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Smouldering debris of burned houses is seen in Warpait village, a Muslim village in Maungdaw located in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 14 October, 2016. AFP/Ye Aung Thu
Report 283 / Asia

Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

Recent attacks by an émigré-led force of trained Rohingya fighters mark a dangerous turn. To remove a main root of the violence – Rohingya despair – the government must reverse longstanding discrimination against the Muslim minority, moderate its military tactics, and reach out to Myanmar’s Muslim allies.

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Executive Summary

The deadly attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) bases in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State on 9 October 2016 and the days following, and a serious escalation on 12 November when a senior army officer was killed, signify the emergence of a new Muslim insurgency there. The current violence is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades, seriously threatens the prospects of stability and development in the state and has serious implications for Myanmar as a whole. The government faces a huge challenge in calibrating and integrating its political, policy and security responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and intercommunal tensions are kept under control. It requires also taking due account of the grievances and fears of Rakhine Buddhists.

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Failure to get this right would carry enormous risks. While the government has a clear duty to maintain security and take action against the attackers, it needs, if its response is to be effective, to make more judicious use of force and focus on a political and policy approach that addresses the sense of hopelessness and despair underlying the anger of many Muslims in Rakhine State. Complicating this is that Aung San Suu Kyi has some influence, but under the constitution no direct control over the military.

The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. It benefits from the legitimacy provided by local and international fatwas (religious judicial opinions) in support of its cause and enjoys considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits.

The emergence of this well-organised, apparently well-funded group is a game-changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address the complex challenges in Rakhine State, which include longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population, denial of rights and lack of citizenship. The current use of disproportionate military force in response to the attacks, which fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians, together with denial of humanitarian assistance to an extremely vulnerable population and the lack of an overarching political strategy that would offer them some hope for the future, is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence and potential mass displacement.

HaY would not have been able to establish itself and make detailed preparations without the buy-in of some local leaders and communities. Yet, this has never been a radicalised population, and the majority of the community, its elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive. The fact that more people are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years rather than any sort of inevitability.

A heavy-handed security response that fails to respect fundamental principles of proportionality and distinction is not only in violation of international norms; it is also deeply counterproductive.

It is important for the government’s response to start from an appreciation of why a violent reaction from some Muslims in Rakhine State has emerged. The population has seen its rights progressively eroded, its gradual marginalisation from social and political life, and rights abuses. This has become particularly acute since the 2012 anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine. Disenfranchisement prior to the 2015 elections severed the last link with politics and means of influence. At the same time, the disruption of maritime migration routes to Malaysia closed a vital escape valve, particularly for young men whose only tangible hope for the future was dashed. An increasing sense of despair has driven more people to consider a violent response, but it is not too late for the government to reverse the trend.

It requires recognising first that these people have lived in the area for generations and will continue to do so. Ways must be found to give them a place in the nation’s life. A heavy-handed security response that fails to respect fundamental principles of proportionality and distinction is not only in violation of international norms; it is also deeply counterproductive. It will likely create further despair and animosity, increasing support for HaY and further entrenching violence. International experience strongly suggests that an aggressive military response, particularly if not embedded in a broader policy framework, will be ineffective against the armed group and has the potential to considerably aggravate matters.

So far, though there are indications of some training and solidarity, HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist or terrorist agenda. But there are risks that if the government mishandles the situation, including by continued use of disproportionate force that has driven tens of thousands from their homes or across the border to Bangladesh, it could create conditions for further radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that transnational jihadists could exploit to pursue their own agendas in the country. To avoid that requires subordinating the security response and integrating it into a well-crafted, overarching political strategy – building stronger, more positive relations between Muslim communities and the Myanmar state and closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with regional countries.

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

I. Introduction

This report examines the emergence of a new form of organised violent resistance in the Muslim-majority northern parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine State.[fn]For recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; 146, Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive, 16 September 2015; 144, Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census, 15 May 2014; 143, Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?, 22 April 2014; also Asia Reports N°s 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; 266, Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, 28 April 2015; and 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014.Hide Footnote It follows up Crisis Group’s detailed examination in 2014 of Rakhine politics, which should be referred to for a broader analysis of the dynamics in the state as a whole. It is important to know and acknowledge the perspectives of Rakhine Buddhists and their strongly-felt grievances.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote The current violence, however, is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades and has fundamental implications for the situation in the troubled state and potentially for Myanmar’s transition as a whole.

The report looks at the establishment of a new armed group, its objectives and international links; the response of the government and security forces; and the implications for the people of Rakhine State and the country. It is based on extensive research and interviews in Yangon; interviews with several members of the armed group in northern Rakhine State and villagers and key sources in the area; interviews with other sources connected to the group living outside Myanmar; interviews with members of the Rohingya diaspora, including in the Middle East; interviews with recent arrivals in Bangladesh who have fled Rakhine; and analysis of conversations on messaging applications such as WhatsApp over the last six months. Much research has been done by experienced personnel fluent in the local dialect spoken by Muslims in northern Rakhine State. In cases of particularly sensitive information and to protect the identities of interviewees and researchers, details of locations and dates have been withheld, replaced by a general description of the sourcing for a paragraph or section.

The term “Rohingya” is highly contested within Myanmar, because it is perceived as a claim of indigenous ethnic status by a community most Rakhine Buddhists, indeed most people in Myanmar, regard as immigrants from Bangladesh, and whom they therefore prefer to refer to as “Bengali”.[fn]Ibid, Section V.C, including for more detailed discussion of the term’s sensitivity.Hide Footnote The government has asked its officials and the international community to refrain from either term. “Rohingya” is used in this report not to imply endorsement of any particular historical narrative or political claim but because it is the term that community overwhelmingly refers to itself by, and because other terms such as “Muslims from Rakhine State” are less precise: several Muslim communities in the state do not identify as “Rohingya”, including (but not only) the Kaman, a recognised indigenous Muslim group. It is Muslims in the northern parts of Rakhine State that most strongly identify as “Rohingya”; those in the diaspora who so identify are overwhelmingly from this area, rather than central or southern parts of the state.[fn]For detailed discussion of Muslim communities in Rakhine State, see ibid.Hide Footnote

II. Previous Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

During the Second World War, Rakhine was the front line between the Japanese invaders and allied forces. Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists were on opposing sides; most of the former remained pro-British, while the latter supported the Japanese until a last-minute switch enabled the eventual allied reoccupation of Rakhine. Both communities formed armed units and attacked the other, with accounts of massacres on both sides in 1942-1943. Muslims fled to the north, where they were the majority, and Rakhine Buddhists moved south.[fn]Mary Callahan, Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma (Ithaca, 2003), chapter 2; Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group (Wiesbaden, 1972).Hide Footnote

A mujahidin rebellion erupted in April 1948, a few months after independence. The rebels initially explored the possibility of annexing northern Rakhine State to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), but Pakistan rejected this. They then sought the right of the population to live as full citizens in an autonomous Muslim area in the north of the state and an end to what they saw as discrimination by the Rakhine Buddhist officials who replaced the colonial administrators. The immigration authorities placed restrictions on the movement of Muslims from northern Rakhine to Sittwe, the state capital. Some 13,000 Muslims who fled during the war and were living in refugee camps in India and East Pakistan were not permitted to return; those who did were considered illegal immigrants.[fn]Yegar, op. cit. On the eve of independence some Rakhine intellectuals led by barrister Hla Tun Pru were demanding an independent “Arakanistan” for the Rakhine people. See Aye Chan, “The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan State of Burma (Myanmar)”, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, vol. 3, no. 2 (2005), p. 410.Hide Footnote

The rebels targeted Rakhine Buddhist interests as well as the government, quickly seizing control of large parts of the north and expelling many Buddhist villagers. Law and order almost completely broke down, with two communist insurgencies (Red Flag and White Flag) in addition to the mujahidin, as well as Rakhine nationalist groups, including the (Marxist) Arakan People’s Liberation Party, in the south of the state.[fn]Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 2nd ed. (London, 1999), p. 28.Hide Footnote An embattled Burmese army, facing ethnic insurgencies across the country, controlled little of Rakhine other than Sittwe. In the violence and chaos, relations between Buddhist and Muslim communities deteriorated further. Many moderate Rakhine Muslim leaders rejected the mujahidin insurgency, even vainly asking the government for arms to fight back.

It was not until 1954 that the army launched a massive offensive, Operation Monsoon, that captured most of the mujahidin mountain strongholds on the East Pakistan border. The rebellion was eventually ended through ceasefires in 1961 and defeat of remaining groups, leaving only small-scale armed resistance and banditry. Partly in response to mujahidin demands, partly for electoral reasons, in 1961 the government established a Mayu Frontier Administration in northern Rakhine, administered by army officers rather than Rakhine officials.[fn]Martin Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma”, unpublished article, 1995. Yegar, op. cit.Hide Footnote But the 1962 military coup led to a more hardline stance toward minorities, and the Mayu Frontier Administration was dissolved. This prompted attempts to re-form the mujahidin movement that failed to gain significant local support.

In 1974, inspired by the rise of pan-Islamist movements in the world, the Rohingya Patriotic Front armed group was formed from remnants of earlier failures. It split into several factions, one of the more radical of which became the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) armed group in 1982. The RSO split in 1986, giving rise to the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) splinter; in 1998, the two groups formed a loose alliance, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the RSO had small bases in remote parts of Bangladesh near the Myanmar border but was not thought to have any inside Myanmar. In its highest-profile attack, in April 1994, several dozen fighters entered Maungdaw from Bangladesh, including a group landed by boat in Myin Hlut village-tract, south Maungdaw. On 28 April, bombs they planted in Maungdaw town caused damage and several civilian injuries, and fighters followed up with attacks on the town’s outskirts. The group did not receive strong local support, and security forces, alerted by informants, quickly defeated them.[fn]Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma”, op. cit.; Crisis Group interview, researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Regional security analysts viewed the RSO as essentially defunct as an armed group by the end of the 1990s, though it kept an organisational structure in Bangladesh and did training and occasional small attacks on Myanmar security forces into the early 2000s. A Myanmar military intelligence report, cited in a U.S. diplomatic cable in 2002, made the “generally plausible” claim that 90 RSO/ARIF members attended a guerrilla war course, and thirteen also participated in explosives and heavy weapons courses in Libya and Afghanistan in August 2001. Also in the early 2000s, the RSO had an active weapons and explosives training exchange with the militant group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, regional security analysts, Dhaka, July-August 2014, November 2016. “Arakan Rohingya National Organization contacts with Al Qaeda and with Burmese insurgent groups on the Thai border”, U.S. embassy Rangoon cable, 10 October 2002, as made public by WikiLeaks. Crisis Group Asia Report N°187, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, 1 March 2010.Hide Footnote

More recently, the authorities have continued to blame the RSO for occasional attacks on security forces in northern Rakhine State, for example deadly attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) patrols in northern Maungdaw in February and May 2014, including one on 17 May that killed four officers.[fn]Internal UN security management team note, Bangladesh, June 2014. See also, “All not quiet on the Burmese front”, Probe Weekly, 6 June 2014.Hide Footnote However, there is no evidence that it retained operational capability after the early-2000s, and armed criminal gangs operate on the border, smuggling drugs and other contraband. The RSO has also become something of a Rohingya militant brand that anyone can use, regardless of connections to the original organisation.

III. Deepening Despair

The anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine State in June and October 2012, though it did not primarily affect the north of the state, seriously strained intercommunal relations.[fn]For analysis, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 238, Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon, 12 November 2012; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013.Hide Footnote It generated feelings of insecurity in Buddhist and Muslim communities but had the biggest impact on the latter. It also hardened anti-Muslim sentiment and led to increases in Buddhist nationalist hate speech. There were multiple cases of serious anti-Muslim violence across Myanmar the following year, as well as nationalist lobbying for a package of “protection of race and religion” laws widely seen as targeting Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Dark Side of Transition, op. cit.Hide Footnote

These were in addition to longstanding restrictions on access to citizenship for most Muslims in Rakhine State. This has led to serious discrimination against these communities, particularly the Rohingya. Permission to marry must be obtained from the authorities, and there are also severe restrictions on freedom of movement outside the village-tract or between townships, limiting work opportunities and access to government services.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In the lead-up to the 2015 elections, the Muslim population in Rakhine State without citizenship cards – nearly all other than some Kaman – was disenfranchised, severing its last connection to politics and peaceful influence. Even those without citizenship cards had voted in previous elections. Crisis Group warned in advance that this risked organised violence.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Compounding the sense among many Rohingya that politics had failed them was that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) did not take a strong stand on minority religious rights in general or the Rohingya’s specific plight in the campaign. After coming to power, she did make it a top government priority, chairing a committee on Rakhine State and appointing former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head an advisory commission, but some Rohingya had already concluded there was little hope the new administration would address their demands.[fn]Myanmar election: Aung San Suu Kyi campaigns in contentious Rakhine state”, The Guardian, 16 October 2015; “Burma elections: Aung San Suu Kyi steers clear of ‘stateless’ minority the Rohingya”, The Independent, 17 October 2015; “After Myanmar election, few signs of a better life for Muslims”, The New York Times, 18 November 2015; “Aung San Suu Kyi aide: Rohingya are not our priority”, The Telegraph, 19 November 2015. Crisis Group interviews, analysts specialising on Rakhine State, Yangon, November-December 2015.Hide Footnote

In May 2015, a maritime migration crisis escalated in the Andaman Sea, after a Thai crackdown disrupted people smuggling networks, causing smugglers and crew to abandon boats laden with migrants from Myanmar (mostly Rohingya) and Bangladesh; hundreds were feared to have died. This shut down smuggling routes to Malaysia. When these routes had not reopened by the start of the post-monsoon sailing season in September, it meant a critical escape valve for Rohingya had closed and caused despair among young men who saw migration as their only chance of a better future.[fn]“Mixed maritime movements, April-June 2015”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Office for South-East Asia. Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Yangon, Bangladesh, November 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Emergence of a New Organised Violent Resistance

A. The 9 October Attacks

In the early hours of 9 October, several hundred local Muslim men, armed mostly with knives and slingshots and about 30 firearms, launched simultaneous attacks on three BGP posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships near the north-western border with Bangladesh. According to the authorities, nine police were killed; and the attackers, eight of whom were killed and two captured, made off with 62 firearms and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition.[fn]Government press conference, Naypyitaw, 9 October, reported in Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM), 10 October 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote

One of the targets was BGP headquarters, a major installation in Kyee Kan Pyin (just north of Maungdaw town) that was overrun in a multi-phase attack, and from where the majority of weapons were looted. In another indication of the preparation level, the group planted an improvised explosive device (IED) and set an ambush on the approach road to the headquarters, delaying reinforcements and damaging vehicles. The two other targets were a BGP sector headquarters at Nga Khu Ya in north Maungdaw and a BGP outpost at Koe Dan Kauk in Rathedaung, just south of Maungdaw township. The government estimated the total attackers at 400.[fn]Ibid; Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the attacks, Yangon, October 2016. See also “Operation Backdoor”, Yehtun Blog, 20 October 2010.Hide Footnote Several further clashes occurred 10-12 October, including one on 11 October in which four soldiers were killed.[fn]Troops fight back violent armed attackers, kill four”, GNLM, 11 October 2016, p. 1; “Tatmadaw attacked by 300 armed men, four soldiers killed”, GNLM, 12 October 2016, p. 1; “Troops kill 10 violent armed attackers in area clearance operation in Maungdaw tsp” and “Armed men violently attack Kyikanpyin border outpost, set fire to 25 houses in Warpaik Village”, GNLM, 13 October 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote Two attacks on 3 November that state media reported as linked to the attackers are more uncertain.[fn]As reported in GNLM, 5 November 2016, p. 2, the incidents occurred in south rather than north Maungdaw where the other attacks and subsequent clashes took place. One was the burning down of a disused BGP post, the other allegedly on a BGP base. There are competing narratives about the latter incident: village sources said it was a shooting between two police officers, not an attack. Crisis Group interviews, November 2016, and information from a non-government source with contacts in the area.Hide Footnote

The attacks marked a major escalation of violence in Rakhine and reflected an unprecedented level of planning in a conflict that had seen little organised violent resistance from the Muslim population. They caused widespread fear in both communities, particularly among Buddhist Rakhine villagers, who are the minority in the northern part of the state; some 3,000 of them fled to towns.[fn]Myanmar - New displacement in Rakhine State”, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, Daily Flash, 21 October 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Response from Government and Security Forces

The military and BGP launched a major operation aimed at recovering the looted weapons, capturing those involved and arresting their helpers. Its intensity likely reflected both the exigencies of the security situation and that the initial attacks and subsequent deadly clashes were seen as a major affront to security forces’ dignity. The BGP commander, Police Brigadier-General Maung Maung Khaing, was removed for “poor performance”, probably due to both intelligence failures (see Section IV.C) and losing his headquarters and its armoury during the attacks; his replacement is a brigadier-general transferred from the regular police.[fn]Government press conference, 17 October, reported in GNLM, 18 October 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote

The Myanmar authorities have consistently referred to “joint operations”, usually indicating that the military is supporting BGP operations. This language began to be used in particular following a “special meeting on national defence and security” on 14 October that brought together the president, Aung San Suu Kyi, the commander-in-chief and others. The normal constitutional mechanism for activating military involvement in such a situation would be declaration of a state of emergency by the president, with National Defence and Security Council approval, as happened three times under the Thein Sein administration. However, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to regard the Council as politically illegitimate, and it has not met under her government, so no state of emergency can be declared.[fn]Ibid; see also “Special meeting on national defence and security”, GNLM, 15 October 2016, p. 1. Under Section 413(a) of the constitution, a state of emergency in a state/region empowers local civilian authorities and civil service bodies to obtain military help in carrying out their duties. The reason for Suu Kyi’s view is that the military has the majority of the Council’s eleven seats (five uniformed officers plus the military-nominated vice president, a retired senior officer), so can outvote civilian government representatives. She may also have protocol concerns: it is chaired by the president; her membership is as foreign minister, not state counsellor.Hide Footnote In practice, though joint BGP-army patrols take place, the army has authority over the security response, under its western commander.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the response, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The military has indicated it is conducting “area clearance operations” across a section of northern Maungdaw township, which it has sealed off. On the basis of reports from the authorities and non-government sources, it appears to be using something akin to its standard counter-insurgency “four cuts” strategy developed in the 1960s to cut off rebel forces from their four main support sources (food, funds, intelligence, recruits) and largely unchanged since. It involves cordoning off territory for concentrated operations, a “calculated policy of terror” to force populations to move, destruction of villages in sensitive areas and confiscation or destruction of food stocks that could support insurgents.[fn]For details, see Smith, Insurgency, op. cit. p. 288 ff.; Andrew Selth, Burma’s Armed Forces (Norwalk, 2001), pp. 91-91; and Maung Aung Myoe, “Military Doctrine and Strategy in Myanmar” Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, working paper 339, 1999, p. 10.Hide Footnote

 

Rakhine nationalists and Buddhist villagers in the north have long urged the government to arm the villagers … as they are greatly outnumbered by Muslims and fear for their security.

