Putting Myanmar’s “Buddhist Extremism” in an International Context

Aye Thein argues that the international influences on “Buddhist extremism” have been overlooked.

This article further develops an idea I had briefly discussed in an earlier piece written for New Mandala in February 2017. A recent phenomenon in Myanmar, which has been called by different names by commentators depending on their preference, has put the country in the international spotlight. It has been characterised, among others terms, as “Buddhist nationalist”, “ultra-nationalist”, “militant Buddhist” and “Buddhist extremist”, the latter being used in the title of this article. MaBaTha or the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion, being the largest of the groups described by these various terms, has triggered a good deal of scholarly and journalistic attention.

What is problematic with the articles such as the ones using the terms quoted above is that most of them overemphasise the role of these groups as promoters of Islamophobia. In order to advance our understanding of this worrying trend, I will make the case here that more attention needs to be given to another role Buddhist nationalist groups play, which has hitherto been glossed over or commented on only in passing: that is, that they are in fact voracious consumers, albeit uncritical and selective, of global media coverage on Islam. This is where the international factor comes in.

Based on my reading of recent literature of the Buddhist nationalists in the Burmese language, I have observed at least three ways in which the international factor feeds into Islamophobia, as consumed and purveyed by these groups in Myanmar.

First of all, incidents of violence perpetrated by Muslims, from Boko Haram to ISIS to the suicide bombings of “Islamic terrorists”, have found their way into the literature of Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalist groups. For instance, one speaker at the third annual assembly of MaBaTha in June 2016 reported that “suicide bombings are becoming daily occurrences in countries like Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh”. More to the point, Maung Thwe Chun, one of the most influential lay figures in the MaBaTha movement and a prolific writer, asked “Who could say that there isn’t going to be war given that Al Qaeda has declared Jihad [on Myanmar]?” These quotations are just a smattering of a growing body of Buddhist nationalist thought on Islamic terrorism growing out of global media coverage.

Secondly, the rise of xenophobic populism in the West, which has a significant Islamophobic element, has played well into the hands of Myanmar’s “Buddhist nationalists”, lending credibility and justification to their arguments and narratives. For instance, the poster child of extreme Buddhist nationalists, Ashin Wirathu— who is highly respected among MaBaTha leadership— wasted little time in congratulating Donald Trump on his election, thanks in large part to the latter’s anti-Muslim rhetoric in the campaign. Many others of a milder nationalist persuasion also did the same on Facebook and Twitter. Likewise, in an article in Thaki Thwe, one of MaBaTha’s journals, a leading member of the organisation, Dr Ashin Thawbaka, wrote that he admires the U.S. president and says “thank you” to him because he “prioritises the fight against terrorism, national security and nationalist politics”. The ripple effects of rising populism are spread all over the world. Ian Buruma, Editor of The New York Review of Books and Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, writes that Trump’s “America first approach, Islamophobia, support for torture, and attacks on the mainstream media are being used by anti-liberals and autocrats worldwide to justify closing their borders and crushing ‘enemies of the people’ – with violence if need be.”

Lastly, what happens in the Muslim world and the state of affairs for religious minorities, exerts a huge influence on the attitudes of the Buddhist nationalists towards Muslims in the country. In the most recent blasphemy index published by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the five worst performing countries have a Muslim majority: Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Qatar. In the latest Human Rights Watch report, countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Egypt, all members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have appalling records on human rights, including rights of religious minorities. One can argue that Myanmar trumps all these countries as a human rights violator, however, the point remains that Muslim-majority states are doing a rather poor job of defending minorities of all kinds within their own borders. Buddhist nationalists use the poor human rights records of Muslim-majority states to frame their arguments and construct their narratives; the irony, though, is that they are admitting that they are more like their critics, who they want to push a peg or two down the moral ladder.

By bringing these points to the discussion, I am not defending cultural relativism, but only highlighting the quagmire of complexity into which that events around the world are dragging people. Pushing the international factor out of the context misses a crucial part of the picture, and thus impoverishes the debate. For example, the author of a recent Economist piece, writes the following: “Buddhists account for almost 90% of Myanmar’s population. There is no evidence that their share of the population is declining. The monkhood, or sangha, is as popular as ever with an estimated 500,000 members—almost 1% of the population. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s leader, is a practising Buddhist.”

The suggestion seems to be that it is irrational for such an overwhelming majority to fear such an unthreatening minority. The term “siege mentality” has been used to describe this supposedly irrational feeling. However, as I have already pointed out, with growing criticism from the Islamic World and declaration of Jihad from Al Qaeda— although these have come only as a response to the persecution of a Muslim minority in western Myanmar internationally known as the “Rohingya”— the minority feeling among the Buddhist nationalists is hardly unfounded. Furthermore, this majority’s minority complex is not unique to Buddhists in Myanmar. In Religion and Nationalism in Southeast Asia, Professor Joseph Liow describes a similar sentiment in Malaysia, where “the numerical majority has been accompanied by a “minority mindset” defined by insecurity toward the religious rights of the Muslim community, at least on the part of these Islamists and Muslim conservatives who sought— and were denied— a more assertive role for Islam in politics and national affairs”.

The emergence of groups like MaBaTha, which have counterparts in even the so-called liberal parts of Europe such as France and Germany, is a localised response to rising Islamophobia in the world. The reception of these groups and operating space in their own countries will vary depending on a number of enabling factors.  It is worth noting that just as white supremacists have been roundly condemned by some government officials, members of the public and the media in the US, Buddhist nationalists have been subjected to severe criticism in the local media, social media and in public campaigns. Furthermore, it is imprecise to characterise MaBaTha simply as anti-Islamic. It is not that it is not anti-Islamic, but it is more anti-Rohingya than against Islam if its official statements are any guide. Islamophobia is a lot less popular than the anti-Rohingya feeling widely shared in the country, but the two are separate things, although inextricably linked. In other words, in the Buddhist nationalist literature I have reviewed, the Buddhist nationalists categorically reject the term “Rohingya” and their legal claim to the Myanmar state. In contrast, regarding the non-Rohingya Muslims, they recognise their legal status and the citizenship rights that come with it; what they dispute is their belonging to the Myanmar race or the Myanmar nation.

In ending, I draw the following conclusions. The international factor must be given a much more prominent place in the debate on so-called Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, to the extent that developments and events do not occur in isolation, but reinforce and inspire one another, which I argue to be the case. Doing so will caution us against searching for solutions in the context of Myanmar alone. Criticism against Myanmar is justified and must be sustained as long as its human rights record remains as abysmal as it currently is. Existence of human rights violators around the world does not give it reason to be one; but to try to stop being one. However, progress on this front in Myanmar will be more or less conditioned by progress in the rest of the world. International factors such as rising anti-Muslim populism in the West and prevailing human rights norms in the Islamic World will have an influence on the attitudes of the Burmese, including Buddhist nationalists’ attitudes towards Muslims. The OIC have called on the Myanmar government to protect the rights of the Muslim Rohingya minority. However, as I have pointed out, members of the OIC in general themselves have such a poor record of protecting minorities that such calls come out as hypocritical and gain little purchase among the Buddhists.

Things are not all bad though. The permissive space in which the Buddhist nationalists operate is always in flux and recent actions by the NLD government and civil society groups show that the excesses of these groups are not unchallenged. Anti-Islamic sentiments in the country are not set in stone, and we should avoid essentializing them as such. 

Aye Thein is a Research Fellow based at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. He currently works on the “Understanding ‘Buddhist Nationalism’ in Myanmar: Religion, Gender, Identity and Conflict in a Political Transition” project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK.