« The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar » – M. John

3. Ethnocentric Nationalism and Religious Fundamentalism  

Ethnonationalism is not part of the original dream of the Independence architect, Aung San (1911–1947) who wanted to see Burma in the “family of nations” and saw true nationalism as an “essential complement to true internationalism”.[9] He dreamed of “a secular nationalism” which is multicultural, multi-religious and federal. The military government subverted the dream of promoting secular nationalism and Myanmar has become a failed State.

[9] Ung San Suu Kyi, Aung San of Burma (Edinburgh: Kiscadale Publications, 1991), 49.

In my view, there are two fundamental problems in present Myanmar: ethnocentric nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Both breed tribal wars and religious intolerance. The former does injustice to the multicultural diversity of the country. The latter fails to honor its religious plurality. For example, the political party, National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, does not allow Muslims to be election candidates. Moreover, ethnocentric nationalists aggressively promote the Burmanization policy. They consider Myanmar as belonging to the Bamar group alone. The 969 association, an anti-Muslim movement called Ma Ba Ta and also known as “Nationality and Religion Safeguarding Association” promotes the Bamar language, enthrones the Bamar race and Buddhist religion by suppressing other minority groups. Rooted in nationalist Buddhist ideology, it discriminates against other faiths, cultures and ethnicities. With ethnocentric fundamentalism comes religious fanaticism, ethnic violence and political marginalization.[10]

[10] I elaborated the interweaving issues of ethnocentric nationalism, religious fundame ntalism and marginalization of Christians and Rohingya Muslims in Maung John, “Reconciliation: A Way of Doing Mission in Myanmar,” Ph.D. Dissertation (Quezon City: Institute of Consecrated Life in Asia, 2016), 64-76.

In principle, fundamentalism and nationalism are ideological opposites.[11] But both ideologies go together in Myanmar. The prominent 969 Buddhist monks has close relations with the Sri Lankan nationalist monks. Sri Lanka had a long historical connection with Myanmar. Some Burmese monks are educated in Sri Lanka. The 969 movement is criticized for creating a situation like Sri Lanka where violent conflicts are taking place among Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Today, Myanmar mirrors Sri Lanka.

[11] Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 84.

Strong internal “anti-Muslim prejudice” continues to influence state policies and is generally prevalent.[12] The government builds Buddhist pagodas in the regions inhabited by Christians and Muslims. Benedict Rogers decries that Christians and Muslims have “faced persecution at the hand of a fascist military regime which identified itself with extreme Burman nationalism and a perversion of Buddhism for political ends.”[13]

[12] Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar, 156.

[13] Benedict Rogers, Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads (London: Rider Books, 2012), 129.

Recently, Muslim–Buddhist relations have been so tense that any small incident could spark religious hostility. Rumors create an “angry mob” to incite violence. “Hate speech” in social media has sparked the tense relations into outbreaks of violence across the nation. Wirathu, the leading monk of the 969 movement, said that “taking care of our religion and race is more important than democracy.”[14] The monks regard themselves as protectors of nation, Buddhism and language. The 969 thrives on Buddhist symbolism. Its name refers to the twenty attributes of the Buddha and his teachings. The movement has close links with the Bodu Bala Sena (or the Buddhist Strength Army), the Sri Lankan anti-Muslim group. 

[14] Beech, “When Buddhists Go Bad,” TIME 182, no.1 (1 July 2013), 18.

Although the 2008 Constitution guarantees the freedom of all religions, most Buddhist fundamentalists still claim Buddhism as the state religion. The mantra of hate by the militant monks fuels anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar. The former Prime Minister U Nu made bonds with the monks for his political interest. The next Prime Minister General Ne Win crushed the dissenting monks. The sangha (the Buddhist hierarchy) was largely silent under the Ne Win regime. However, the sangha politics reemerged under Senior General Than Shwe, the military dictator. For many rights activists, the members of the 969 movement are the main culprits of the Rohingya tragedy. But for Maung Zarni, a Buddhist activist, it is the military government that systematically masterminded this ethnic genocide. The nationalist monks acted as mere proxies. For him, the situation is more like Rwanda than Sri Lanka.[15]

[15] Online exchange with Maung Zarni in September 2016. Zarni is a Burmese exile, democracy advocate and human rights campaigner. He, though Buddhist, voices the oppression of Rohingya Muslims by the Buddhists in Myanmar. Cf. www.maungzarni.net/ (accessed 10 October 2016).

However one views this phenomenon, we have seen how this instrumentalist and ambivalent relationship between the religious and political elites engenders political marginalization and ethnic violence.