Operations in the sealed-off area bear many hallmarks of that strategy. After the 9 October attacks, there were multiple reports of suspects shot on sight, burning of many houses, looting of property and seizure or destruction of food stocks – as well as of women and girls raped.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, villagers and community leaders in the operations area, October 2016. Also, Arakan Project, internal notes nos. 1 and 2, October and November 2016.Hide Footnote Humanitarian agencies have been denied access to some 30,000 people in the sealed-off area, displaced as a result of the attacks and their aftermath, as well as 130,000 previously receiving life-saving aid, with the exception of a one-time food delivery to four villages (6,500 people) on 6 November and the following days by the World Food Programme (WFP); and a food delivery by the government on 18 November to an IDP camp that had formed spontaneously in Thu U Lar village-tract.[fn]Situation in northern Rakhine State”, WFP, Situation Report no. 3, November 2016; “Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 12 December 2016; Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, December 2016; “Food provided to residents of Maungtaw”, GNLM, 21 November 2016, p. 3. Government permission for WFP to deliver a two-week supply of rations was granted following a government-led visit to the affected area by the UN Resident Coordinator and nine ambassadors on 2-3 November.Hide Footnote

Another common element of counter-insurgency operations in other parts of Myanmar is army establishment of local militias. Rakhine nationalists and Buddhist villagers in the north have long urged the government to arm the villagers, particularly since the 2012 violence, as they are greatly outnumbered by Muslims and fear for their security. This is particularly serious in the current context, because arming Buddhist villagers could lead the Muslim armed group, which has avoided attacking Buddhist civilians, to view them as combatant targets.

That would be a major escalation. Worryingly, the security forces have been contemplating the initiative. They have recruited some 120 local non-Muslims in what was initially presented to the Rakhine community and so likely interpreted by local Muslims as raising a BGP militia. The government has clarified that it is an accelerated BGP training program with loosened admission criteria, and trainees will be deployed as regular BGP.[fn]Militia call a shot in the arm for Rakhine armies”, Myanmar Times, 12 May 2014. “Myanmar police to arm and train non-Muslims in conflict-torn Rakhine region”, Reuters, 3 November 2016. “Myanmar's training for non-Muslim police stokes fear in Rakhine”, Reuters, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote But a significant risk remains of blurring lines between civilian villagers and security personnel, even if only in perception. One Rakhine armed group, the Arakan Liberation Army, has been attempting to increase its armed strength in the area to counter a perceived Muslim threat.[fn]Authorities seize cache of weapons and ammunition in Hpa-an bust”, The Irrawaddy, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The government denies allegations of human rights violations.[fn]See, for example, “False allegations on violating human rights exposed to the world”, GNLM, 3 November 2016, p. 1; “Local residents’ accounts differ from fabricated media stories”, GNLM, 7 November 2016, p. 1; “Military’s information team refutes fabrication about massive destruction in Rakhine”, GNLM, 15 November 2016, p. 3; “Government refutes rights group report on Rakhine”, GNLM, 17 November 2o16, p. 1; “Reports of hundreds fleeing Myanmar being pushed back by Bangladesh said to be false” and “Sender of fake news in Rakhine linked to int’l extremist groups”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote Lack of media and other independent access makes verification hard, but blanket denials, even of factual claims based on satellite imagery or international media reports from the ground of flight to Bangladesh, are not plausible and undermine the credibility of its other claims.[fn]Credible evidence that has been denied includes: “Satellite-based damage assessment of affected villages in Maungdaw District”, Human Rights Watch, 10 November 2016; an updated damage assessment, 18 November 2016; and “Hundreds of Rohingya flee Myanmar army crackdown to Bangladesh – sources”, Reuters, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote Some counter-narratives clash with satellite data, for example that local Muslim villagers are torching their own homes to get international sympathy or that it is the armed group’s arson. Analysis of that data shows destruction of at least 1,500 buildings.[fn]Burma: Military burned villages in Rakhine State”, Human Rights Watch, 13 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Some villages were systematically destroyed over days, rather than isolated, geographically dispersed events as would be expected from individuals or small-group hit-and-run attacks. Moreover, much arson took place during military operations when many troops were present – not only at the time of attacks, but also over subsequent days. Troops also have security motivation (denial of access to villages in insecure areas is a standard counter-insurgency tactic, often achieved in the past in other parts of Myanmar by burning villages), while the armed group is reliant on at least some local civilian support.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Human Rights Watch staffer, November 2016. Selth, op. cit., p. 163.Hide Footnote

Journalists questioning the official narrative have been accused in the state media of working ‘hand in glove’ with the attackers.

Journalists questioning the official narrative have been accused in the state media of working “hand in glove” with the attackers. The government reportedly interceded with the Myanmar Times when one of its experienced foreign journalists reported on allegations of rapes by military personnel. She was fired shortly thereafter, and the paper’s owner put a moratorium on reporting on the Rakhine State conflict. An opinion piece in state media called the reporting “an act of gross unethical journalism” but added that “credit should be given to the media group for … immediately firing that journalist”.[fn]Fourth estate must abide by ‘code of ethics’: minister for information”, Myanmar Times, 9 November 2016. “Myanmar journalist says she was fired over story on military rape allegations”, The Guardian, 4 November 2016; “Reporter’s sacking followed MoI [Ministry of Information] phone call, sparking press freedom fears”, Frontier Myanmar, 4 November 2016. “Myanmar press under pressure as paper bans Rakhine reports”, Agence France-Presse, 8 November 2016. Khin Maung Myint, “Morality and ethics”, GNLM, 24 November 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote Such intimidation has a chilling effect on reporting by other journalists and publications. For example, a reporter from a prominent local English-language publication interviewed a member of the BGP who admitted burning down Muslim homes in the operations area but self-censored the account.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual with direct knowledge of the incident, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Potentially even more serious is that the repeated blanket government denials, widely disseminated via the state media in English and Burmese, reinforce a climate of impunity for troops that is particularly dangerous in a context of widespread negative sentiments toward the Muslim population at all levels of the military and in society as a whole. The state media has published disturbing opinion pieces, for example one that referred to the Rakhine State situation as caused by “detestable human fleas” that “we greatly loathe for their stench”.[fn]A flea cannot make a whirl of dust, but …”, GNLM, 27 November 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote

C. A Spiral of Violence

A further serious escalation on 12 November made clear that the attacks on security forces were not one-off and that the armed group was still operational despite a month of intensive military operations.

Government accounts and Crisis Group interviews with villagers, other local sources and members of the armed group paint a broadly consistent picture.[fn]A government account is given in “One officer, one soldier dead, several injured [as] fighting continuously erupts in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote At 6:45am, an army column clashed with some 60 members of the armed group in a valley near Pwint Hpyu Chaung village; one soldier died and several were wounded; six attackers were reportedly killed. There were several other skirmishes as the attackers retreated to Gwa Son village. When troops approached the village, the armed group shot at them. Several hundred villagers, armed with whatever they had to hand (knives and farming implements), supported the attackers, seemingly spontaneously. A lieutenant-colonel was shot dead, and the troops retreated, calling in air support from two attack helicopters with mounted machine guns.[fn]Government refutes rights group report on Rakhine”, GNLM, 17 November 2016, p.1.Hide Footnote The helicopters allegedly fired indiscriminately, including at villagers fleeing across paddy fields; videos taken by villagers show several bodies in fields, including women and children.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The same day, there were at least two IED attacks on government forces in the area. A BGP convoy was struck as it crossed a bridge, then came under attack by armed combatants; the authorities report the attackers were repelled and that there were no casualties. In the second incident, an army column was struck by an IED, reportedly damaging a vehicle but without casualties.[fn]Violent armed attackers ambush convoy of border guards and government staffs, explode a bridge in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 November 2016, p. 1. “Government troops attacked with improvised mines in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 14 November 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote The authorities have reported several other IED incidents and said that explosives/IEDs were also used tactically in the initial attack on the BGP headquarters.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst specialising on Rakhine State, Yangon, November 2016; also, for example, “IED discovered on village road in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 17 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote

Following the 12 November clashes, the military considerably stepped up its operations. In addition to using attack helicopters in areas with many civilian non-combatants, ground troops became much more aggressive. Troops entered Gwa Son and surrounding villages on 13 November, shooting at villagers who fled. Videos taken by villagers show several charred bodies discovered the next day in the remains of a house, in circumstances that remain unclear.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote Many villages were also partially or completely destroyed by arson.

The impact of a “four cuts” operation on civilians is far greater in Maungdaw than in the mountains of the eastern border, where it has been used in the past. Those areas are sparsely populated, communities often have decades of conflict experience, well-developed coping mechanisms and generally better food security. Even there, the toll is heavy. But Maungdaw is densely populated predominantly lowland, communities have almost no experience of armed conflict, and there is pre-existing malnutrition and food insecurity well above critical emergency thresholds.[fn]According to UN 2015 data, the global acute malnutrition rate (measured in children under five) in Maungdaw is 19 per cent, by far the worst in Myanmar and well above the World Health Organisation’s emergency critical threshold of 15 per cent. See also “Myanmar aid curbs hit children in Muslim-majority region: U.N.”, Reuters, 9 November 2016.Hide Footnote The population was already living on the edge; fear of conflict and abuses combined with a serious livelihoods shock – humanitarian support is almost completely blocked, and food imports from Bangladesh have been disrupted – have led many to flee across the border. At least 27,000 are known to have done so in recent weeks; it would not take much for this to become a mass exodus like 1978 (200,000) or 1991 (250,000).[fn]Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot”, UNOCHA, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Violence and abuses are likely to boost support for the armed group. People pushed to desperation and anger, with no hope for the future, are more likely to embrace extremist responses, however counterproductive. With an armed militant group in place and ready to capitalise, the current security response is likely to drive a dangerous spiral of attacks, military responses and increased popular radicalisation. This would also seriously impact the Rakhine and Burman Buddhist communities’ security and livelihoods in northern Rakhine State, where they have long felt themselves an embattled and fearful minority.

V. The Armed Group and its Motivations

A. The Group and its Objectives

Crisis Group has interviewed six persons linked to the armed group: four members in northern Maungdaw and two outside Myanmar. Separate discussions with them, as well as others involved in chat groups on secure messaging applications and analysis of videos released by the group have revealed a partial picture of its origins, structure and objectives.

The group refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY, “Faith Movement” in Arabic). The government calls it Aqa Mul Mujahidin, a generic Arabic phrase meaning “communities of fighters” that it gleaned from interrogations of suspects. Prior to the attacks, even members and supporters at village level were not aware of the real name and referred to it by this generic phrase (and perhaps also “RSO”, which may be why the government claimed that old group’s involvement). After the 9 October attacks, Rohingya communities in Saudi Arabia, other Middle Eastern countries and Malaysia began to ask who carried them out. According to HaY, people associated with the RSO began to falsely claim responsibility and to collect donations on this basis from the Rohingya diaspora and large private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. This, they say, was what prompted the group to reveal its name, show some of its faces on camera and prove that it was on the ground.

The first video, circulated to Rohingya networks on 11 October and leaked on YouTube the next day, has the name Harakah al-Yaqin overlaid in Arabic script. In the second, uploaded to YouTube on 14 October, the group used this name and warned donors not to trust other groups claiming to be behind the attacks, saying that “some people tried to sell our movement and our community”, a reference to the RSO. Further videos were subsequently released, showing their continued actions in north Maungdaw and stating their demands.[fn]The first video is James MMT. “Islamic terrorist asked Rohingya to join them for jihad to Myanmar Burma Rakhine Arakan”. 12 October 2016. YouTube: Harlz Erdogan. “Rohginya mujahideen call for weapons”. 14 October 2016. YouTube. There have been nine so far, the latest filmed after the 12 November escalation and uploaded to YouTube 20 November.Hide Footnote

HaY was established and is overseen by a committee of some twenty senior leaders headquartered in Mecca, with at least one member based in Medina. All are Rohingya émigrés or have Rohingya heritage. They are well connected in Bangladesh, Pakistan and possibly India. Some or all have visited Bangladesh and northern Rakhine State at different times in the last two years.

… the main fighting force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organised into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise.

The main speaker in the videos is Ata Ullah (alias Ameer Abu Amar, and, within the armed group, Abu Amar Jununi, the name mentioned in a number of the videos); the government identifies him as Hafiz Tohar, presumably another alias. His father, a Muslim from northern Rakhine State, went to Karachi, where Ata Ullah was born. The family then moved to Saudi Arabia, and he grew up in Mecca, receiving a Madrassa education. This is consistent with the fact that on the videos he shows fluent command of both the Bengali dialect spoken in northern Rakhine State and Peninsular Arabic. He disappeared from Saudi Arabia in 2012 shortly after violence erupted in Rakhine State. Though not confirmed, there are indications he went to Pakistan and possibly elsewhere, and that he received practical training in modern guerrilla warfare.[fn]In Arabic, Abu Amar Jununi means “mad father of Amar”, perhaps an indication his eldest son is named Amar. The government spells Hafiz Tohar as Havistoohar. It said he attended a six-month Taliban training course in Pakistan (government press release, Naypyitaw, 14 October 2016, reproduced in GNLM, 15 October 2016, pp. 1, 3); In Crisis Group interviews, HaY members suggested he went from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and from there to other countries (possibly including Libya) for training, but no further details or confirmation were obtained.Hide Footnote Some twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia (separate from the leadership committee), including Ata Ullah, are leading operations on the ground. Like him, they are thought to have experience from other conflicts, possibly Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some Rohingya returned from the camps (official and informal) in Bangladesh before 9 October to join the group. A registered refugee from Nayapara camp in Bangladesh stood beside Ata Ullah in the first video; he disappeared from the camp the night of a 13 May attack on its guard post in which a commander was killed and eleven weapons stolen.[fn]Attackers kill guard at Bangladesh Rohingya refugee camp”, Agence France-Presse, 13 May 2016.Hide Footnote Since 9 October, several hundred young Rohingya men from Bangladesh have joined the fight. However, the main fighting force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organised into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise. These are mostly led by young Islamic clerics (known as “Mullahs” or “Maulvis”) or scholars (“Hafiz”) from those villages.

Though it does not appear to have religious motivations, HaY has sought religious legitimacy for its attacks. At its prompting, senior Rohingya clerics and several foreign clerics have ruled that, given the persecution Muslim communities face in Rakhine State, the campaign against the security forces is legal in Islam, and anyone opposing it is in opposition to Islam. Fatwas (religious rulings) to this effect were apparently obtained shortly after 9 October in several countries with a significant Rohingya diaspora, including Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. These have significantly influenced many Muslim religious leaders in northern Rakhine State to endorse HaY despite earlier feeling violence to be  counterproductive. The group also has a senior Islamic scholar with it in Maungdaw, a Rohingya from Saudi Arabia, Mufti Ziabur Rahman, who brings religious legitimacy to operations and has authority to issue fatwas.[fn]The foreign clerics are from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other places. The mufti is the main speaker in the third video and identifies himself: “Islamic terrorist Rohingya act like villagers”. 12 October 2016. YouTube.Hide Footnote

Information from members and analysis of its methods indicate that its approach and objective are not transnational jihadist terrorism.[fn]This report uses “international jihadist” to refer to groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and their affiliates. The Arabic root of “jihad” refers to striving in God’s service. Many Muslims find its use in the political violence context imprecise and offensive, reducing a complex religious concept, which over centuries has had many, often peaceful forms, to war-making. Even when used in the organised violence context, it can refer to insurgency and guerrilla war, not only terrorism. For the vast majority of Muslims, today’s “jihadists” pervert Islam’s tenets. But it is hard to escape the term. Groups such as al-Qaeda and IS self-identify as “jihadist”; and while jihad has long been an element of virtually all schools of Islam, a nascent “jihadist” ideology has emerged that is more than a reflection of this; ideologues borrow from other traditions and at times show frustration with Salafi doctrinal rigidity that could constrain fighting tactics. Though big differences exist, “jihadist” groups share some tenets: fighting to return society to a purer Islam; violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives as they understand them; and belief in duty to use violence if Muslim rulers abandon those imperatives. This report’s use of “jihadist” is not meant to add legitimacy to this interpretation or detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations. It uses “terrorism” and “terrorist” only to describe non-state actors’ attempt to use violence or intimidation, especially of civilians, to achieve political goals by manipulating fear. See Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote It has only attacked security forces (and perceived threats in its own community), not religious targets, Buddhist villagers or civilians and family members at the BGP bases it hit on 9 October. It has called for jihad in some videos, but there are no indications this means terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the attacks, Yangon, October 2016.Hide Footnote Unlike all previous such insurgent groups (see above) and for unclear reasons, it does not include “Rohingya” in its name. Its stated aim is not to impose Sharia (Islamic law), but rather to stop persecution of Rohingya and secure their rights and greater autonomy as Myanmar citizens, notwithstanding that its approach is likely to harden attitudes in the country and seriously set back those goals. It is possible, however, that its objectives could evolve, given its appeals to religious legitimacy and links to international jihadist groups, so it is essential that government efforts do not focus only or primarily on military approaches, but also address underlying community grievances and suffering.

