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Myanmar's Buddhist nationalists are scaring off investors

Buddhist monk Wirathu, head of the anti-Muslim movement 969, is a leading figure of a nationwide campaign against the country

By Nyi Nyi Kyaw
May 17, 2014

Calls for boycott of Qatari telecom giant Ooredoo displays economic xenophobia that should worry risk analysts

Myanmar's rising Buddhist nationalism is taking an economic turn. Qatar's Ooredoo, which is scheduled to launch its mobile-phone service in Myanmar this July, has been subject to a growing wave of attacks in Myanmar's social media in recent months. Hit by angry claims that it wanted to Islamise its all-female Myanmar sales staff by sending them for training in the Middle East, Ooredoo was forced to issue an official denial.

The campaign against Ooredoo, led by an extensive online network of Buddhist monks known as Ma-Ba-Tha, could deal the telecom firm a serious blow when it launches operations in two months' time. The attack on the Qatari company will be carefully watched by international investors for its implications on foreign investment in Myanmar.

Reforms of the Asean member's antiquated and poorly functioning telecom sector followed political opening and economic liberalisation which began in 2011. Tenders were invited from international and regional investors including Singapore-based SingTel. In April 2013, Ooredoo was chosen as the principal provider and Norwegian Telenor the secondary provider. Both are scheduled to launch their operations in July.

Myanmar's 60-million-strong population has been waiting for decades for reliable telecommunications services. Mobile phones were a luxury until a few years ago. A SIM card alone cost US$5,000 in the early 2000s. That price has now dropped dramatically, but SIM cards bought at the state-operated Myanmar Post and Telecommunications or military-owned Myanmar Economic Corporation still cost about $100 apiece.

No surprise then that only about 9 per cent of the population owns a cellphone, which leaves tremendous untapped potential for the international telecom companies, who have promised 3G networks and cheap SIM cards available to all.

At the same time, rising Buddhist nationalism has led to the emergence of the Ma-Ba-Tha (Organisation for Protection of Race and Religion), an institutionalised nationwide movement headed by senior monks. Among them are leaders of the anti-Muslim 969 movement, including the controversial monk Wirathu. Ma-Ba-Tha's extensive network includes chapters at state and township levels across the country. 

The unmatched social and moral authority enjoyed by Buddhist monks explains the powerful hold of the fiercely-agitating Ma-Ba-Tha and 969 movements.

Most recently, Ma-Ba-Tha's chapters in Northern Shan State and Upper Myanmar released online statements asserting that their members and followers would not answer any calls made from phone numbers serviced by "Muslim Ooredoo". They alleged that Ooredoo was financially backed by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and harboured secret aims to influence Buddhist Myanmar.

Against the backdrop of sectarian conflict in the western state of Rakhine in June and October 2012 and other parts of Myanmar in 2013, a new militant Buddhist movement has emerged in the country. Myanmar media rejected the Western interpretation of the clashes as "communal violence" between Rakhine Buddhists and their Muslim neighbours, calling the Muslims illegal immigrants. The growing intensity and spread of attacks to other parts of Myanmar, plus the precarious situation of tens of thousands of Muslims who have fled their homes for camps in Rakhine, has brought calls from the international community for protection of the Muslim minority. These have been interpreted by Myanmar's nationalist media, politicians and Sangha as pro-Muslim and anti-Buddhist.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), with 57 member states, has raised its voice more than most over the treatment of Myanmar's Muslims. The OIC's efforts to open a Myanmar humanitarian aid office for those caught up in the conflict - both Muslims and Buddhists - met with a backlash of nationwide anti-OIC protests led by Buddhist monks. 

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has conceded that anti-Muslim feeling is running high. 

"There's a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great. And certainly that is the perception in many parts of the world, and in our country, too," she told the BBC in October 2013.

The xenophobic atmosphere shows no sign of abating, and seems set worsen in the run-up to the 2015 election. The Thein Sein administration is becoming increasingly populist in a desperate bid to win more support and stave off what looks an almost-certain victory at the polls for Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. Recently, President Thein Sein formed a commission to draft two bills to restrict religious conversion and population growth.

He has also suggested that the Supreme Court work on two other bills relating to interfaith marriage and monogamy. Known as the Race Protection Bills, these four pieces of legislation were demanded by Ma-Ba-Tha through a campaign that collected millions of signatures.

International telecom giants like Ooredoo conducted market surveys and reports on Myanmar before they put in their tenders. But they may have overlooked the power and influence of Buddhist nationalism. Amid the rise of religious and nationalist fervour, future market surveys and risk analyses must consider its impact on customers' spending decisions and patterns. They must also not forget that the majority of Myanmar's Buddhists still live in remote rural areas. Market surveys must be complemented by well-informed political and financial risk analyses, including what rising Buddhist nationalism may mean for foreign investments.

Nyi Nyi Kyaw, an alumnus of RSIS, is working on a PhD in politics at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia.

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