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Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim “Other” by Francis Wade. Zed Books, 2017, 280 pages

Ishrat Hossain reviews Francis Wade’s timely analysis of anti-Muslim sentiments in Myanmar.

In these last few months the world has been transfixed by Myanmar as the latest, and possibly most devastating, Rohingya crisis unfolded on its western shores. Erstwhile admired for its transition from a military dictatorship to an inclusive democracy headed by a domestically-revered and internationally-acclaimed icon, Myanmar had already faltered on its path to glory when deep social divisions began to surface in the form of deadly communal conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims. As the firebrand monks continue their anti-Muslim hate campaigns and a new Muslim militancy emerges on the Rakhine landscape, a certain level of popular support seem to be there for the Army’s latest ‘clearance operations’ against the Muslim Rohingyas – despite showing proof of horrific civilian abuse and resulting in unprecedented refugee flight.

For outside observers this (violent) ‘communal’ turn in Myanmar’s political transition is deeply puzzling for two reasons: first, the idea of peace-loving Buddhists as perpetrators does not fit in with prevailing notions of Buddhism as a religion doctrinally committed to peace; and, second, the silent acquiescence of democratic forces to the anti-Muslim Buddhist nationalistic discourse (as well as the failure to condemn violence) stand in stark opposition to their long struggle for freedom and human rights. British journalist Francis Wade, in his eerily timed book, Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim “Other” (Zed Books, 2017), attempts to unpack the workings behind the rise of Buddhist chauvinism and the entrenchment of social divisions between Myanmar’s two largest religious communities. Lucidly written, the book investigates the genesis of the communal faultline in modern Myanmar that eventually erupted into violent confrontations between Buddhists and Muslims, tearing the social fabric for decades to come, if not permanently.  

The book is based on Wade’s frequent trips to Myanmar between 2012 and 2016, when he reported on communal violence for a number of regional and international news outlets. Spread over twelve chapters, the book unfolds in a non-linear narrative with frequent breaks in each chapter, as the author moves back-and-forth between characters and events. The fragmented narrative structure reflects, in a way, the convoluted social landscape of broken lives and battered hopes that he tries to navigate. However, on a closer read, each chapter appears to be loosely-centred around a theme or a specific historical event such as the first onset of civilian-led violence (chapter one); colonial roots of Buddhist nationalist movements (chapter two); the consolidation of ethnic identity under Ne Win’s rule (chapter three); polarisation of ethnic and religious communities in western Myanmar (chapter four); as well as the history of the Mujahedin movement and the Buddhist settler projects in northern Rakhine state (chapter five). Wade also provides in-depth analyses of the 2012 violence in the Rakhine state (chapter six), its unexpected diffusion in central Myanmar, especially in Meikhtila (chapter seven), and the catalytic role Ma Ba Tha played in fuelling violence unrestrained by both military and the civilian leadership (chapter eight). The post-violence segregation of Buddhists and Muslims (chapter nine) and future threats arising from unreconciled claims and contested identities form the concluding section of the text (chapter twelve).

Dotted with anecdotal recollections, the book brilliantly captures how individual lives are shaped, reshaped and irrevocably damaged due to a real or acquired membership within a certain group. The underlying theme in many of these stories is that identity is fluid— not innate as propagated by nationalists— and can be altered or negotiated as required (chapter ten). This theme is central to the story of Hla Hla, a Mon girl from Yangon whose family was able to register as ethnic Bamar Buddhist by tweaking their accent and appearance, a falsity that allowed them to gain access to a higher social status and to more opportunities; or in the narrative of U Maung Soe who transitioned from being classified as a Rohingya to a Rakhine Muslim to finally a Rakhine Buddhist by manipulating the system. He eventually ended up in the most religiously entrenched institution of the country: the Army. Even more poignant is the account of U Witthuda, the Buddhist monk from Meikhtila who sheltered more than nine hundred terrified people, both Buddhist and Muslims, during the deadly violence in 2013 by ‘[staying] true to the core humanist qualities inherent in the Buddha’s teachings’ (pg. 271).