HaY’s modus operandi is similar to the now-defunct RSO as well as many ethnic armed groups in Myanmar – but it faces much greater hurdles than the latter given rejection of Rohingya identity by the government and most of the country. Though the government has claimed close links with RSO, it is a distinct group that is more a reaction to perceived RSO failures than an evolution of that group (see Section IV.C below) – hence Ata Ullah’s RSO criticism in the second video. As the RSO has become something of a brand associated with Rohingya militancy by both Muslims and the authorities, it is not surprising that the government has identified the attackers as linked to it.[fn]Government press release, Naypyitaw, 14 October 2016, reproduced in GNLM, 15 October 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote But institutional ties do not appear to exist, though there are some efforts to recruit around 200 Rohingya in Bangladesh trained since 2012 by an ex-RSO military commander, but never deployed due to lack of an organisational structure that HaY may potentially now offer.[fn]There is also information that some former RSO members acting on their own have been providing very basic training to Rohingya refugees interested in joining HaY. This started only after the first attacks. All indications are it is not linked institutionally to either the RSO or HaY. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh), November 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Communications and Social Media Environment

Much of HaY’s communications and planning was over encrypted messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Viber, as well as WeChat (which does not have end-to-end encryption).[fn]Crisis Group observation of Rohingya WhatsApp groups, October-November 2016. On Viber use, see “Sender of fake news in Rakhine linked to int’l extremist groups”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, pp. 1, 3. A Myanmar Muslim has been warning members of the diplomatic and aid communities about the use of WeChat to promote extremism in the country since the 9 October attacks. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Yangon, October 2016.Hide Footnote Use of these has become widespread across Myanmar over the last few years, as mobile voice and data connectivity have been rolled out along with $20 smartphones (people close to the border have had access to these opportunities for much longer, by connecting to Bangladeshi networks). Myanmar is one of the only countries where Viber is the dominant messaging app: the company claims 25 million unique users as of October 2016, out of a 51.5 million population. Such tools have significantly lowered communication and organisation barriers for communities in northern Rakhine State, something that the draconian movement restrictions in place for decades can no longer prevent.[fn]Buddhist nationalists also use messaging applications to organise and disseminate views; Viber has long been their preferred application, but recently WhatsApp has been gaining popularity. Crisis Group interview, technology industry source, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The preferred messaging app among Rohingya is WhatsApp. This is probably due to its much greater popularity internationally and the fact that Rohingya use these apps to keep in touch with family overseas and the diaspora more generally. Crisis Group identified more than 50 WhatsApp groups in use in northern Rakhine State, each with as many as 250 members, and including diaspora Rohingya around the world. These are mainly used for social interaction and information sharing, not nefarious purposes. Some individuals are members of ten to twenty WhatsApp groups and can also easily share information from group chats with their individual contacts. In the wake of the 9 October attacks, these have been used to quickly disseminate information about security threats and other urgent issues. They are likely also an important source of HaY operational intelligence.

Since the Rohingya dialect of Bengali does not have a written form, much of the communication over these applications uses audio files or voice messages.

C. Planning and Operational Strategy for the Attacks

Crisis Group interviews with HaY members and other well-informed sources in Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Middle East, cross-referenced with additional information, including Myanmar government reports based on interrogations of captured HaY and from regional diplomats and security analysts, have revealed a fairly detailed picture of the planning and operational strategy behind the attacks.

HaY’s formation and planning for operations were initiated in the wake of the 2012 violence. Active recruitment of local leaders began in 2013, then training of hundreds of villagers they recruited, mainly from Maungdaw township, since 2014, initially in Bangladesh and then more intensively in northern Rakhine State. Training was in small batches to avoid attention, a village at a time, so members would not know the identities of other trainees, and primarily in the hills of the Mayu range along the border of Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, as well as possibly in the compounds of some large houses in villages. It included weapons use, guerrilla tactics and, HaY members and trainees report, a particular focus on explosives and IEDs. It was given by Rohingya veterans and Pakistanis or Afghans with experience of recent operations in those countries and possibly elsewhere and took more than two years to complete.[fn]For a map with village tracts in Maungdaw township, see “Village Tracts of Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State”, Myanmar Information Management Unit, 22 November 2011. Some RSO veterans have explosives expertise, from training by Bangladeshi militants in the early 2000s in an exchange program. Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote

During this period, the group apparently killed several informers among the Muslim villages of north and south Maungdaw and others they feared might reveal their plans. It also paid significant hush money to potential informers. Following the training, two Saudi-based senior leaders spent a month in northern Rakhine State, around August 2016, selecting targets and determining how and when the attacks would take place.[fn]A different source claims that only one of the men was a Rohingya from Saudi Arabia, and the other was a foreigner.Hide Footnote Once they left, the intention was to obtain weapons and ammunition for the hundreds of trainees. Plans were also made to deploy at least four experienced doctors with medicines and supplies and to train locals as medics to assist them. From roughly late August, there was an increase in the killing of known informers within the Rohingya community.[fn]Crisis Group interview, human rights monitor, Bangladesh, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The claimed objective of the operation was to take complete control of Maungdaw township, cut off communications with Buthidaung to the east and establish military posts on the ridges of the Mayu range between Maungdaw and Buthidaung, creating a defendable liberated area in the same manner as the larger ethnic armed groups in Myanmar’s eastern borderlands. After this, the intent was to attack the northern part of Buthidaung – a very ambitious plan that would give complete control of the Bangladesh border – as well as parts of Rathedaung.

Now that it [HaY] has established its legitimacy and capability with attacks, it is unlikely to face funding constraints.

This plan had to be changed. In early September, after the two senior leaders left, two informers in U Shey Kya village-tract, close to Nga Khu Ya where one of the 9 October attacks occurred, revealed the identities of eight local HaY members to the BGP, which arrested them on 12 September. They were interrogated and allegedly tortured (including electric shocks and denailing). HaY arranged a bribe to the BGP of 3 million kyat (about $2,300), and five were released on 16 September. The remaining three were freed on 28 September, after a bribe of more than 40 million kyat (over $30,000).[fn]This is the highest known bribe ever paid to the BGP to release a detainee. Crisis Group interviews, local researcher, well-informed locals, Maungdaw, September-November 2016.Hide Footnote On 30 September, HaY reportedly killed the two informants, leading to BGP night raids and arrests in the area that prompted several families to flee to Bangladesh. The authorities subsequently began large payments to informers in north Maungdaw to draw up lists of villagers in their area engaged in illegal activity, some of whom fled.

Additionally, local people say, an IED that accidentally exploded in Ngar Sar Kyu village-tract around 7 October while it was being prepared drew the attention of the security forces. According to members of the group, HaY saw that the net was closing and decided that though its preparations were not yet complete, it had to make an emergency plan and launch its operation on 9 October, ahead of schedule.

Though done hastily, the attacks showed some sophistication, including diversionary tactics; blocking reinforcements with a complex attack (IEDs plus armed assault) on a convoy some distance away; and felling of trees across roads to halt military vehicles. It is unclear where the explosives came from, but a foreign expert described the IEDs as crude but not completely amateurish.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the matter, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The group was able to organise widely, pay numerous potential informers in northern Rakhine State prior to the attacks to keep them quiet and large bribes to the security forces to free detained militants. Now that it has established its legitimacy and capability with attacks, it is unlikely to face funding constraints. It seems to be receiving funds from the Rohingya diaspora and major private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the group and sources in the Rohingya diaspora, October-November 2016.Hide Footnote It may also attract the attention of international groups interested in more than funding (see Section IV.E below).

D. Level of Local Support

It would not have been possible for HaY to establish itself and make detailed preparations without the buy-in of some local, particularly religious leaders and local communities in northern Rakhine State. Yet, this has never been a radicalised population; that some now embrace violence reflects deep policy failures over many years.

The community follows a conservative Islam, but not in general a radicalised one, and even as people saw their rights, livelihoods and hopes eroded, the vast majority of religious leaders and the population as a whole continued to eschew violence, which they considered likely to prompt further discrimination and undermine the objective of achieving recognition and rights within Myanmar. But in the wake of the 2012 violence, a segment of the population began more active consideration of organised violent responses. While a minority view, it was driven by influential individuals, including some of the younger generation of religious leaders in northern Rakhine State, who began to break with the views of community elders and older clerics. It was these people and their followers who started the organisational and training activities on the ground that were well under way by mid-2014.[fn]See Crisis Group report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A.Hide Footnote

With the 9 October attacks, views began to shift. Initially, there were intense debates within the community, which played out on WhatsApp group chats. Some felt they were “dying slowly day by day”, and that after years of desperation and hopelessness, someone was standing up for them.[fn]The group chats were monitored by Crisis Group researchers since mid-2016. Crisis Group interview, villager in Maungdaw, October 2016.Hide Footnote But there was considerable criticism of the group in WhatsApp for not consulting or warning the community before the attacks and not considering the very serious consequences. It appears to have been the issuance of fatwas shortly after the attacks that was decisive in convincing many throughout Maungdaw to support HaY’s approach.

Following the success of the attacks, some youths take the view that the group has achieved what their fathers and grandfathers could not.

HaY leaders also seem to have been effective in this regard. The local commanders, about twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia including Ata Ullah, had been working on the ground with the trainees and local leaders for a long time, living with local people unlike the leaders of Rohingya armed groups in the past.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, villagers in several villages in north and south Maungdaw, recent arrivals in Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh) and observation of discussions on WhatsApp groups, October-November 2016. These are not the same twenty as the approximately twenty-member leadership committee based in Mecca, mentioned in Section IV.A above.Hide Footnote Several village leaders who have observed the activities of HaY’s leaders say they were impressed by their dedication, sincerity and strong commitment to their cause; as a result, they gained increasing trust and support from villagers. Following the success of the attacks, some youths take the view that the group has achieved what their fathers and grandfathers could not.

An important part of HaY’s success, local community members say, is that these twenty or so leaders had good, secure lives in Saudi Arabia, the dream of many Rohingya, but were seen to have sacrificed comfort and prosperity to live beside impoverished villagers, without wearing shoes or good clothes and eating the same meagre food. That persons with so many other options were willing to take such risks convinced many locals the group was sincere and committed. This overcame doubts about joining or supporting an armed insurgency. Now, after two rounds of attacks and a brutal security response, it appears that a sizeable proportion of the area’s Muslim population and the diaspora support or are sympathetic to HaY, even if the ferocity of the military’s response causes some to flee.

At the same time, HaY also relied on threats and intimidation to ensure its survival. It has killed some suspected informers and drawn up a hit list of others. In addition to the killings in the lead up to the 9 October attacks, a Muslim man who used to work as a BGP cook was abducted by fellow villagers in Laungdon village-tract and found in a paddy field on 31 October with his throat cut; on 3 November, a former U Shey Kya village administrator was similarly found dead, as was a 100-household leader in south Maungdaw on 17 November.[fn]Arakan Project, internal note no. 2, op. cit.; “54-year old man found dead in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 6 November 2016, p. 2; and “Elder village leader murdered in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote These killings were done in the same gruesome way, presumably to inspire fear, while there have been no attacks on Buddhist civilians.

E. Links with International Jihadist Groups

There is some limited information on links between HaY and international jihadist groups. It is not surprising that such links exist, given the recruitment over several decades of vulnerable and marginalised Rohingya refugees and migrants by militant groups, initially mostly in Bangladesh, for deployment there and elsewhere.[fn]For example, it is known that Muslims from Myanmar were fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, 1999-2001, Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A; that Rohingya fighters have been operating, and one was killed, in Indian Kashmir, “Killing of Burmese militant ups ante of intelligence agencies”, The Tribune, 13 November 2015; and that there is information ISIS has been recruiting among the Rohingya diaspora for Iraq and Syria, “ISIS look to recruit Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar”, Newsweek, 6 February 2015.Hide Footnote However, HaY’s public statements and modus operandi, as well as interviews with its members, all point to this being an insurgent group targeting Myanmar security forces and aiming – albeit in a way likely to be counterproductive – to obtain rights for the Rohingya in Myanmar, along the lines of previous mujahidin groups in Myanmar (see Section II above).

With that important caveat, the information on connections with international groups is as follows. First, members of HaY say Ata Ullah and the non-local fighters with him are well trained and experienced in guerrilla warfare; their tactics and operational success appear to confirm this, particularly their use of asymmetric methods and weapons such as IEDs, albeit crude ones. Such training and experience imply at least some links with international extremist groups. HaY members confirm that their leaders are well connected in Bangladesh, Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, India; the Myanmar government says its interrogations reveal that training was provided in Bangladesh and Pakistan. HaY recruits have also been instructed in Rakhine State by both Rohingya and Pakistani or Afghan trainers, according to members of the group and local people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and Myanmar government press release, 14 October 2016, op. cit. There are unconfirmed indications that the group may have a leader in Syria. Based on the profiles of other leaders and their connections, if this is true it might be a Rohingya fighter with a jihadist group rather than implying non-Rohingya leadership. Others have noted the raised index finger gesture, commonly associated with IS, displayed by Ata Ullah and some other fighters in several videos; however, this is a common gesture in South Asia and does not in itself imply any such links. See Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq Jani, “Myanmar’s Rohingya Conflict: Foreign Jihadi Brewing”, RSIS Commentary no. 259, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Secondly, the Rohingya cause has been used propagandistically by international jihadist groups for several years. Examples include threats against Myanmar by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (2012); calls by an Indonesian extremist leader for Muslims to wage jihad in Myanmar (2013); threats by the IS leader to take revenge on Myanmar and several other countries for abuses against their Muslims; promises to rescue Muslims in Myanmar and elsewhere from “injustice and oppression” in the formation announcement of “al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent”; frequent citations in speeches as recently as 2015 by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, to the “atrocities on Rohingya Muslims” and calls for revenge; offers of resources and training facilities by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in June 2015 to help Myanmar Muslims “take up the sword”; and a call in the April 2016 issue of IS’s Dabiq magazine by Bangladeshi militant Abu Ibrahim to help oppressed Muslims in Myanmar in every possible way, but stating that it was not a current operational focus.[fn]Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan threaten Myanmar over Rohingya”, Agence France-Presse, 26 July 2012; a 23 April 2013 call by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir from his prison cell in Indonesia, mentioned in Crisis Group interview, security analyst, Jakarta, July 2014; “ISIS leader calls on Muslims to ‘build Islamic state’”, BBC, 1 July 2014; “Pakistani terror group active on Myanmar-Bangladesh border”, Mizzima News, 28 July 2015; “Pakistani Taliban attempts to recruit Rohingyas to kill Myanmar's rulers”, Agence France-Presse, 9 June 2015; and Dabiq Magazine (English edition), issue 14, April 2016, p. 62.Hide Footnote

Beyond these statements of solidarity and calls for support, there has been little evidence that Myanmar is an operational priority for such groups. There appear to be some other forms of cooperation or assistance, including training (discussed above) and funding, as well, potentially, as provision of weapons and explosives, which HaY currently seeks in Bangladesh. According to security analysts, small arms and military-grade explosives are available there, and procuring them should not be too difficult if the group has connections with regional arms traffickers or Bangladeshi or regional militant entities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, HaY members, November 2016; security analysts, Yangon, Dhaka, November 2016. Illegal shipments of small arms are regularly intercepted in Bangladesh; their use in domestic crimes has increased markedly in recent years. “Use of illegal firearms on rise”, Dhaka Tribune, 13 November 2016; and “New JMB planned big attack for Dhaka”, Dhaka Tribune, 15 November 2016.Hide Footnote There are no indications of any significant presence of non-Rohingya fighters.[fn]There is unconfirmed information from a credible source that about a dozen Patani Malays went to Maungdaw before 9 October to fight with HaY, apparently in solidarity and on their own initiative. Crisis Group correspondence, analyst, December 2016.Hide Footnote

Such links appear driven by umma (Islamic community) solidarity and do not imply convergence between HaY and international jihadist groups on ideology, strategy or tactics. HaY’s objectives and tactics and its focus on security targets suggest that it is Rohingya rather than transnationally focused. It is necessary to be careful not to over-interpret the significance of the international links noted above or leave unchallenged efforts by some Myanmar officials, politicians and other leaders to portray HaY as part of the global jihadist movement. Nevertheless, the longer violence continues, the greater the risks become of such links deepening and potentially becoming operational.

Recent minor explosions in Yangon do not appear directly linked to Rakhine State. Crude homemade devices were set off on 17, 20, 24 and 26 November at two shopping centres and two immigration offices, one inside the fairly secure regional government office. There were no casualties, only minor damage. The location of the devices in bins and toilets and the timing of blasts (after work hours or on public holidays) appeared designed to avoid casualties. Police arrested several suspects said to be Muslims on 26 November, but no further details have been released.[fn]Mayangone bomb intended to scare, not hurt, say police”, Frontier Myanmar, 21 November 2016; “Myanmar police arrest Muslims over Yangon bombings”, Agence France-Presse, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote Targeting of immigration offices, which are also responsible for citizenship verification, suggests a possible link to the Rakhine situation. If so, however, it more plausibly was an unsolicited expression of solidarity or anger at the security response than a direct attack, which might be expected to have been more dramatic. However, it does perhaps indicate existence of individuals with an intent and capability to access (semi-)secure locations that potentially could be utilised by those with the technical expertise and materials for a major attack.

