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Buddhist nationalism threatens Myanmar’s democratic transition

By Marte Nilsen
March 13, 2015

It’s election year in Myanmar, the big test for the country’s aspiring democratic transition. Among the spirited national debates there are four controversial pieces of legislation currently under consideration in Myanmar’s Assembly of the Union parliament (the Pyidaungsu hluttaw). These reportedly aim to protect race and religion. But in truth, the bills represent a setback for religious freedom and women’s rights and — if adopted — are likely to deepen existing religious divides, threaten the reform agenda and stir violence prior to the elections.

A rising Buddhist nationalist movement has lobbied for the bills, in particular the ‘Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion’ (known in Myanmar under the Burmese acronym ‘Ma Ba Tha’), a group related but not identical to the infamous 969 movement. The organisation has collected more than a million signatures in support of the laws meant to protect Buddhism against a perceived threat from Islam.

Since 2012, Myanmar has been marred by ethno-religious violence, particularly against the Muslim Rohingya population in Rakhine state but also against Muslim communities in other parts of Myanmar. More than a hundred thousand people have fled their homes, hundreds have been killed and thousands of Muslim owned houses and businesses have been torched and destroyed. The proposed Ma Ba Tha laws must be viewed in light of this violence.

Anti-Muslim sentiments are not new to Myanmar. Since colonial times, when Myanmar saw massive immigration from India, there have been numerous attacks on Hindu and Muslim communities, and Buddhist nationalism has been able to equate itself with national identity.

The danger today is that Buddhist nationalist agitation appears at a time where political interests wish to exploit anti-Muslim sentiments for political gain. Emphasis on religious cleavages during the election year may take the focus away from the democratic deficit within Myanmar’s constitution and the armed forces (the Tatmadaw) and serve the interests of undemocratic forces.

The proposed legislative package consists of four bills: a Buddhist women’s marriage bill; a religious conversion bill; a population control bill; and a monogamy bill. These Ma Ba Tha laws have received much criticism from rights groups and women’s organisations in Myanmar and abroad. 180 Myanmar civil society groups have voiced their opposition to the bills in a signed statement to the parliament.

The marriage bill is particularly criticised for its disempowerment of Buddhist women. While it purports to protect them, it stands out as a paternalistic attempt to control them. It states that a Buddhist woman must seek the permission of her parents or a legal guardian to marry a man of a different faith. The township authorities must also approve the marriage after it has been publically announced for two weeks, allowing for objections to the interfaith marriage.

Also problematic from a human rights point of view is the conversion bill, which forbids conversion to another religion for people under the age of 18. Even an adult convert must apply for permission from the authorities, who will then interview the convert several times over a few months to check if the person in question is familiar with and genuinely believes in the religion being converted to, before any conversion can take place.

The population control bill, already passed by the parliament’s upper house, will allow the implementation of strict population control measures among certain groups if they have considerably higher population growth than others. It is likely to be enforced largely among the already vulnerable Muslim Rohingya population in Rakhine State.

The monogamy bill is less controversial because the ban of formal polygamy, a practice accepted by Islamic jurisprudence, occurs widely elsewhere. But if implemented and actually applied to the entire population, the bill would potentially have a significant impact on Myanmar’s society, as it criminalises living with a person other than one’s spouse.

The current Union parliament session in Myanmar is a busy one, and it is not certain that all four bills will manage to make their way through both houses in time for the end of the session in mid-March. The bills are nonetheless causing a deepening of Myanmar’s damaging religious conflicts at a fragile time of democratic transition. At worst, they will result in more anti-Muslim violence prior to the elections.

With these bills, Buddhist nationalist movements have managed to inject religious cleavages into Union-level politics and shift the focus away from issues like employment, education, health care, land rights, democratisation, power-sharing and constitutional amendments. This will benefit the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party as well as the Tatmadaw, both of which lack credibility on these issues, while the National League of Democracy (NLD), which enjoys high credibility on the same issues, will suffer. In light of the widespread anti-Muslim sentiments among Bamar Buddhists in Myanmar, the NLD risks losing votes if its opponents are able to project the party as being ‘soft on Muslims’.

In the run up to the elections there is therefore a risk that powerful political actors will exploit this undercurrent of Buddhist nationalism and the distrust between religious and ethnic groups. At worst, they may seek to stir up violence for the purpose of winning swing votes. With this dangerous confluence of interests, the 2015 elections may well see renewed religious violence in Myanmar.

Marte Nilsen is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

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