While demonstrating the impact of violence on everyday life, the book concentrates on two wider themes: the communal construction of the ‘other’ in modern Myanmar, and the production of communal violence in the aftermath of Myanmar’s political opening, unfolding since 2011. Wade argues that there is a cyclical pattern in the way the Buddhist Bamar political elite has constructed the ‘foreigner’ throughout modern history. For the anti-colonial nationalists of the 1920s and 1930s, the threatening ‘other’ was the population from the sub-continent who economically subjugated and culturally overwhelmed the natives. Both Muslims and Hindus were part of this group. Thus, the anti-colonial nationalist slogan— ‘Amyo, Batha, Thathana’ (race, language/religion and teaching of Buddha)— around which the Bamar Buddhist independence movement centred provided a narrow vision of religious and racial hierarchy. Later, when the military junta came to power in the 1960s, they used this ideology to reinforce Bamar ethnic superiority “with Bamar Buddhists as the true heirs of the land and all others, whether indigenous or not, as threats to the master ethnicity” (pg. 54). This cyclical pattern has been repeated since 2013, with the rise of the modern-day embodiment of ‘Amyo, Batha, Thathana’ or the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha), whose members are adamant of ridding Myanmar of all threatening foreign elements, especially Muslims.

The book also devotes considerable energy to unpacking the mechanisms of violence in the post-transition political landscape, where the army is no longer the perpetrator. Unsurprisingly, a significant portion of the book focuses on the highly tense on-the-ground realities of Rakhine state, describing just how deep-rooted resentments between Buddhist and Muslim communities unleashed devastating consequences in 2012, as these groups exercised “a newfound agency that arrived with the commencement of the passage to civilian rule” (pg. 15). Additionally, as Myanmar underwent its political transition, anxieties over the uncertain future gave rise to new truths “displacing facts and creating a new mode of understanding” communal tensions. Wade further shows how the post-violence foreign aid environment contributed to deepening the divisions between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingyas living in camps: “Through eyes clouded by bitter resentment, it may have appeared that the lot of Rohingya had in some way improved as a result of violence” (pg. 209).

Not only did the semi-civilian Thein Sein government and the subsequent civilian Suu Kyi-led government fail to stop the violence, both refrained from criticising the ultra-nationalist monk group for its virulent anti-Muslim propaganda because of the influence it exercised over a large cross-section of the population. “This created a vacuum in which [Ma Ba Tha] could grow and grow, unchallenged by parties [on] either side of the political spectrum” Wade writes.

Throughout the book, the reader is constantly reminded of the infinitely diverse and complex social fabric of the country: one that has been frayed repeatedly over time starting with imprudent colonial rule that focused on preferential ethnic treatment and uninformed border formations, followed by the army’s brutal ‘burmanisation’ nation-building project, and eventually culminating in a new form of ethnoracial Buddhist nationalism preaching hate-filled anti-Muslim sermons. Wade argues that the utopian land of ‘one voice, one blood, one nation’ that the former socialist military regime envisioned, and that or the current Buddhist chauvinist monks want to restore, is unattainable, as historically Myanmar has always been and possibly will always be: a “nation of innumerable porous and interchangeable identity groups, each with divergent loyalties” (pg.35).

In the end, much like a Shakespearean tragedy, Myanmar’s current communal landscape, as described by Wade, lacks poetic justice for most of the characters involved: the Muslims are dispossessed; the Buddhists are enraged and feel threatened; the iconic image of the country’s most-beloved leader is forever tarnished; and the Army is back as evil avatar. But undoubtedly the most tragic figure in this story is the Rohingya population, who once again face an uncertain future in the camps of Bangladesh after one of the most violent crises Myanmar has faced in recent history. Francis Wade’s Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim “Other” is an important work informing debates in these troubled times.

Ishrat Hossain is a doctoral researcher in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. Her academic profile can be found here and her twitter handle is @ishrathossain_.