VI. How Should the Government Respond?

Emergence of a new Muslim armed group in Rakhine State is a serious threat to prospects for stability and development there. The government faces a big challenge in calibrating its political, policy and security responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and intercommunal tensions are not inflamed. It also requires taking due account of the grievances and fears of Rakhine Buddhists.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section IV. See also Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments in “Focus on resolving difficulties in Rakhine rather than exaggerating them, says Suu Kyi”, Channel NewsAsia, 2 December 2016. As regards the risk of intercommunal violence, monitors report a significant increase in hate speech posts after 9 October and their spread to pages and networks where that had not previously been observed. Crisis Group interview, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Failure to get this right carries enormous risks, so it is important that any response starts from an appreciation of why a violent reaction from some in the Muslim population of Rakhine State has emerged now. For many years, this population has seen its rights eroded and its progressive marginalisation from social and political life. This became particularly acute at the time of the 2012 anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine. In the wake of that violence, and seeing no likelihood of improvement, some Rohingya in northern Rakhine State and the diaspora began contemplating taking up arms and made initial preparations to launch a new insurgency (see Section IV.C above). A leader of this initiative with whom Crisis Group met in Bangladesh in 2014 described the group’s plans and made clear the objective was for the community to live as Myanmar citizens with rights respected by the state, and was not separatist, anti-Buddhist or transnational jihadist.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A. At the time, he described the group as a “new RSO”, with a generation of younger leaders based in Rakhine State. It is now clear that he was describing HaY.Hide Footnote

Three key developments in 2015 are likely to have cemented the group’s resolve to launch an insurgency and created a much more fertile recruiting ground for it: disenfranchisement of Muslim voters, lack of hope of a political solution and the shutting down of migration routes to Malaysia (see Section III above). The authorities have a responsibility to respond to the deadly attacks on BGP bases. At the same time, an effective security response must be set within an overarching policy that addresses the sense of hopelessness of Muslims in Rakhine State. This is not yet a radicalised population; community members, elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive. While increasing despair has driven more to consider violence, it is not too late for the government to reverse this if it recognises that the population has lived in the area for generations and will continue to do so and resolves to give them a place in the nation’s life.

This is not yet a radicalised population; community members, elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive.

All indications are that HaY is preparing further attacks on security forces and retains the capability to do so. Heavy-handed security measures would directly contradict the above objectives, likely creating more despair and animosity among local Muslims, increasing support for HaY and provoking a deepening cycle of violence. There is likewise a very real prospect of even larger population displacements to Bangladesh. In this respect, it is also vital to open up the conflict-affected part of north Maungdaw for aid workers and independent media.

Experience from other countries strongly suggests an aggressive military response not embedded in a broader policy framework would also be ineffective against the armed group and risk greater attention from international jihadist groups.[fn]For experiences elsewhere, see, for example, Crisis Group Europe & Central Asia Briefing N°77, A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks, 17 December 2015; Middle East & North Africa Report N°86, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, 27 May 2009; and Special Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., Section V.A.Hide Footnote The presence of a well-organised, effective, internationally connected insurgency in Rakhine State could then provide channels that did not previously exist for terrorism. This does not appear to be the HaY’s objective, but the situation could give international jihadists opportunities to insert their own agendas, for example by recruiting Rohingya (particularly in Bangladesh) to carry out such actions on Myanmar soil, or attracting foreign fighters, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent who could blend in easily, to do so.

It is also possible that the spotlight on the Rohingya’s plight might prompt foreign groups unconnected with HaY to conduct a terrorist attack; there has been a foiled attempt to bomb Myanmar’s Jakarta embassy, and the individual who carried out the recent attack at Ohio State University in the U.S. claimed to have been inspired at least in part by oppression of the Rohingya.[fn]See “Indonesia foil plan to attack embassy”, Agence France-Presse, 27 November 2016; “‘I can’t take it anymore’: Ohio State attacker said abuses of Burma’s Muslims led to ‘boiling point’”, The Washington Post, 29 November 2016.Hide Footnote To mitigate these risks requires political, not military responses: building stronger, more positive ties between Muslim communities and the Myanmar state and improving cooperation and intelligence sharing with regional countries.

Such cooperation is essential to ensure security and effectively address potential transnational jihadist threats. On the western border in particular, arms, narcotics and human smuggling networks are intertwined and could be used by insurgent and jihadist groups to transport weapons, materiel and personnel. The current security operation has strained relations with countries that have large Muslim populations and with which there are practical needs for close ties. There have been big protest demonstrations in Bangladesh (including by Islamist parties) as well as in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand and Indonesia. Deep concerns have been expressed by the Bangladeshi and Malaysian governments. Western countries are also alarmed at the Rakhine State situation and the lacklustre government response.[fn]Malaysia to summon Burmese ambassador as protests mount over treatment of Rohingya”, Reuters, 25 November 2016; “Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis stirs regional protests”, Nikkei Asian Review, 26 November 2016; “Malaysia says Myanmar violence against Muslim Rohingya ‘ethnic cleansing’”, Reuters, 2 December 2016; “Myanmar’s Rohingya issue a ‘humanitarian crisis’: Malaysia”, Channel NewsAsia, 3 December 2016; “Malaysian PM urges intervention to stop ‘genocide’ of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims” Reuters, 4 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Yangon, December 2016. “Regional criticism of Myanmar's Rohingya policy risks ASEAN split”, Nikkei Asian Review, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Political space has considerably narrowed for policy responses to the underlying issues of discrimination, citizenship and freedom of movement of Muslims in Rakhine State.

In the Malaysian case, this became a public spat after Prime Minister Najib Razak indicated he would join a major protest in Kuala Lumpur. Myanmar accused him of violating ASEAN non-interference principles and using the issue for domestic politics; Malaysia retorted that Myanmar was pursuing “ethnic cleansing” and destabilising South East Asia. At the 4 December demonstration, Najib called for international intervention to stop “genocide”, directly criticised Suu Kyi and said “enough is enough”.

While this was seen in many quarters as having a primarily domestic political objective for Najib, the anger against Myanmar in much of the Muslim world is real. ASEAN, in particular Indonesia, has a potentially important role in helping to de-escalate the situation. This would be of great benefit to Myanmar; it would also be in the interests of ASEAN, which has long carried the burden of large numbers of Rohingya refugees and migrants, a flow that will increase if the violence continues and lead to radicalisation risks for the region. There is also fear that the issue could be destabilising for ASEAN as a whole.[fn]Surin Pitsuwan, “Asia’s moral duty to the Rohingya”, The Wall Street Journal, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote In response to regional concerns, Myanmar has called a special retreat for ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon on 19 December, so Aung San Suu Kyi can brief them on the situation.[fn]Kavi Chongkittavorn, “Myanmar to brief ASEAN amid alarm over Rakhine”, Nikkei Asian Review, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote Myanmar should use this opportunity to set out a credible political strategy for addressing the violence.

Suu Kyi’s flagship initiative for addressing the situation, the Kofi Annan-led advisory commission established in August, faces major further challenges after the 9 October attacks.[fn]Press release, Office of the State Counsellor, reproduced in GNLM, 24 August 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote Political space has considerably narrowed for policy responses to the underlying issues of discrimination, citizenship and freedom of movement of Muslims in Rakhine State. The commission lacks the composition, expert staff and mandate to address the current crisis. On 1 December, the government announced another (national) commission to investigate the attacks and security forces’ response and consider measures to prevent new incidents. It is chaired by the military’s pick for vice president, Myint Swe, a retired army lieutenant-general and former military intelligence chief, widely regarded as a hardliner. That its membership is mainly serving or retired government officials suggests it is unlikely to challenge or contradict government and military narratives.[fn]Formation of Investigation Commission”, President’s Office, notification 89/2016, 1 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and observers, Yangon, December 2016.Hide Footnote How it will work or liaise with the Annan commission is unclear.

VII. Conclusion

The violent attacks on BGP bases on 9 October 2016, and further clashes in the next days and on 12 November, when a senior army officer was killed, represent the emergence of a new Muslim insurgency in northern Rakhine State. The HaY group is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and commanded on the ground by other Rohingya, who have international training and experience in modern guerrilla tactics, the legitimacy of supportive local and international fatwas and considerable sympathy and backing from the local Muslim population, including several hundred locally trained recruits.

The emergence of this organised, well-funded group is a game changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address Rakhine State’s complex challenges, including longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population, with denial of rights and citizenship status. The government’s response to the attacks – injudicious use of military force that fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians, denial of humanitarian aid to an extremely vulnerable population and lack of an overarching political strategy that offers it some hope – is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence.

Though there are indications of some training and support links, HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist or terrorist agenda. If the government mishandles the situation, however, including by continued use of disproportionate military force that has driven thousands across the border to Bangladesh, it could create conditions for radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that jihadist groups might exploit for their own agendas. To avoid that risk requires a moderated military response, well-crafted political strategy and closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with Myanmar’s neighbours and the ASEAN bloc.

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Crisis Group. Based on UN map 4168, rev. 3, June 2012.
Buddhist nuns look at the posters showing images of violence attributed to Muslims around the world, during a celebration of the MaBaTha organisation (Committee to Protect Race and Religion) at a monastery in Yangon, Myanmar, on 14 September 2015. Ye Aung Thu/AFP
Report 290 / Asia

Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar

Extreme Buddhist nationalist positions including hate speech and violence are on the rise in Myanmar. Rather than ineffective bans on broad-based groups like the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha), the government should address underlying causes and reframe the debate on Buddhism’s place in society and politics.

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Executive Summary

The August 2017 attacks by al-Yaqin or Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which the Myanmar government has designated a terrorist organisation, have pushed Rakhine state into renewed crisis. They also are being used by radical Buddhist nationalists in the rest of the country to promote their agenda. While dynamics at play in Rakhine are mostly driven by local fears and grievances, the current crisis has led to a broader spike in anti-Muslim sentiment, raising anew the spectre of communal violence across the country that could imperil the country’s transition.

Since the start of the political liberalisation in 2011, Myanmar has been troubled by an upsurge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and deadly communal violence, not only in Rakhine state but across the country. The most prominent nationalist organisation is the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (commonly referred to by its Burmese-language acronym, MaBaTha), made up of monks, nuns and laypeople. The government has focused considerable effort on curtailing this group and pushing the top Buddhist authority in Myanmar to ban it. Yet these efforts have been largely ineffective at weakening the appeal of nationalist narratives and organisations, and have probably even enhanced them. However uncomfortable it may be, a more nuanced understanding of the sources of social support for MaBaTha, as opposed to simplistic one-dimensional portrayals, is vital if the government and Myanmar’s international partners are to find effective ways to address the challenges posed by radical nationalism and reduce risks of violence.

The nature of MaBaTha and the extent of its popularity are widely misunderstood, including by the government.

The nature of MaBaTha and the extent of its popularity are widely misunderstood, including by the government. Far from being an organisation narrowly focused on political or anti-Muslim goals, it sees itself – and is viewed by many of its supporters – as a broad-based social and religious movement dedicated above all else to the protection and promotion of Buddhism at a time of unparalleled change and uncertainty in a country and society where historically Buddhism and the state have been inseparable.

While State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party command enormous respect and support in the political realm, there is a widespread nationalist perception that they have a generally Western liberal outlook that privileges minority rights and diversity (including religious diversity) over protection of the Buddhist faith – notwithstanding the fact that many minorities feel that the government is not taking account of their concerns. Efforts by the government to crack down on MaBaTha have only amplified the perception that they are weak protectors of the faith. If the government makes good on its threat to declare MaBaTha an unlawful association, there will be severe, likely violent, reverberations across the country.

MaBaTha is led by widely-revered and charismatic monks who have far greater legitimacy on religious issues in the eyes of many Myanmar Buddhists than the government or state religious authorities. MaBaTha also appeals to a broad range of people, including those who oppose its forays into party politics or hate speech, through its engagement in a wide range of “good causes” at the community level – from Buddhist Sunday schools, social service and secular education provision to legal aid and disaster relief. Nowhere is this clearer than in the strong support for MaBaTha among nuns and numerous laywomen’s organisations – despite MaBaTha’s support for what many see as misogynistic objectives such as laws that restrict women’s right to marry whom they choose. For many – male and female – MaBaTha provides not only a powerful, well-funded channel for participation in community-support activities, but also a sense of belonging and direction in a context of rapid societal change and few jobs or other opportunities for youth.

In light of the realities of simmering intercommunal tensions and outbreaks of violence linked to hate speech and nationalist provocations, the stakes for the country are extremely high. Some prominent monks and laypeople within MaBaTha espouse extreme bigoted and anti-Muslim views, and incite or condone violence in the name of protecting race and religion. In a context of tense intercommunal relations, there is a real risk that these actions could contribute to major communal violence. The biggest threat may not be MaBaTha itself, but the dynamics it has created and individuals it has empowered that may be beyond its control.

While the government must continue to take robust action against hate speech, incitement and violence, it is unlikely that confrontation and legal action will be effective in dealing with the broader phenomenon of Buddhist nationalism and groups such as MaBaTha. Indeed, these arguably may play to their advantage, given the wide resonance of MaBaTha narratives combined with the popularity of the community services provided under its banner.

In Myanmar’s new, more democratic era, the debate over the proper place of Buddhism, and the role of political leadership in protecting it, is being recast.

In Myanmar’s new, more democratic era, the debate over the proper place of Buddhism, and the role of political leadership in protecting it, is being recast. Given the deep, mutually legitimising historical relationship between the state and the clergy, this debate, which is unlikely to end soon, cannot be seen only in terms of politics and nationalism, divorced from moral and spiritual issues. The government should take control of the narrative by reframing, on its terms, the place of Buddhism in a more democratic context and setting out its own positive vision.

In parallel, it should address the underlying grievances that lead people to support exclusionary nationalist narratives, which are partly economic. A much more visible focus on the economy would give people confidence that the government is prioritising better opportunities and jobs and a more prosperous future for ordinary people. The more that people can feel they have a role to play in this, and the more channels they have to do so outside nationalist networks, the greater their sense of control over their destiny. International development actors must also recognise the diverse social role of monasteries and nunneries, including those aligned with or sympathetic to MaBaTha, and find ways to positively influence their activities and promote credible alternative channels to problematic nationalist networks.

Yangon/Brussels, 5 September 2017

I. Introduction

Rising Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar since the start of the political transition in 2011 has prompted domestic and international concern.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013. For other recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 149, Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, 19 October 2016; 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; 146, Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive, 16 September 2015; 144, Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census, 15 May 2014; 143, Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?, 22 April 2014; also Asia Reports N°s 287, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, 29 June 2017; 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; 266, Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, 28 April 2015; and 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014.Hide Footnote The largest Buddhist nationalist organisation, the Association for Protection of Race and Religion (known by its Burmese-language acronym, MaBaTha) enjoys widespread grassroots support despite government-led attempts to undermine its religious authority. Forays into party politics are controversial – even within MaBaTha – but its view that Buddhism is under threat is widely shared among Myanmar Buddhists. Many members and supporters also see the organisation as primarily focused on protection and promotion of Buddhism and provision of social services, complicating government efforts to ban or weaken MaBaTha.

This report provides a detailed and nuanced understanding of the activities of MaBaTha and other nationalist groups as well as of the motivations and views of its members and supporters. Such understanding is indispensable in formulating effective policy responses.

The report is based on six months of detailed research and interviews in 2017, including: interviews with high ranking members of MaBaTha and other nationalist groups; Buddhist monks and nuns who support MaBaTha; women’s groups that support MaBaTha; high ranking members of the National League for Democracy party; and civil society and human rights activists. The research also draws on Crisis Group observations of MaBaTha events and outreach activities, including rallies, dispute resolution activities, civic education, and gathering of signatures for petitions. Relevant academic and policy research has been reviewed, particularly where it draws on in-country interviews. Most of the primary interviews were conducted in the Burmese language; many of these were of female religious nationalists interviewed by female researchers. Interviews were carried out in both upper and lower parts of central Myanmar, as well as in Kayin state.

The focus on female religious nationalists was deliberate, intended to shed light on an aspect of nationalism in Myanmar that is rarely studied or discussed, and because understanding the motivations and views of female nationalists challenges assumptions commonly-held domestically and internationally about Buddhist nationalism in the country.

The report describes the rationales members have for their participation in MaBaTha and its activities. Whether or not these are cogent or fact-based, they are genuinely felt and therefore important to understand to design effective policy responses. The report does not provide a definitive account of MaBaTha membership, structure or activities, given the fluid nature of the organisation and ongoing changes in response to recent government and religious pressure. It also does not analyse the August 2017 attacks in Rakhine state by the militant group known as al-Yaqin or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the military’s response, which continued at the time of publication. This serious episode and its implications will be explored in a report to be published in the fall of 2017.

II. Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar and the Region

A. Historical Roots in Myanmar

1. Kingdom and monarchy

Rising religious nationalism is a global phenomenon, not unique to Myanmar.[fn]“Religious nationalism” is used in this report to refer to movements that combine religious and nationalist political objectives. “Buddhist nationalism” in this report refers to Buddhist-led movements of this kind in parts of the Theravada Buddhist world, particularly Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand – which are sometimes violent and often explicitly anti-Muslim.Hide Footnote Although it often surprises and disheartens educated elites and local political activists, it can be seen in many democratic and democratising countries, including Myanmar’s neighbouring Buddhist countries. For instance, Thailand’s military junta has positioned itself as the defender of the faith to enhance its authority, and some of Sri Lanka’s major parties have co-opted religious nationalism to bolster their perceived legitimacy among the Sinhalese majority.[fn]See “Repression is feeding the Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand”, The Economist, 10 August 2017; and Crisis Group Asia Report N°141, Sri Lanka: Sinhala Nationalism and the Elusive Southern Consensus, 7 November 2007.Hide Footnote

The expression of religious nationalist views in Myanmar today is informed by the country’s historical legacy, particularly colonisation, regional demographic shifts and contemporary global politics. To many of the Burmese Buddhist majority, these factors suggest that the country’s religious and cultural well-being is at risk and that the current government is either unable or unwilling to address the sources of threat.[fn]Matthew Walton, Melyn McKay and Khin Mar Mar Kyi, “Women and Myanmar’s ‘Religious Protection Laws’”, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, vol. 13, no. 4 (2015), pp. 36-49.Hide Footnote There is also a strong millenarian current in Theravada Buddhism that the religion will inevitably decline and disappear, combined with a traditional worldview that sees the health of the religion and the strength of the polity as interdependent.[fn]Matthew Walton and Susan Hayward, “Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar”, Policy Studies, 71 (Honolulu, 2014).Hide Footnote This creates an imperative for members of the monastic community to lead pious and patriotic laymen and women in a campaign of “virtuous defence”.[fn]Mikael Gravers, “Anti-Muslim Buddhist Nationalism in Burma and Sri Lanka”, Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 16, no. 1 (2015), pp. 1-27.Hide Footnote

The relationship between the Sangha (the community of Buddhist monks) and state is one that many in Myanmar believe should be symbiotic.

The relationship between the Sangha (the community of Buddhist monks) and state is one that many in Myanmar believe should be symbiotic. This does not mean that the state and the Sangha are expected to be allied. Rather, the secular authority may move to purge the Sangha if they become corrupted in some way, and the Sangha might similarly intervene in secular affairs if the government becomes ineffective, weak or abusive. This constant, delicate negotiation, and the deeply-rooted historical role of Buddhism in legitimising rulers and as a key pillar of the Myanmar state significantly complicate any attempts by the current government to challenge Buddhist nationalist organisations widely seen as protecting and promoting the faith. Attempts to undermine groups like MaBaTha on the basis that monks should not act politically largely miss the point. Most Myanmar Buddhists would prefer that monks not engage in secular, political affairs, but many see their doing so as a reflection of the government’s failings – not necessarily the Sangha’s.

2. British colonial period and independence

The British conquest was a political and moral shock to Burmese society. The colonial state withdrew traditional state support for monasteries and disrupted village economies, another source of regular, sizeable donations, compounding the monasteries’ unprecedented struggles to finance their daily activities. Monastic communities were acutely affected by the period of instability and uncertainty between the British capture of lower Burma in 1852 and upper Burma in 1885, with the subsequent fall of the monarchy in Mandalay, ending a lineage of royal Buddhist patronage dating back more than a thousand years.[fn]Alicia Turner, Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma (Honolulu, 2014).Hide Footnote

The British move to divorce state administration from religion was seen by many Burmese Buddhists as a further sign that the teachings of the Buddha were in decline. This spurred laymen and women into action, with particular efforts to reinforce shared religious and cultural values of good manners and proper conduct. While there was some focus on the ways in which European customs actively insulted Buddhism (wearing shoes at pagodas quickly became a sensitive issue), far greater anxiety was expressed over the loss of religious and cultural education and discipline in Burmese Buddhist society: “[Boys] abandoned studying in the monasteries to attend government schools in hopes of a lucrative career as a clerk. The monks no longer held the same respect”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Most colonial government positions were filled by imported Indian bureaucrats – Hindus and Muslims – rather than local elites. Indian businessmen also came to dominate some sectors of the economy, and the Chettiar moneylenders (who were Hindu) were particularly despised for taking over vast tracts of land – including some 25 per cent of agricultural land in lower Burma – when farmers were unable to service their debts during the Great Depression.[fn]Donald Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma (Princeton, 1965).Hide Footnote The resulting economic and power disparities and demographic shifts created enormous tensions between Burmese and Indians that came to a head in 1930 and again in 1938.

The 1938 violence had a particular religious dimension. One of the triggers was a book published by an Indian Muslim author, reprinted with an attachment containing “highly disparaging references to Buddhism”. It is unclear whether religious or political provocateurs added this attachment, but it further inflamed communal and religious tensions. Demonstrators including monks demanded that the author be punished; if not, they threatened to treat Muslims as “enemy number one” and take action to “bring about the extermination of Muslims and the extinction of their religion and language”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Shortly after, The Sun newspaper published an inflammatory letter by a Buddhist monk recounting the sufferings of Burmese women married to Muslims, and noting that under customary law their children lost not only their religion but also their ethnic identity.[fn]Khin Yi, The Dobama Movement in Burma, 1930-38 (Ithaca, 1988).Hide Footnote Rumours spread that Muslims were preparing to destroy the revered Sule and Shwedagon pagodas, prompting 1,500 monks from the All Burma Council of Young Monks to attack Muslims and loot and burn their shops in the markets. Some monasteries became armed sanctuaries and storage space for loot, contrary to monastic rules. More than 4,000 people were arrested, including monks accused of violence, arson and murder.[fn]Mikael Gravers, “Anti-Muslim Buddhist Nationalism in Burma and Sri Lanka”, Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 16, no. 1 (2015), pp. 1-27.Hide Footnote

Anti-colonial movements often focused on religious and civic education rather than outright political mobilisation. The emergence of “Dhamma Schools” (Buddhist Sunday schools), currently a major focus of MaBaTha, can be traced to this period as part of an effort to stem both the loss of Buddhist culture and growing religious antipathy among youth.[fn]Matthew Walton, “What are Myanmar’s Buddhist Sunday schools teaching?”, East Asia Forum, 16 December 2014; and Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw (Chicago, 2013).Hide Footnote The Buddhist Young Men’s Association became a focus for efforts to preserve Buddhist Burmese culture under British rule and eventually factionalised over a disagreement about whether or not to participate in politics more explicitly.[fn]David I. Steinberg, “A Void in Myanmar: Civil Society in Burma”, paper presented at “Strengthening Civil Society in Burma” conference (Transnational Institute and Burma Centrum Nederland, Amsterdam, 4-5 December 1997).Hide Footnote Even today, secular schools teach “civic education” based heavily on Buddhist precepts and values, rather than governance and rule of law.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Phaung Daw Oo, monastic school senior staff, Mandalay, June 2017.Hide Footnote When a local NGO recently published a series of civic education textbooks that promoted religious literacy and included information on the basic tenets of four major faiths (including Buddhism), it prompted a nationalist outcry with claims it was an attempt at “Islamisation” and “religious colonialism in the name of education” followed by demands that children should be taught only about Buddhism.[fn]“Nationalists oppose NGO’s curriculum for including religious education”, The Irrawaddy, 7 March 2017.Hide Footnote

3. Patriotism and religion

At the end of the First World War, anti-colonial leaders established Wunthanu (patriotic) organisations throughout the country to mobilise the largely uneducated rural population in support of the nationalist movement. The emphasis on restoring traditional Buddhist values struck a chord with many village women who had lost their occupations and legal rights under colonial rule.[fn]This was due to the disruption of village economies as well as legal changes – for example, they lost the right to hold public office and some inheritance rights. Mya Sein, “Towards Independence in Burma: The Role of Women”, Asian Affairs vol. 3, no. 3 (1972), p. 294.Hide Footnote

In November 1919, an elite women’s patriotic organisation, Wunthanu Konmari, was established with around 300 members, led by the wives and female relatives of prominent male nationalists as well as women entrepreneurs. Colonial authorities were concerned about women’s involvement in the Wunthanu movement, fearing that it would further boost nationalist sentiment. In 1923, the governor of Burma reportedly stated that “the influence of women on politics in many countries has made for nationalism, and so far as I can gather it is making for it in Burma”.[fn]Ibid, p. 295.Hide Footnote Since education was a prerequisite for women’s enfranchisement, nationalist leaders became some of the strongest advocates for female education.[fn]Jessica Harriden, The Authority of Influence: Women and Power in Burmese History (Copenhagen, 2012).Hide Footnote

The way that colonial Burma was governed further solidified the role of Buddhism in the national identity. In particular, the British decision to implement indirect rule in ethnic minority border areas – leaving them under their own local chieftains – meant that minority communities were administratively separated from the central Burman state.[fn]J. S. Furnivall, Governance in Modern Burma (New York, 1958).Hide Footnote The Burmese saw this as a way both to undermine the central state and promote the formation of separate ethnic identities, including non-Buddhist ones. The independence movement thus worked to unite the country under a shared (and Burmanised) culture that was heavily influenced by Buddhist values, though it favoured more revolutionary language.[fn]Matthew Walton, “The ‘Wages of Burman-Ness’: Ethnicity and Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar”, Journal of Contemporary Myanmar, vol. 43, no. 1 (2013), pp. 1-27.Hide Footnote

Resistance to the imposition of a Burman-Buddhist identity on a diverse country has been one of the drivers of the seven-decade civil war.

Resistance to the imposition of a Burman-Buddhist identity on a diverse country has been one of the drivers of the seven-decade civil war. Prime Minister Nu’s abortive attempts in the early 1960s to designate Buddhism as the state religion were divisive, and a factor behind the Kachin rebellion. They also drew criticism from Muslim and Christian religious leaders.[fn]The State Religion Promotion Act of August 1961, personally championed by Nu, never came into force and was repealed by General Ne Win following his 1962 coup d’état.Hide Footnote The 2008 constitution treads a careful line, recognising the “special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens” (section 361) while also acknowledging that “Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism” have adherents in the country (section 362). There is a Ministry of Religious Affairs, established in 1948, which mainly deals with Buddhist affairs.

B. Contemporary Drivers

1. Emergence of nationalism and violence

Since the start of the political transition in 2011, Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar has become significantly more visible. As authoritarian controls were lifted after years of repression, deep-seated grievances emerged into the open, and new freedoms of expression allowed individuals and the media to give voice to these grievances in ways that were not possible before. Newly available telecommunications combined with access to social media accelerated the spread of nationalist narratives, rumours (often of sexual violence perpetrated by Muslims against Buddhist women) and hate speech. A wave of anti-Muslim violence swept across the country starting in June 2012.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, The Dark Side of Transition, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The question of what sustains these dynamics, and the particular focus on Islam, is more complex. Several factors contribute to a pervasive sense of existential angst shared by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, including demographic fears, economic and cultural anxieties, and current regional dynamics.

2. Perceived demographic and religious threats

Rakhine has long been the interface between Buddhist and Muslim Asia. There is a strong belief in Rakhine state and across Myanmar that if Buddhists in Rakhine had not protected the “Western Gate” of the country and held fast against demographic pressure from Muslim Bengal, then Myanmar and the rest of Buddhist South East Asia would have become Muslim long ago. Whether or not this claim is plausible, it is taken as true by many in Myanmar, driving fears of illegal immigration and demands that the Muslim Rohingya[fn]The term “Rohingya” is highly contested within Myanmar, because it is perceived as a claim of indigenous ethnic status by a community that most Rakhine Buddhists, indeed most people in Myanmar, regard as more recent interlopers. It is used in this report not to imply endorsement of any particular historical narrative or political claim but because it is the term that community overwhelmingly refers to itself by, and because other terms such as “Muslims from Rakhine state” are less precise (several Muslim communities in the state do not identify as “Rohingya”).Hide Footnote minority in Rakhine continue to be denied recognition and rights. This has been extended more broadly to include all Muslims in Myanmar, who are increasingly seen as interlopers – even those from recognised ethnic groups such as the Kaman.[fn]Myanmar law recognises 135 indigenous ethnic groups, a flawed and controversial list drawn up in the 1980s under military rule, and seen as divisive by many ethnic people. See Crisis Group Report, Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census, op. cit.Hide Footnote Thus, for example, none of the major parties fielded a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 elections, and most Muslim voters were disenfranchised.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, op. cit., p. 2.Hide Footnote

But nationalist narratives are not focused only on Rakhine. Many religious nationalists cite a mix of hyper-local incidents, such as conflicts over land, animal slaughter, or domestic abuse in addition to incidents such as the brutal rape and murder of a Muslim woman by Muslim men in Rakhine state in 2012, to justify their positions.[fn]Crisis Group focus group discussion, female MaBaTha supporters, Kayin state, June 2017; and Crisis Group interviews, council member of women’s MaBaTha (Upper Division), February-June 2017. See also Matt Schissler, Matthew Walton and Phyu Phyu Thi, “Reconciling Contradictions: Buddhist-Muslim Violence, Narrative Making, and Memory in Myanmar”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 47, no. 3 (2017), pp. 376-395. The murder of the woman (Thida Htwe) sparked the violence in Rakhine state in 2012 and has become a nationalist cause célèbre (see Crisis Group, “Myanmar Conflict Alert: Preventing communal bloodshed and building better relations”, 12 June 2012).Hide Footnote Beyond demographic fears over the “Western Gate”, other oft-repeated narratives claim that Muslims across Myanmar are hoarding capital, buying up real-estate in town centres, using their wealth to woo and marry Buddhist women, then forcing their wives and children to convert to Islam through physical or economic pressure. Muslims often are described as a “cancer within”, and many Burman Buddhists with religious nationalist leanings agree that “a race does not face extinction by being swallowed into the earth, but from being swallowed up by another race”, an old Myanmar saying which is also the motto of the immigration ministry.[fn]See, for example, the dated immigration ministry website.Hide Footnote Other nationalists feel that unlike other faiths, Muslims are unwilling to reciprocate the religious freedoms they demand, and therefore are a threat to Buddhism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, vice principal of a nunnery, Sagaing Region, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote These fears are strongly felt, notwithstanding that Muslims are in a small minority in Myanmar as a whole, comprising perhaps 4 per cent of the population, while Buddhists are 88 per cent and Christians 6 per cent.[fn]The 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census, Union Report: Religion, Census Report Volume 2-C, Department of Population, July 2016, section 5. The reliability of the Muslim figures has been questioned by some analysts and Muslim leaders.Hide Footnote

The debate over whether the current Myanmar government is able to provide for the spiritual needs of the Buddhist polity primarily hinges on whether the government is seen as willing to institutionalise the “protection” of Buddhism and on its perceived weakness (or even complicity) in the face of an “Islamic threat”.[fn]Gravers, op. cit.Hide Footnote Moves to address human rights issues are seen by many religious nationalists as tantamount to enabling Islamic encroachment.[fn]See Walton and Hayward, op. cit.Hide Footnote This means that international and domestic views around the status and treatment of Muslims (and the Rohingya in particular) are in many ways irreconcilable. Government policy statements that attempt to calm nationalist agitation by emphasising the importance of democratic pluralism are read by many Burman Buddhists as ceding cultural and political power to a belligerent religious minority that would not hesitate to enshrine its own religious views into law if given the opportunity.

3. Economic and cultural anxieties

The economic networks that developed as a result of colonial-era immigration from South Asia have persisted in the form of a business class of traders with strong cross-border ties. There is a common perception that these communities only do business with each other, sharing access to markets and capital only within their own faith communities; the 969 boycott movement against Muslim businesses (see section III.A) was a direct response to this. Buddhist nationalists express similar concerns regarding the Chinese business community, particularly in Mandalay and Taunggyi.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, women’s MaBaTha council member (Upper Division), February-June 2017.Hide Footnote

The combination of nationalist concerns over Buddhist religious and cultural education, economic protectionism and inter-religious marriage means that groups like MaBaTha focus not only on perceived slights to their religion and religious community, but also on behaviours Buddhists see as incompatible with a safe, peaceful society. This helps explain their widespread support for the package of “protection of race and religion laws” adopted in 2015 (see section III.B below). Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar is not just about promoting the faith, but also protecting the culture. This makes it impossible to draw a clear distinction between political and non-political nationalist activism.

4. Regional dynamics

In part, nationalist views reflect a growing awareness in Myanmar of regional and global dynamics.[fn]Moshe Yegar, Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar (Oxford, 2002).Hide Footnote For example, the notion that some Buddhist monks in southern Thailand must engage in armed struggle against Muslim militants is highly resonant, and something that people living in Myanmar’s south-eastern borderlands in particular are aware of through trade and migration.[fn]Michael Jerryson, Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand (Oxford, 2011).Hide Footnote Female religious nationalists in Kayin state were resolute in their belief that it was the lay community’s role to ensure that monks were protected from ever having to take on such a role – and that use of force was undesirable, but not inherently problematic to the faith, in cases of self-defence.[fn]Crisis Group focus group discussion, female MaBaTha supporters, Kayin state, June 2017.Hide Footnote

Religious exchanges with Sri Lanka – and with the Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena in particular – also have reinforced nationalist narratives and fears of a global Islamist terrorist threat, as well as acceptance of the concept of defensive violence. There are echoes of Sinhalese characterisations of the “Tamil threat” in Myanmar nationalist beliefs that the Muslim minority is the real aggressor given the nature and growth of global Islam. In Sri Lanka today, Bodu Bala Sena has shifted focus from the Tamil threat to that of global Islam, with worrying attempts to build anti-Muslim alliances with nationalist groups in the region. Buddhist women, particularly nuns, who travel to Sri Lanka for religious education appear more likely to accept or encourage the direct participation of Buddhist monks in politics, and cite Sri Lankan history as doctrinal justification for the use of defensive violence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, principal, vice principal and teaching nun at a nunnery, Sagaing region, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote

The notion that Islam threatens Buddhism around the region appears frequently in religious nationalist materials in Myanmar. The Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 is often cited as an example of Muslim cruelty, violence and intolerance; the Taliban’s 2007 attacks on Buddhist relics and ancient university grounds in Pakistan are also sometimes referenced.[fn]Crisis Group review of MaBaTha Facebook posts, 2015-2017; and interview with high-ranking women’s MaBaTha member (Lower Division), August 2017.Hide Footnote

The idea that Buddhism is an inherently peaceful and non-proselytising religion, and therefore susceptible to oppression by more aggressive faiths, is a recurrent theme across Myanmar.

