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Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing pledges to help safeguard Buddhism

By Wa Lone
The Myanmar Times
June 25, 2016

Amid the government’s efforts to arrange peace talks, and anongoing controversy over terminology for religious minorities in Rakhine State, Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the Tatmadaw would help shoulder the burden of protecting Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist character.

In a speech to recruits at the military’s Officer Training School in Bahtoo, Shan State, on June 21, Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing noted Myanmar’s majority Buddhist demographics, pledging to safeguard that religious heritage for future generations.

The comments, reported in the military-owned Myawady newspaper, come as the government grapples with the sensitive topic of how to refer to the Muslim community that self-identifies as Rohingya, as well as prepares to undertake peace negotiations with a handful of ethnic armed groups that identify as Christian.

The senior general insisted that the military’s pro-Buddhist stance did not constitute religious extremism.

Political analysts and rights groups, however, have questioned the timing of the remarks.

U Than Soe Naing, a political analyst, speculated that the Tatmadaw leader chose his words as a calculated attempt to distinguish the powerful institution that he heads from the new civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

“I believe that the Tatmadaw putting forward this opinion will tend to lead to a bad outcome,” he told The Myanmar Times, pointing to the peace process that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is attempting to jumpstart. Herself a Buddhist, the state counsellor has emphasised inclusivity as one of her government’s peace priorities.

Some of the ethnic armed groups involved in the negotiations are majority-Christian, while the Tatmadaw leadership and rank-and-file largely reflect the country’s overall Buddhist majority, which estimates put at 85 to 90 percent.

Ethnic minorities have long accused the military of harbouring bias against them, in part the product of decades of Tatmadaw offensives and human rights abuses in areas inhabited largely by Christians.

Pado Saw Kwel Htoo Win, secretary of the Karen National Union, said the notion that Myanmar is a “Buddhist country” – advocated strongly by its first post-independence prime minister, U Nu – was one reason anti-government insurgencies proliferated over the years.

“We already have experiences of suffering long-term civil war because of a lack of equal rights between the majority and minorities,” he said.

He added that future political dialogue should focus not on enshrining Buddhism’s pre-eminence, but instead on guaranteeing equal rights for all within a federal state.

He said a discussion would need to be had about whether the commander-in-chief was speaking of a Tatmadaw policy that would be put down on paper or was merely expressing his personal opinion.

For Muslims, the statement’s implications are different but related. There are no ethnic armed groups in Myanmar that identify as Islamic, but communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists has flared in recent years, most notably in Rakhine State in 2012.

There, where more than 100,000 people self-identifying as Rohingya were displaced by the unrest, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has formed a committee tasked with improving the situation for all the state’s residents. Terminology has arisen as a flashpoint in recent weeks, however, with Buddhist nationalists insisting that Muslims in Rakhine State be called “Bengali,” while the international community advocates the right to self-identify.

The new government has sought to chart a middle course on the matter, opting to describe the group as “the Muslim community from Rakhine State”. Much of the tension in Rakhine State stems from fears among its Rakhine Buddhists that their identity is under threat from Islam.

U Thopaka, a member of the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, told The Myanmar Times that Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing had his full support, adding that such safeguarding should be the duty of “everyone”, including the government.

“You have to know how to maintain and protect your race and religion as a Buddhist,” he said.

U Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, said the Tatmadaw has a responsibility to protect every citizen, regardless of race or religion.

“I think the Tamadaw shouldn’t voice such kind of opinion, which increases hate and distrust among the people,” he said.

U Yan Myo Thein, another political analyst, said given the Tatmadaw’s critical role in the peace process, its leader should adopt a more broad-minded approach.

“The military leaders need to accept that the only way they can overcome the deadlock of the country’s peace process is to be all-inclusive,” he said.

Critics might also find irony in Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s additional pledge that the military, in addition to Buddhism, would help protect the nation’s natural resources. Many accuse previous military and quasi-civilian governments of selling off much of Myanmar’s resource endowment for personal enrichment.

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