religious nationalist arguments did not exert nearly the influence on people’s voting as many had worried. But what does this apparent defeat mean for MaBaTha and similar groups moving forward? Opinion among analysts seems to be somewhat divided.

NLD MPs had been among those opposing the four laws that passed through Parliament earlier this year, regulating interfaith marriage, religious conversion, polygamy, and birth spacing. While the domestic and international groups that opposed the laws might reasonably expect an NLD government to work to repeal them, this will likely generate strong opposition. Even as he struggled to explain the resounding NLD victory, MaBaTha’s most prominent face, U Wirathu, made it clear in a conversation with the Myanmar Times that he will “fight her [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] over the race and religion laws.” He also sought to distance himself and MaBaTha from the USDP, claiming that the USDP loss was somehow evidence that MaBaTha was not simply a puppet organization of the ruling party.

Swe Win, who has done some of the best reporting on MaBaTha for Myanmar Now, celebrated the NLD victory as an “outright dismissal” of MaBaTha. He saw the results as an indication that the public’s hatred for military rule was more powerful than latent anti-Muslim sentiment. In particular, the increasingly anti-NLD stance taken by leading MaBaTha monks was seen as evidence that the movement was more political than religious. Similarly, monks’ championing of former officers from a military that had brutally repressed the sangha in recent years was incompatible with an argument that the protection of Buddhism was their priority. Swe Win also seems to suggest—and this is important for our understanding of the large rallies that MaBaTha convened and the seeming dedication of tens of thousands of lay supporters to its cause—that public support for the group and its campaigns was in part simply a function of “the respect traditionally granted to clergymen” and maybe not a reflection of people’s true feelings.

In contrast, I have written at East Asia Forum that, while the NLD sweep indicates a rejection of the most extreme religious nationalist arguments, we shouldn’t assume that this is a popular rejection of MaBaTha or its message that Buddhism is under threat from Islam. A number of things will change in the coming months, including a potential divergence in priority issues among MaBaTha monks, more space for Buddhists (especially monks) to articulate an alternate narrative and non-discriminatory methods for protecting Buddhism, and a (hopefully) less permissive environment for anti-Muslim activism under an NLD government. But we should not forget that some within the NLD and among its allies have demonstrated intolerant anti-Muslim attitudes, so a more inclusive stance from the new political authorities can’t be assumed or guaranteed.

In a commentary piece for The Irrawaddy, Wai Yan Phone also sees strong reasons for Buddhist nationalist groups to have continuing influence. His analysis distinguishes between general anti-Muslim sentiment (that may or may not be as strong as support for MaBaTha would have suggested) and anti-Rohingya sentiment (which still seems to be near-universal among the population). In addition to the four religious laws being a potential rallying point for MaBaTha, any attempt to amend the 1982 citizenship law or provide a path to political inclusion for the Rohingya is likely to find virtually no domestic support. But, although it has avoided taking a strong stance on these issues in the past, once it leads the government, the NLD will be forced to take a clearer position.

Tun Khin, President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, is not optimistic about what that position will be. He recently wrote a powerful piece on Mizzima denouncing the ways in which the Rohingya issue may be regularly acknowledged, but generally as an afterthought and disconnected from general political discussion of the country. He does not see much hope for improvement in the dire situation of Rohingya in Myanmar under a party that has refused to speak out in defense of the human rights of Rohingya and includes leaders who have insisted, like the current government, that the Rohingya are simply illegal “Bengali” immigrants. His position is unambiguous and difficult to refute: “To endorse the election as credible is to endorse our disenfranchisement and repression.”

The outlook among other Muslims is also mixed. Nyi Nyi Kyaw wrote a pre-election post for Tea Circle that showed snapshots of urban Muslim support for the NLD, which was largely confirmed through the election results. This suggests that, despite the NLD bowing to Buddhist nationalist pressure in refusing to run a single Muslim candidate for Parliament, many Muslims still see the party as the best vehicle for broader political and societal change. But some are aware that the prejudice facing Muslims cannot be fully addressed simply by a change in government. Muslim Mandalay resident Daw Yin Yin Moe told VOA, “The discrimination is not just the regime, it’s in the mind of some of the Burmese people. She [Aung San Suu Kyi] can’t change that overnight.”

Has the NLD victory signaled not only the defeat of the USDP but also of MaBaTha? Will it re-emerge in different form? Or is anti-Muslim, Buddhist nationalist sentiment still alive and well in Myanmar despite what the election results might suggest? One thing most commentators agree on is that MaBaTha’s continued appeal and ability to influence politics depends in large part on how the NLD proceeds as it takes power and which issues it chooses to prioritize. For that, we will have to wait and see…

Author: matthewjwalton

Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly Buddhism in Myanmar and Burmese Buddhist political thought. He also writes on ethnicity, conflict, and Burmese politics more generally.