The idea that Buddhism is an inherently peaceful and non-proselytising religion, and therefore susceptible to oppression by more aggressive faiths, is a recurrent theme across Myanmar. The feeling that Islam is especially pernicious, given the purported tendency to enact Islamic law once a majority is achieved, frustrates Buddhists who believe that their faith has suffered for its tolerance of other religions. This, together with the perception that Islam is inherently violent, is a potent driver of contemporary Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar. As far afield as Loikaw, the capital of remote Kayah state, young people showed images of Islamic State beheadings on their mobile phones to explain their fears, specifically in relation to National League for Democracy (NLD) government leadership and its failure to tackle a perceived Muslim threat.[fn]Crisis Group discussion with young women, Loikaw, 2015.Hide Footnote

 

III. The Rise of MaBaTha

A. Origins of the Organisation

The recent resurgence of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar was spearheaded in part by the “969” movement, which first became prominent in the southern city of Mawlamyine in 2011. 969 is numerological shorthand for the special attributes of Buddha and his teachings and a riposte to the number “786”, a folk Islam representation of the Basmala long used by Muslims in Myanmar and elsewhere to identify halal restaurants and Muslim-owned shops.[fn]The Basmala is the name of the Islamic phrase “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful”.Hide Footnote The 969 movement was led by prominent monks including Ashin Wirathu and Ashin Wimala and was particularly vocal in its extremist rhetoric, making claims of a Muslim plot to take over the country and of schemes to pay Muslims for marrying and converting Buddhist women.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ashin Wirathu, Mandalay, August 2013. “Ultranationalist monk Says NLD Govt ‘Better Step Down’”, The Irrawaddy, 17 July 2017. The subtitled video of a sermon by Wirathu has been deleted from YouTube. See also Crisis Group Report, The Dark Side of Transition, op. cit., section IV.Hide Footnote These dire warnings combined with a simple message to the faithful to “buy Buddhist” resonated strongly and were spread widely in the country through DVDs and 969 stickers. Yet the movement remained decentralised, with no infrastructure beyond the monastic economies of individual member monks.

Wirathu had begun preaching in 2001 about the rising threat presented by Islam and was arrested two years later and sentenced to 25 years in jail for inciting deadly violence in his home town of Kyaukse by distributing inflammatory anti-Muslim pamphlets; he was freed in 2011 as part of a broad amnesty by then-President Thein Sein.[fn]Andrew R. C. Marshall, “Myanmar gives official blessing to anti-Muslim monks”, Reuters Special Report, 27 June 2013.Hide Footnote He and the 969 movement revived old prejudices: a British colonial inquiry into the 1938 riots noted that “one of the major sources of anxiety in the minds of a great number of Burmese was the question of the marriage of their womenfolk with foreigners in general and with Indians in particular”.[fn]Burma Riot Inquiry Committee, Interim Report (Rangoon, 1939).Hide Footnote

In late-2013, the 969 movement was effectively banned by the Sangha Council, the government-appointed body of monks that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy.[fn]More formally, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee.Hide Footnote In the announcement, the Sangha Council said nothing about links between the 969 movement’s inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and subsequent outbreaks of deadly violence, but focused on the movement’s unauthorised use of Buddhist symbolism. This was not an outright dismissal of the group’s ideology, but rather reflected the Sangha Council’s frustration with the 969 movement’s lobbying for the enactment of the protection of race and religion laws (see below) – not because the council considered the laws unnecessary or inappropriate, but rather because the protection and promotion of religion comes under the remit of the Sangha Council and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Members of the 969 movement rejected not only the legitimacy of the ban, but of the Sangha Council in general, which they stated was formed by the previous military regime to control the monkhood, and which they saw as serving the interests of the government not the faith.[fn]“Burma Buddhist Committee Bans Anti-Muslim Organizations”, Reuters, 11 September 2013.Hide Footnote Such views are widely held in Myanmar, though MaBaTha’s highest-ranking monks tell members that disparaging the Sangha Council is bad karma.[fn]Crisis Group interview, high-ranking women’s MaBaTha member (Lower Division), June 2017. Here, karma is used not in its colloquial English sense of “fate” or “destiny”, but rather the Buddhist doctrinal concept that the sum of a person’s intentional actions determines their future states of existence.Hide Footnote

These actions against the 969 movement prompted it to evolve into the somewhat more formal structure of MaBaTha. Though founded a few months earlier in June 2013, MaBaTha was not particularly prominent until January 2014, when its upper Myanmar branch was established in Mandalay. Its founding monks then stated publicly that the organisation was intended not only to support the 969 movement’s ideology, but also to rein in outspoken “younger monks” (including Wirathu) who were prompting domestic and international criticism. In addition, MaBaTha’s structure was specifically designed to give official roles to laymen and women, which in turn created ambiguity about the Sangha Council’s jurisdiction over the group.[fn]Matthew Walton and Aung Tun, “What the State Sangha Committee actually said about MaBaTha”, Tea Circle blog, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote MaBaTha immediately picked up where the 969 movement had left off, rallying for the adoption of the race and religion laws and extending awareness of nationalist ideology – and the MaBaTha brand – far into rural and remote parts of the country, and making it by far the most prominent and nationally-known Buddhist nationalist group.[fn]See Walton, McKay and Khin Mar Mar Kyi, op. cit.; and Crisis Group interviews, women’s MaBaTha council member (Upper Division), February-June 2017. Other Buddhist nationalist groups, some more extreme than MaBaTha, include the Patriotic Monks Union and Myo-chit Thamegga.Hide Footnote

B. Protection of Race and Religion Laws

After a huge lobbying effort made them a significant electoral issue, the four laws were enacted in May and August 2015, in the lead-up to the November 2015 elections. The laws are as follows:

  • The Population Control Law (May 2015) gives the government the power to implement (non-coercive) population control measures in areas designated by the president with high population density, growth, maternal and child mortality, poverty or food insecurity. No such areas have been designated, but the provisions would appear to apply particularly to Muslim-majority northern Rakhine state where coercive local orders that limited Muslim couples to two children have been in place in the past.[fn]For example, Regional Order 1/2005 in parts of Rakhine state, which has not been enforced for several years, but in the past made marriage permission for Muslims (which also was required) contingent on a signed undertaking to “limit the number of children” (usually to two).Hide Footnote

    For example, Regional Order 1/2005 in parts of Rakhine state, which has not been enforced for several years, but in the past made marriage permission for Muslims (which also was required) contingent on a signed undertaking to “limit the number of children” (usually to two).Hide Footnote
  • The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law (August 2015) provides that any marriage of a Buddhist woman to a non-Buddhist man requires an application to be submitted to the township registrar, who will display it publicly for fourteen days. After that time, the marriage can be approved, provided no objection has been lodged on the basis that the parties are not of age or sound mind or that there has been coercion. An official publicly-accessible registry of such marriages is to be kept. The non-Buddhist man must allow the wife to freely follow her Buddhist faith, not attempt to convert her and allow any children to freely follow the religion of their choice. He must not insult Buddhism in any way. If the non-Buddhist man violates any provision, he is liable to three years imprisonment or a fine and forfeiture of joint property and custody of children. The law supersedes the 1954 Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage and Succession Act, from which it differs in only a few provisions, but which had fallen into disuse.[fn]Melissa Crouch, “Constructing Religion by Law in Myanmar”, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, vol. 13, no. 4 (2015), pp. 1-11.Hide Footnote

    Melissa Crouch, “Constructing Religion by Law in Myanmar”, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, vol. 13, no. 4 (2015), pp. 1-11.Hide Footnote
  • The Religious Conversion Law (August 2015) provides that a person wanting to convert to another religion must be eighteen years old, convert voluntarily and apply to a township Religious Conversion Scrutinising and Registration Board for permission. The person shall be interviewed by the board to ascertain whether he or she has a genuine belief in the religion as well as knowledge of its marriage, divorce, division of property and inheritance practices.
     
  • The Monogamy Law (August 2015) makes it a criminal offense to have more than one spouse or to live with an unmarried partner who is not a spouse or to engage in marital infidelity. There is no provision for bail and the penalty is up to seven years imprisonment. While the law was championed by nationalists citing polygamous practices in Muslim communities, most cases under the law have been brought by Buddhist women against unfaithful husbands.[fn]Thin Lei Win, “Law aimed at Muslims in Myanmar strikes Buddhist targets”, Myanmar Now, 16 December 2015.Hide Footnote

The laws drew considerable international attention, as they appeared to have discriminatory intent and to be targeted at Muslims, potentially violating not only Myanmar’s constitutional provisions on religious freedom and non-discrimination, but also its treaty obligations under various international human rights conventions.

MaBaTha supporters argue that the four laws were a formalisation of existing customary law. The strong perception among many Myanmar Buddhists is that Buddhist women in inter-religious marriages – particularly those married to Muslim men – lose many of their rights since matrimonial disputes are adjudicated on the basis of customary law relating to the husband’s religion. This longstanding concern was the impetus behind the 1939 Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage and Succession Act, replaced by a 1954 act of the same name. Nationalists saw these laws as being weak in their lack of application and their content, particularly regarding prohibitions on polygamy and forced conversion. Although the new law MaBaTha supporters are pushing is very similar, it reaffirms the relevance of these concerns.[fn]Crisis Group interview, prominent human rights activist, Mandalay, May 2017, high-ranking women’s MaBaTha member (Lower Division), June 2017. See also, Melyn McKay, “Rights law the wrong move?”, New Mandala, 17 March 2017; and Crouch, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The support of female nationalists stems primarily from a commitment to outlawing polygamy and strongly-felt concerns over forced conversion, which they see as the likely (if not inevitable) by-product of Muslim-Buddhist marriages.

Domestic and international opposition to the four laws tends to emphasise the restrictions they place on women’s rights and freedoms. Yet some women are strong proponents of the laws and nuns and laywomen led marches and signature-gathering campaigns in support of the legislation, raising popular awareness of and support for the draft laws. The support of female nationalists stems primarily from a commitment to outlawing polygamy and strongly-felt concerns over forced conversion, which they see as the likely (if not inevitable) by-product of Muslim-Buddhist marriages.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, several female MaBaTha leaders and members, February-June 2017. See also McKay, op. cit.Hide Footnote

These concerns over polygamy and forced conversion are also driving opposition to an upcoming bill to protect women from violence. The Violence Against Women and Girls Bill was drafted in consultation with Myanmar gender experts and activists and international advisers, with the intention of protecting women from all forms of violence, including intimate partner violence, marital rape, sexual violence, harassment by stalking, harassment in the work place and public places and violent traditional and customary practices.[fn]These experts and activists now express concern about the bill’s current form, which reportedly shies away from tackling harmful legal provisions and cultural practices – for example, failing to ease the current ban on abortion in the case of pregnancies after rape.Hide Footnote The bill has not yet been publicly released or scheduled for legislative debate,[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior NLD representative, Naypyitaw, July 2017.Hide Footnote but MaBaTha supporters are deeply concerned that it could weaken the polygamy ban and religious conversion law. They have undertaken to protest the bill if it overrides or alters the four laws.[fn]“Tensions ahead over changes to ‘race and religion’ laws”, Frontier Myanmar, 20 February 2017.Hide Footnote Even if it does not repeal or amend those laws, any failure to explicitly prohibit polygamy and forced conversion will be interpreted by Buddhist nationalists – and nationalist women in particular – as de facto weakening the race and religion laws. Nationalists will take this as a signal that the NLD is willing to sacrifice moral and religious imperatives in order to appear tolerant and appease Muslims at the expense of the majority – and Buddhist women, in particular.

C. A Foray into Party Politics

In the lead up to the 2015 elections, MaBaTha leaders were intentionally ambiguous in their party-political stance. The MaBaTha Chairman, Ashin Thiloka, advised followers to vote for candidates who would “protect” the race and religion laws and to avoid those who would “destroy” them – implying that they should not vote NLD. Others, notably Ashin Wirathu, were willing to be more direct in telling voters that the establishment Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was more supportive of the MaBaTha agenda and stronger in its protection of race and religion than the NLD.[fn]“MaBaTha, USDP: election bedfellows?”, Myanmar Times, 30 September 2015.Hide Footnote

Although MaBaTha appeared to have a clear preference for the USDP and expressed great scepticism about the NLD’s nationalist credentials, this was not organisational doctrine. MaBaTha should be seen as a fairly loose coalition of subnational chapters, monasteries and members or supporters whose views are generally aligned, but without any orthodoxy or top-down decisions being imposed. Member monks had close personal relations with numerous political parties, including the NLD; and both USDP and NLD politicians made donations to MaBaTha-affiliated monasteries.[fn]Crisis Group interview, high-ranking women’s MaBaTha member (Lower Division), June 2017.Hide Footnote While this could be construed as an attempt to buy MaBaTha support, it can also be seen as a reaffirmation of the historical political and financial connections between the state and Buddhist clergy.

MaBaTha issued strong warnings that attempts to roll back the race and religion laws would be met with staunch opposition.

A number of lay MaBaTha members were NLD supporters. Many hoped that the organisation could press the NLD to take a stronger nationalist stance once in office,[fn]Crisis Group focus group discussion, female MaBaTha supporters, Kayin state, June 2017.Hide Footnote even as others feared that its language on human rights and tolerance reflected Western pluralist views rejected by many Myanmar Buddhists.[fn]Crisis Group interview, male members of Myo-chit Thamegga, Yangon, May 2017.Hide Footnote MaBaTha issued strong warnings that attempts to roll back the race and religion laws would be met with staunch opposition. Faced with widespread doubts about its nationalist credentials and claims that it was “pro-Muslim”, the NLD decided to follow the other major parties in not fielding any Muslim candidate in the election.[fn]“NLD blocked Muslim candidates to appease MaBaTha: party member”, The Irrawaddy, 31 August 2015.Hide Footnote

The election results came as shock to many nationalists. Not only did the NLD win by a landslide, routing the incumbent USDP, but other nationalist parties and independent candidates failed to win any seats, and only received a tiny number of votes.[fn]The NLD won some 57 per cent of the popular vote and 79 per cent of elected seats. The USDP won only 9 per cent of elected seats, and parties running on an ultra-Buddhist-nationalist platform (such as the National Development Party) fared far worse: none won a seat, and none of their candidates reached the 12.5 per cent thresholds required for return of their deposit (most gained between zero and 5 per cent). Even more striking are the results for three members of the MaBaTha-linked Myanmar Nationalist Network, who contested seats as independent candidates and received vanishingly little support – between 0.3 and 1.3 per cent of the votes in their respective constituencies. (Crisis Group analysis of 2015 election results.)Hide Footnote It was clear that while MaBaTha had a great deal of popular support and its leading monks commanded considerable respect, its foray into electoral politics had failed. At the ballot box, widespread adoration for Aung San Suu Kyi and hatred of the former military regime, with which the USDP was closely associated, trumped nationalist concerns.

This did not necessarily imply a major loss of support for MaBaTha and its nationalist ideologies, merely a rejection of its party-political intervention. However, once the extent of the NLD landslide became clear, MaBaTha was put on the back foot, adopting a wait-and-see approach.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, pro-MaBaTha monk, Sagaing Region, February-May 2017.Hide Footnote This lack of visible MaBaTha activity led many national and international observers to conclude that MaBaTha had been neutralised by the election outcome.[fn]See, for example, Andray Abrahamian, “Myanmar’s MaBaTha fades with barely a whimper”, Lowy Interpreter, 2 August 2016; and Thulasi Wigneswaran, “Managing a declining threat”, New Mandala, 6 December 2016.Hide Footnote Yet, while certainly chastened, the continuing broad popular support for Buddhist nationalist narratives suggests that the NLD landslide was not a rejection of MaBaTha’s ideology. The organisation’s silence probably was due to its assessment of the new political landscape and because the new government did not immediately move to confront nationalist ideology – for example, by seeking to repeal the race and religion laws. Indeed, MaBaTha’s pre-election statement that their objective was to protect the laws rather than support a particular party was likely an accurate representation of the views of at least some of its leaders.[fn]“MaBaTha monks declare political independence”, Myanmar Times, 27 June 2014; and “MaBaTha justifies religion in politics”, Myanmar Times, 5 October 2015. One of its most senior members, Ashin Parmaukkha, resigned following the election, stating: “I decided to quit MaBaTha because I didn’t like it when MaBaTha was making speeches … to vote for a certain party during the election campaign period …. I want MaBaTha to stand free from party politics”. “Myanmar Buddhist monk may have plans to build monastery near Anglican Church”, Radio Free Asia, 7 June 2016.Hide Footnote

D. New Action by the Sangha Council

In July 2016, the Sangha Council issued a statement that MaBaTha was not a “legal” Buddhist organisation.[fn]“State-backed monks’ council decries MaBaTha as ‘unlawful’”, The Irrawaddy, 13 July 2016.Hide Footnote Commentators and the media almost universally construed this as a ban on the group’s activities or at the very least a repudiation of MaBaTha by the state’s high Buddhist authority.[fn]For example, “State Sangha disowns Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion”, Myanmar Times, 13 July 2016.Hide Footnote However, a careful examination of the statement shows that it only indicated that MaBaTha had not formally registered itself as a Sangha organisation. This can be interpreted in several ways: as a response to NLD calls to dissolve “unnecessary and redundant” Sangha organisations;[fn]The NLD chief minister for Yangon in July 2016 referred to MaBaTha as “unnecessary and redundant”, and received the full backing of his party amid nationalist demands for his ouster. See Matthew Walton and Aung Tun, op. cit.Hide Footnote a move to delegitimise MaBaTha’s outspoken monks; a warning that the organisation was in a precarious position; or even a desire to place MaBaTha and its activities under civil rather than religious jurisdiction to facilitate legal action.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote MaBaTha responded by noting that it was formed with the support of individual Sangha Council members and did not need to register formally as it was not a purely monastic organisation.[fn]“MaBaTha suffers another blow as defamation suit filed against U Wirathu”, Myanmar Times, 14 July 2016. The response echoed language used in the wake of the ban on the 969 movement.Hide Footnote

The deadly October 2016 attacks on Border Guard Police bases in northern Rakhine state by a new Rohingya militant group gave new oxygen to nationalist groups.

The deadly October 2016 attacks on Border Guard Police bases in northern Rakhine state by a new Rohingya militant group gave new oxygen to nationalist groups.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016.Hide Footnote This brought the perceived threat of violent Islam to the forefront of national consciousness and anti-Muslim sentiment spiked. The military response to the attacks was heavy-handed, with allegations of extrajudicial killings, rape and violence that the UN characterised as “the very likely commission of crimes against humanity”. Some 75,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.[fn]Ibid.; “Interviews with Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar since 9 October 2016”, Flash Report, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 3 February 2017.Hide Footnote Separately, on 29 January 2017, a prominent Muslim advisor to the NLD, Ko Ni, was assassinated outside Yangon International Airport.[fn]“Myanmar Assassination Shows Urgent Need for Unity Against Hate Crimes”, Crisis Group statement, 29 January 2017.Hide Footnote

MaBaTha and other nationalist groups returned to the spotlight. An aid shipment for Rakhine state sent by the Malaysian government was protested vigorously by members of various Buddhist nationalist groups, notably the fiery young Myo-chit Thamegga, a group whose membership overlaps with MaBaTha, though it is reportedly beyond their direct control.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Myo-chit Thamegga member and “No Rohingya” protest leader, Yangon, May 2017. See also “Aid ship to help Rohingyas arrives in Myanmar, greeted by protest”, Reuters, 9 February 2017.Hide Footnote The investigation into Ko Ni’s assassination considered, but ultimately ruled out, MaBaTha involvement.[fn]“‘Patriotism’ behind U Ko Ni assassination, says minister”, Frontier Myanmar, 25 February 2017.Hide Footnote Communal tensions rose in neighbourhoods of Yangon with large Muslim populations. Violent nationalist protests demanded local authorities shut down two Muslim schools that doubled as prayer centres. Nationalists also insisted that police raid an apartment they alleged to be a safe house for illegal Muslim migrants (implied to be Rohingya from Rakhine state); the mob turned violent when the raid uncovered no evidence.[fn]“After court date, extremist nationalists strike again in Yangon”, Frontier Myanmar, 10 May 2017.Hide Footnote

In addition to government legal action against some of the agitators and protestors, the spectre of renewed communal violence spurred the Sangha Council (likely under government direction) to issue a new statement, this time indicating more clearly that MaBaTha was in violation of the Sangha Law.[fn]Document circulated at MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017, referring to the Law Relating to the Sangha Organisation, 1990 (State Law and Order Restoration Council Law No. 20/90), specifically sections 8 (prohibiting the formation of new Buddhist sects), 9 (prohibiting the formation of unauthorised Sangha organisations) and 10 (prohibiting agitation, speeches or writings denigrating Sangha organisations).Hide Footnote The decision – issued on 23 May, just days before the group’s planned four-year anniversary conference – banned use of the MaBaTha name and logo and required that all MaBaTha signs and placards be removed by 15 July. It used language that hinted at similarities between MaBaTha and other illegal Buddhist factions whose proponents have been prosecuted and imprisoned.[fn]“The monk in blue robes”, Frontier Myanmar, 25 April 2016.Hide Footnote The decision was conveyed at a meeting with MaBaTha central committee leaders, who signed their acceptance.[fn]Statement by Ashin Thiloka, MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017.Hide Footnote Despite initial reports that MaBaTha’s 27-28 May conference would be cancelled, it instead became an opportunity to discuss responses to the decision and possible legal implications for disobeying it.[fn]Document circulated at MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017.Hide Footnote

During the conference, legal experts presented arguments on why the Sangha Law did not apply to MaBaTha, including because it was an organisation with both monks and lay members.[fn]Legal presentations, MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017.Hide Footnote MaBaTha leaders concurred, but indicated that they would follow the Sangha Council’s decision so as to avoid “weakening the religion at a time of considerable threats to its well-being”.[fn]Statement by Ashin Thiloka, MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017.Hide Footnote While the idea of Buddhism being under threat in Myanmar may seem incomprehensible to most observers, it reflects a strong millenarian current in Theravada Buddhism that the current Buddha era could end in “a single day” if neglected by those in power.[fn]Ashin Thiloka, as quoted in Crisis Group interview with high-ranking women’s MaBaTha member (Lower Division), Yangon, June 2017.Hide Footnote The conference took three key steps:

  • It was announced that MaBaTha would respond to the Sangha Council ban by changing its name to the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. MaBaTha leadership explained that the Sangha Council had only rejected use of the name “MaBaTha” and had not abolished the organisation.[fn]Statement by Ashin Thiloka, MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017. An entire afternoon was dedicated to a question and answer session concerned with the likely legal ramifications (and possible legal defence) of continuing to use the MaBaTha name despite the council’s decision. Legal presentations, MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017.Hide Footnote

    Statement by Ashin Thiloka, MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017. An entire afternoon was dedicated to a question and answer session concerned with the likely legal ramifications (and possible legal defence) of continuing to use the MaBaTha name despite the council’s decision. Legal presentations, MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017.Hide Footnote
  • Maung Thway Chun, editor of MaBaTha’s journal and then-chairman of another Buddhist nationalist group, Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita, indicated that this group would take on a more prominent leadership role and debated whether they would encourage more militant activities. In the end, the conference stated that while they would not explicitly promote violence, neither would they “allow the race and religion to suffer”.[fn]Maung Thway Chun statement, MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017. In the lead-up to the conference, Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita had reportedly received a substantial donation from a prominent MaBaTha supporter. Crisis Group interviews with MaBaTha women’s council member (Upper Division), February-June 2017.Hide Footnote

    Maung Thway Chun statement, MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017. In the lead-up to the conference, Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita had reportedly received a substantial donation from a prominent MaBaTha supporter. Crisis Group interviews with MaBaTha women’s council member (Upper Division), February-June 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On the final day of the conference, Maung Thway Chun announced that he was withdrawing from Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita, MaBaTha and the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation in order to start a nationalist political party named “135 Nationalities United”, a decision he presented as part of a long-term strategy rather than as a direct response to the Sangha Council statement. At the time of his announcement all monks and nuns had been removed from the event hall, an acknowledgement of the legal prohibition on involvement of religious associations in party politics.[fn]Ibid. The prohibition on involvement in party politics was included in all Myanmar’s post-independence constitutions and is provided in its current election laws.Hide Footnote

Following the conference, MaBaTha’s regional leaders organised follow-on meetings in their respective areas to share updates on the Yangon discussions, drawing large numbers of monks – 700 in the case of the Kayin state meeting.[fn]Crisis Group focus group discussion, female MaBaTha supporters, Kayin state, June 2017.Hide Footnote Many of these meetings ended with announcements that the branches would not accept the Sangha Council decision, regardless of the views of MaBaTha headquarters. Currently, only three of eight main branches reportedly have accepted the decision – Yangon, Bago and Yamethin – and will adopt the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation rebranding; the rest will continue to use the MaBaTha name and logo.

Given that the rebranding would have had limited impact on the organisation’s structure or activities, refusing to drop the MaBaTha name is a clear signal of defiance against the Sangha Council and the government. The refusal seemingly has broad understanding or support across the organisation, including in those branches that acquiesced in the name change.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, several MaBaTha leaders and members, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote On 16 July, nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu released a video on Facebook calling on the government to step down and “hand over the power to those who can well handle the country”.[fn]Video available at http://bit.ly/2w29SPr. See also “Ultranationalist monk says NLD govt ‘better step down’”, The Irrawaddy, 17 July 2017.Hide Footnote

As the 15 July deadline passed, the government warned through state media that MaBaTha members who failed to follow the Sangha Council’s decision would be prosecuted under civil law.[fn]“Action to be taken inevitably against those who don’t comply with Sangha Committee’s decisions”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 15 July 2017, p. 2.Hide Footnote A senior NLD representative clarified that action would be taken in two stages. First, monks would be disciplined through their local monastic authority, and if that failed to secure compliance, MaBaTha could be declared unlawful under the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior NLD representative, Naypyitaw, July 2017.Hide Footnote This designation would allow for criminal charges to be brought against both leadership and members, as well as potentially against any other person who has contact with them.

Although the NLD representative suggested MaBaTha was “on the brink” of such a designation, it would be an extraordinarily inflammatory move to put a Buddhist organisation with considerable public support and led by revered monks in the same category as belligerent armed groups and terrorist organisations. It also would be ineffective in quashing MaBaTha activities, given the ease with which the organisation could circumvent the designation by rebranding. At the time of this report, MaBaTha and its supporters appear to have temporarily halted most activities as they seek to better understand their legal position and the government’s resolve, but this should be interpreted more as a regrouping than a defeat.

E. MaBaTha’s Organisational Structure

Although more institutionalised than the 969 movement, MaBaTha has a highly decentralised structure based around a group of monasteries, monks and laypersons who share a commitment to the protection and promotion of Buddhism. This amorphous structure makes it difficult to enforce any ban. The central committee, situated within Yangon’s Insein Ywama Monastery, has only limited authority over regional branches and personalities. Some of the most visible and well-loved MaBaTha monks, such as Ashin Wirathu, have deceptively low-ranking titles such as manager.[fn]“Sticks and Stones: Hate Speech Narratives and Facilitators in Myanmar”, C4ADS, 2016.Hide Footnote Eight MaBaTha chapters are currently the most active.[fn]These are, in descending order of prominence: Yangon, Mandalay/Sagaing, Mottama/‌Mawlamyine, Yamethin, Meiktila, Hpa-an, Taunggyi and Bago. Crisis Group interviews, MaBaTha leaders and members, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote Each has a prominent monastery, usually several revered monks, and often an affiliated women’s organisation comprised of nuns and/or laywomen. They have fluid relationships with other nationalist groups.

Though MaBaTha has numerous chapters and smaller local offices, it has no shared accounting system, with funds being handled by individual monasteries and members.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, women’s MaBaTha council member (Upper Division), February-June 2017.Hide Footnote The organisation denies that it is well-funded.[fn]Wirathu statement, MaBaTha conference, Yangon, May 2017.Hide Footnote MaBaTha used to have a formal membership sign-up process, but this has not been maintained in many areas and the group tends to work through phone-tree networks rather than any central mobilisation system.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, numerous MaBaTha leaders and members, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote

MaBaTha often has helped coordinate other religious nationalist movements. In the wake of the Sangha Council ban, MaBaTha (and its Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation rebrand) has positioned itself as an umbrella organisation for nationalist groups, including remnants of the 969 movement, Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita, and various myo-chit (“nationalist”, or literally “love for one’s own race”) youth groups.[fn]Presentation by MaBaTha women’s council member to Sagaing nuns, June 2017.Hide Footnote Yet while MaBaTha is influential, its control over these other groups is limited and largely dependent on personal relationships. This will be particularly true of the emergent “135 Nationalities United” political party, which is controversial among MaBaTha members concerned about blurring the lines between social and religious work on the one hand and party-political activities on the other.[fn]Crisis Group interview, high-ranking women’s MaBaTha member (Lower Division), June 2017.Hide Footnote As in 2015, MaBaTha monks probably will support whichever political party appears most likely to support the nationalist cause in future elections. Support for 135 Nationalities United is not a foregone conclusion, but any perceived NLD attempt to pressure or unfairly treat that party could be leveraged by MaBaTha into a powerful political narrative.

IV. Explaining MaBaTha’s Popularity

A. Social and Cultural Activities

Though international media have tended to portray MaBaTha as a political entity, members and many supporters see it as having a much broader role; this is particularly true among women, who often are raised to avoid politics.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Phaung Daw Oo monastic school senior staff, Mandalay, June 2017.Hide Footnote Today, when asked about MaBaTha work, members typically highlight a range of activities for the “promotion and protection of Buddhism”, which further enhance grassroots support for the organisation:[fn]Crisis Group interview, women’s MaBaTha council member, Yangon, May 2017.Hide Footnote

  • Promoting shared Buddhist cultural values. These are understood as originating from Buddhist moral precepts. Maintaining them is seen as critical for the social and spiritual health of the community. Educating members of society on these shared values is viewed as ensuring peaceful coexistence between people with different ethnic or linguistic backgrounds. Where the secular state fails to provide this “civic education”, the monastic order may intervene. This explains why, while MaBaTha is widely seen by non-supporters as spreading hate speech, intolerance and conflict, the vast majority of its supporters believe the organisation’s very existence promotes peace in plural communities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, numerous MaBaTha leaders and members, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote
     
  • Providing a social safety net. Historically, monasteries have played this role, taking in the poor, sick and elderly, providing food and health care. Most monasteries have never been solely concerned with theological activities. Those that are often suffer from chronic lack of funding.[fn]Turner, op. cit.Hide Footnote As MaBaTha rose to prominence, member monks increasingly conducted their usual monastic social works under the MaBaTha banner.[fn]Crisis Group focus group discussion, female MaBaTha supporters, Kayin state, June 2017.Hide Footnote
     
  • Disaster relief. This is a core focus of MaBaTha’s work in Myanmar and is also used as a means of building its international Buddhist connections.[fn]MaBaTha sent aid to Nepal after the devastating 2015 earthquake, and more recently to Sri Lankan nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena to support victims of the May 2017 flooding. Crisis Group interviews, nun teacher, Sagaing Region, May-June 2017.Hide Footnote MaBaTha members commonly mention the way that Christian organisations mobilised to provide aid to communities following Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which they see as a means of proselytisation. Some say that impact was enhanced by the fact that Christian assistance is provided for longer-term recovery rather than just emergency needs, something MaBaTha aims to emulate.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, vice principal of a nunnery and her family, Sagaing region, June 2017.Hide Footnote  MaBaTha provided significant support to communities affected by the devastating 2015 floods in upper Myanmar, leveraging its broad membership base to quickly identify communities in need and raise funds; visits by high profile monks to deliver aid in affected areas gave MaBaTha considerable visibility.[fn]“Sitagu Sayadaw, MaBaTha raise millions”, Myanmar Times, 6 August 2015.Hide Footnote MaBaTha monks have also taken a prominent role in fundraising for the restoration of hundreds of ancient pagodas in Bagan that were damaged in the 2016 earthquake.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, nun teacher, Sagaing Region, May-June 2017. Indeed, many MaBaTha supporters claim the NLD opposes the group because it is so much more effective in disaster relief.Hide Footnote
     
  • Education. Monks and nuns in Myanmar have a long tradition of providing education for underprivileged and rural youth. Monastic education was the norm in the pre-colonial period, and many Myanmar Buddhists bemoan the fact that the expansion of government-run secular schools means that understanding of Pali (the language of the Buddhist canon) is markedly lower in younger generations.[fn]G. E. Harvey, British Rule in Burma, 1824-1942 (London, 1946); and Turner, op. cit.Hide Footnote Education is one of MaBaTha’s most prominent activities, in particular through its Dhamma School Foundation, launched in 2012, which operates a large network of Buddhist Sunday schools (Dhamma schools) across the country. Many Dhamma School teachers are also members of MaBaTha, particularly MaBaTha women.[fn]Crisis Group focus group discussion, women’s MaBaTha members (Upper Division), January 2017.Hide Footnote MaBaTha also sponsors a high school in Hlegu township (Yangon region), built in mid-2016 and serving some 200 students. It teaches the standard high school curriculum, but also includes Buddhist cultural and civic education programs taught by monks. A second such school is reportedly in the making near Mandalay.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, women’s MaBaTha council member (Upper Division), February-June 2017; and “New MaBaTha school teaches children to ‘protect race and religion’”, Mizzima News, 4 June 2016.Hide Footnote
     
  • Dispute resolution and “women’s rights”. Monastic communities often use their moral authority to resolve disputes and promote harmony in their communities. MaBaTha regards outreach trips around the country to “protect women” as a proactive part of such community work.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, women’s MaBaTha council member (Upper Division), February-June 2017.Hide Footnote Across upper Myanmar in particular, women are actively engaged in community-level efforts to inform rural Buddhist women about their marriage rights and the right to practice their Buddhist faith.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, vice principal of a nunnery, Sagaing region, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote While this could be seen as spreading anti-Muslim sentiment, nuns and laywomen conducting this outreach say it is designed to protect women’s freedom of choice – specifically regarding whom they marry and how they practice their religion. This could morph into anti-Muslim narratives, however, given the widely-held belief – particularly in nationalist circles – that Muslim men use polygamy to force their Buddhist wives to convert, with the threat that otherwise they will take a Muslim second wife who under Muslim customary law would receive any inheritance.[fn]Crisis Group focus group discussion, women’s MaBaTha members (Upper Division), January 2017.Hide Footnote However, MaBaTha women also reference the precolonial prevalence of Buddhist polygamy as evidence that the laws also are designed to protect women’s progress and equality within Buddhist society. Many women members specifically cite feminism as a reason for joining MaBaTha, including nuns, who see women’s protection as part of their religious duty.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, high-ranking women’s MaBaTha member (Lower Division), June 2017; and vice principal of a nunnery, Sagaing region, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote
     
  • Legal aid. The legal advisory group affiliated with MaBaTha, which analysed the Sangha Council decision and provided input to the race and religion laws, also engages in pro bono legal work under MaBaTha’s umbrella. Female members provide pastoral support and legal aid to women in abusive family or work situations who do not have the means to go through the courts. These cases often are brought to MaBaTha monks by communities; specific women are then tasked by the monks depending on their availability and the nature of the case. In the case of a young Buddhist girl abused by a Chinese businessman, which gained nationwide attention, female MaBaTha members housed the girl and her family for several months. Members do not usually receive financial compensation for this work, which they regard as a form of support for MaBaTha.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, women’s MaBaTha council member (Upper Division), February-June 2017.Hide Footnote

All these activities either resonate with societal views about good Buddhist practice or provide tangible and much-needed community services and support. Both roles enhance positive perceptions of, and support for, MaBaTha and its agenda.

B. Positive and Negative Grassroots Perceptions

International and some domestic analysis portrays MaBaTha as a fundamentally political entity pursuing a radically nationalist, bigoted and misogynistic agenda. The group’s claims to be a “missionary organisation” focused on social work and propagating Buddhism are dismissed as an attempt to protect its members from criticism, and its social and cultural activities are seen as a cynical vehicle for propagating its ultranationalist views.

While this is true for some of the organisation’s leaders and some of its interventions, it does not explain the group’s considerable grassroots support. These assessments often overlook the accomplishments of MaBaTha supporters, particularly women, who prioritise contributing to the group’s social work. Understanding how MaBaTha acts as a vehicle for furthering individual projects – religious, social, or in some cases political – requires understanding why such women feel better able to contribute to their communities through MaBaTha than through local civil society or non-governmental organisations. This in turn would enable a more effective policy approach to addressing MaBaTha’s more extreme and negative activities and impacts.

Nuns and laywomen involved with MaBaTha see their work as improving the situation of women around the country.

Nuns and laywomen involved with MaBaTha see their work as improving the situation of women around the country.[fn]This, despite the myth propagated by MaBaTha monks and much of society and government that women enjoy religious and social equality in Myanmar. See Chie Ikeya, “The ‘Traditional’ High Status of Women in Burma: A Historical Reconsideration”, The Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 10 (2005), pp. 51-83.Hide Footnote These supporters are not limited to poorly-educated, rural women, but include members of the country’s most prestigious nunneries, respected female religious scholars and lay lawyers, educators and medical professionals. Though many are in their fifties, there is also a very active cadre of tertiary-educated, feminist-identifying laywomen and nuns in their late twenties and early thirties.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior female MaBaTha members and prominent supporters across Myanmar, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote

At least part of the reason they pursue their objectives through MaBaTha is that it provides an extraordinarily powerful platform, with its religious legitimacy, popular support and extensive networks across the country. Thus, for example, a female MaBaTha council member indicated that she joined MaBaTha because she wanted to raise money for schools in Rakhine state, and the group was happy to give her a platform for a series of religious talks through which she raised several hundred dollars in three days. This led her to deepen her engagement with MaBaTha, having concluded it provided a better opportunity for supporting her community than the NLD, of which she was an early member and strong supporter.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, women’s MaBaTha council member (Upper Division), February-June 2017.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group discussions with numerous members and lay supporters of MaBaTha suggest several reasons for the strong support that the group attracts:

  • There is a perception that MaBaTha has been highly effective in supporting the needs of communities, particularly as regards rule of law. Communities across the country continue to lack effective access to formal systems of justice and feel that in this respect they have a powerful ally in MaBaTha.[fn]Crisis Group interview, prominent human rights activist, Mandalay, May 2017.Hide Footnote
     
  • Many women say the group addresses problems traditionally unacknowledged given the persistent myth of women’s high status and equality. For example, abuse against women is widespread. Women supporters also feel that they are bound by domestic expectations that limit the time available for Buddhist study and merit-making activities, hindering their intellectual and spiritual development. Engaging in MaBaTha activities is not only meritorious, but MaBaTha’s stature and the roles it gives women allows them to negotiate participation with their husbands more easily. Thus, even if religious groups such as MaBaTha could be seen as perpetuating conservative mores around the roles of women, they also provide an outlet for women to contribute to important social issues. Moreover, many women are hugely supportive of the polygamy ban and the religious conversion law, which they see as protecting them against threats to their economic rights and religious freedoms (see section III.B above). Various women’s groups across Myanmar that were already in existence at the time of MaBaTha’s founding approached the group to offer support. They were not co-opted by powerful or influential monks; rather, they supported the group’s message and objectives or felt that working with MaBaTha would help them achieve their own objectives. They say they propose activities to MaBaTha as well as respond to requests from the group. Laywomen and nuns express appreciation for being treated equally to men by the organisation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, numerous MaBaTha leaders and members, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote
     
  • Members and supporters believe MaBaTha takes their fears seriously, notably about Muslims. Indeed, there is a strong perception among many in Myanmar that Islam is inherently violent and a discomfort with what they see as violent aspects of Abrahamic religions in general. Other features associated with Islam – the slaughter of cows on specific holidays,[fn]Crisis Group focus group discussion, female MaBaTha supporters, Kayin state, June 2017. See also Matthew Schissler, Matthew Walton and Phyu Phyu Thi, “Threat and Virtuous Defence: Listening to Narratives of Religious Conflict in Six Myanmar Cities”, Myanmar Media and Society project, 22 July 2015.Hide Footnote and Quranic passages on Islam’s view of other religions and on proselytising and conversion – likewise are regularly cited by people to explain their support for MaBaTha. Many MaBaTha women, including nuns, say they have read the Quran and find its material distressing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, numerous MaBaTha leaders and members, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote Men of South Asian extraction (kala), especially Muslims, are the subject of particular cultural prejudices in Myanmar, being portrayed as sexually rapacious and greedy; parents have long invoked them as bogeymen to scare children.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Myanmar historian, Yangon, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Of course, while there is strong support in Buddhist communities for MaBaTha and its nationalist narratives, this is by no means unconditional. Those who support MaBaTha do not necessarily endorse all of its narratives or activities, and may be uncomfortable with the involvement of monks in some MaBaTha activities, even if they support the activities themselves.[fn]This same view is echoed by nationalist Buddhists in Sri Lanka in respect of Bodu Bala Sena. Crisis Group focus group discussion, Buddhist devotees in Kataragama, Sri Lanka, July 2017.Hide Footnote That said, research or journalism that claims to have found widespread or growing disapproval of MaBaTha should be interpreted carefully – government, religious bodies and the media tend to conflate criticism of certain MaBaTha activities with criticism of its underlying mission. There is a longstanding debate in Myanmar on the involvement of monks in secular, political affairs; there is far less questioning of their nationalist ideology.

V. Assessing the Risk of Violence and Government’s Policy Response

A. What Next for Buddhist Nationalism?

The new Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation has already been adopted in place of MaBaTha in some parts of the country even if, as noted, several regional branches are determined to continue using the MaBaTha name and logo. Those that have accepted the Sangha Council’s decision have pushed to position Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation as an umbrella organisation for all nationalist groups (although the 135 Nationalities United party will remain separate). MaBaTha and its successor groups are likely to continue to enjoy considerable public support.

The Sangha Council decision is far from a mortal blow to Buddhist nationalism. The Sangha Council’s authority is contested, and its views and decisions are unlikely to determine the future of MaBaTha or its renamed avatar. MaBaTha supporters, and Myanmar Buddhists in general, see the council as having an important role in disseminating Buddhist literature, but as far removed from the practical and spiritual needs of the average Buddhist.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, numerous MaBaTha leaders and members, February-June 2017.Hide Footnote In Buddhist doctrine, religious authority stems from both mastery of Buddhist teachings and addressing the total well-being – spiritual, social and economic – of the community. Unlike the authority assigned to the Sangha Council by law, religious authority must be earned and continuously reaffirmed through activities that strengthen the religion and its adherents. In this respect, many see MaBaTha and its leading monks as having far greater legitimacy than the Sangha Council.

The Sangha Council’s move [to ban MaBaTha] may push coordination among nationalist monks, nuns and lay supporters into the shadows, but their efforts are unlikely to stop.

MaBaTha has already demonstrated it can circumvent restrictions with the shift to the new Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation branding. The Sangha Council’s move may push coordination among nationalist monks, nuns and lay supporters into the shadows, but their efforts are unlikely to stop. Rather, the informal networks that sustain MaBaTha will become slightly harder to trace and understand.

Indeed, the Sangha Council actions may have amplified a looming confrontation between nationalists and the authorities on several other fronts. These include the prosecutions of nationalist demonstrators and violent agitation around the court hearings (see section III.D above); nationalist anti-government protests in Naypyitaw targeting the Minister for Religious Affairs in particular;[fn]“Religion minister rejects nationalists’ criticism, intends to ‘purify’ Buddhism in Myanmar”, The Irrawaddy, 28 June 2017.Hide Footnote a recent alms strike by nationalist monks and the forcible closure of demonstration camps set up at prominent pagodas;[fn]“Myanmar steps up efforts against nationalist monks”, Voice of America, 8 August 2017.Hide Footnote and the defiance by leading MaBaTha monk Ashin Wirathu of a Sangha Council preaching ban.[fn]“Bhamo Sayadaw: U Wirathu could be imprisoned”, The Irrawaddy, 28 March 2017.Hide Footnote

If the government makes good on its threat to declare MaBaTha an “unlawful association” there will be severe, likely violent, reverberations across the country. It also could lead to renewed clashes with the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army armed group, which has informally aligned with MaBaTha in Kayin state and whose leaders have promised to defend Buddhism with force of arms wherever that may be required.[fn]Crisis Group focus group discussion, female MaBaTha supporters, Kayin state, June 2017. See also Justine Chambers, “Buddhist extremism, despite a clampdown, spreads in Myanmar”, Asia Times, 13 August 2017.Hide Footnote This has created a volatile environment with the potential for serious violence.

The biggest threat may not be MaBaTha itself, but nationalist dynamics that may now be beyond its control. The perception that MaBaTha activities have been constrained by the Sangha Council has spurred hardliners to action. This could play out in ways that may be more extreme or violent than MaBaTha itself would have sanctioned, and which the organisation may not be able to rein in.[fn]For example, Myo Chit Thamegga stated in a recent meeting that although they would not take arms themselves to defend the religion, they would not condemn those that did. Crisis Group interview, MaBaTha leader, Yangon, August 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Policy Implications

Grassroots support for MaBaTha is flourishing in areas where the government is perceived to be weak, in particular basic service provision around education, access to justice and disaster relief. Many of these weaknesses are the longstanding legacy of failures by previous regimes. Nevertheless, a perception that the current government has not communicated a clear strategy for addressing them has allowed MaBaTha to create a narrative that it is reluctantly stepping in to fill gaps left by an ineffective government.

In this context, pressure on MaBaTha by the Sangha Council and Ministry of Religious Affairs may diminish their own reputations. The Sangha Council’s legitimacy is limited; its increasingly strident decisions against MaBaTha are seen as coming at the behest of the ministry, which itself is part of a government perceived to have a Western liberal orientation, which does not prioritise the protection and promotion of Buddhism. The legislative flashpoint of the Violence Against Women and Girls Bill also will feed this narrative.

While it must remain determined to prosecute anti-Muslim hate speech, illegal actions and violence, the government is unlikely to successfully tackle extreme Buddhist nationalist ideology and widespread Islamophobia through confrontation and legal measures against MaBaTha. These will play into the narrative of Buddhism under threat, and ultimately empower the organisation and other, more extreme nationalist groups. Rather than constantly responding to provocations and appearing on the defensive, the government should aim to take greater control of the narrative by reframing, on its terms, the place of Buddhism in a more democratic context and articulating a positive vision of the future – one that emphasises the strength of Buddhism rather than perceived weaknesses or threats. This can engender greater confidence in Buddhist communities that the government has made addressing their concerns about the future a priority.

Much of the angst in monastic communities and Buddhist society at large stems from the rapid changes the country is going through.

Much of the angst in monastic communities and Buddhist society at large stems from the rapid changes the country is going through. These changes have led to worries that secularism and modernity threaten the traditional role of Buddhism, defining success in material terms rather than religious achievements. In this new era for Myanmar, many youths are searching for a cause, a sense of belonging and of direction.

The government, NLD and society as a whole need to find ways to channel this enormous energy in a positive direction. MaBaTha’s popularity stems not only from its ideology and activities, but also from the sense of prestige, belonging and direction it gives to members and supporters. It provides a channel for women to participate meaningfully in social life and to create opportunities for spiritual growth that are accepted by their families. For many youth, especially young men, participation may provide an anchor for those who feel rudderless as a result of high unemployment, lack of opportunity and uncertainty or unease due to the rapid changes in the country.

The NLD has a new, unique handicap with which it has not yet fully grappled. Until it came into government, the party embodied Myanmar’s biggest cause – the struggle against authoritarianism and repression. But once in government, it has not been able to harness the energy of those at the grassroots and the youth who supported that cause. Nationalist organisations are partly filling this space. Better opportunities for people to participate in community development, social welfare, education and environmental conservation would all resonate strongly and give people a greater sense of control of their destiny.

Also underlying the popularity of nationalist narratives is a sense of economic anxiety and a feeling that ordinary people are not seeing tangible benefits from the reforms.[fn]For example, a recent poll by the International Republican Institute indicated that people’s biggest concerns for the future were economic. “Survey of Burma/Myanmar Public Opinion, March 9 – April 1, 2017”, Center for Insights in Survey Research, 22 August 2017.Hide Footnote This increases their sense of concern about the future and the resilience of their communities. A much more visible focus on the economy by the government would boost public confidence that its priority is providing ordinary people with better jobs and opportunities for a more prosperous future.

International intervention on the issue of Buddhist nationalism [...] risks being ineffective or worse, counterproductive if they fail to account for the complex motivations that drive support for nationalism.

International intervention on the issue of Buddhist nationalism – such as the range of current donor-supported projects to combat hate speech or promote inter-religious harmony and pluralism – risks being ineffective or worse, counterproductive if they fail to account for the complex motivations that drive support for nationalism. Organisations working on access to justice, dispute resolution, civic education and related areas should take into account the role of monasteries, including those aligned with or sympathetic to MaBaTha. For example, female lawyers play a particularly important role in identifying abuse cases and providing pro bono pastoral and legal aid to the most vulnerable women and children, and many choose to do so under the banner of MaBaTha.

It is important to provide alternative structures through which these monasteries can work, but with an understanding that Western liberal framing of human rights and women’s rights issues – which many local women’s rights policy organisations also use – does not translate unproblematically into a traditional Buddhist moral worldview. This is not to question the universality of these rights or to suggest any relativism in their application; it is rather a question of drawing on those with the relevant expertise in order to find the most effective ways to communicate these rights and develop activities to promote them.

Monks and nuns, including those aligned with MaBaTha, are very active in raising awareness in communities of legal rights and in individual dispute resolution activities. However, there is little systematic legal training for members of monastic orders, so such activities are often done on the basis of incomplete or distorted legal knowledge. For example, marital dispute resolution decisions may be made on the basis of an out-dated conception of Buddhist customary law with no understanding of developments in statute law or the arbitrary application of laws. Nuns who teach communities about women’s rights may only be aware of the race and religion laws, not other statutes. The government, through the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Sangha Council, could develop a policy on legal education for monastic orders, to provide more systematic and balanced legal presentations and training at major teaching monasteries and nunneries, possibly with the support of Myanmar universities and legal scholars.

Women’s rights NGOs and women members of MaBaTha working on rights issues may in some ways have highly divergent perspectives, but their ultimate objectives overlap to a considerable degree. It would be valuable to bring these groups together to discuss and share their experiences of promoting women’s rights.

VI. Conclusion

Virulent Buddhist nationalism has emerged as a considerable societal issue in Myanmar and a threat to peaceful coexistence in this multi-religious and multi-ethnic country. The attacks in northern Rakhine state by al-Yaqin or ARSA in August 2017, while mostly driven by local grievances, will inevitably become part of the Buddhist nationalist narrative, further complicating the social and political dynamics of religion and ethnicity. Understanding and addressing how these dynamics fuel fear, nationalist rhetoric and militant behaviour within Myanmar’s different communities has taken on even greater urgency.

The NLD’s landslide election victory in 2015 put MaBaTha on the back foot. But it also led to premature claims that it was a spent force, with some interpreting a recent decision by the Sangha Council banning use of its name and signboards as a death knell. Yet a refusal by many MaBaTha chapters to adhere to the ban, and an upswing in political agitation and violent provocation, have demonstrated the resilience and continued popularity of this organisation and its beliefs. Its religious authority in many quarters is greater than that of the Sangha Council and the government, and it has proven adept at turning restrictions imposed by them to its advantage.

Efforts to tackle MaBaTha and its divisive narratives must start from recognition of its sources of support. It is engaged in far more than political nationalism, having a prominent role in religious and civic education, service delivery and dispute resolution. Its members are not primarily interested in accruing political power, but rather view political influence as necessary to the promotion of their moral agenda. Countering its influence requires providing other avenues for communities and youth to participate in these areas with a sense of purpose and belonging. Failure to understand the extent of the services it provides and the support it can muster will lead to ineffective and ultimately counterproductive policy responses.

Yangon/Brussels, 5 September 2017

 

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

International Crisis Group