Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Myanmar Foreign Minister and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attended the opening ceremony of the Union Peace Conference at Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital city, on 12 January 2016. AFP/Ye Aung Thu
Briefing 149 / Asia

Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue

After almost 70 years of armed conflict, Myanmar has a rare but fading opportunity to finalise a broad-based, federal settlement. The government must adopt a more flexible approach that allays opposition concerns, and armed groups need to go beyond preliminaries and engage in meaningful discussions.

Also available in: Burmese [PDF]

I. Overview

The current government term may be the best chance for a negotiated political settlement to almost 70 years of armed conflict that has devastated the lives of minority communities and held back Myanmar as a whole. Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration have made the peace process a top priority. While the previous government did the same, she has a number of advantages, such as her domestic political stature, huge election mandate and strong international backing, including qualified support on the issue from China. These contributed to participation by nearly all armed groups – something the former government had been unable to achieve – in the Panglong-21 peace conference that commenced on 31 August. But if real progress is to be made, both the government and armed groups need to adjust their approach so they can start a substantive political dialogue as soon as possible.

Pangalong-21 was important for its broad inclusion of armed groups, not for its content, and the challenges going forward should not be underestimated. Many groups attended not out of support for the process, but because they considered they had no alternative. Many felt that they were treated poorly and the conference was badly organised. The largest opposition armed group, the United Wa State Party (UWSP), sent only a junior delegation that walked out on the second day. An escalation of fighting in recent months, including use of air power and long-range artillery by the Myanmar military, has further eroded trust.

Such issues are not unexpected; what matters is the resilience of the process to deal with them. The announced scheduling of further Panglong-21 conferences every six months (the next for February 2017) imposes an artificially rigid timeframe that limits the flexibility required to overcome obstacles. Weak capacity in the government’s peace secretariat, the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC), is another challenge. It will take difficult negotiations to convince most groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), a sine qua non for participation in the upcoming political dialogue process – future Panglong-21 conferences and the discussions feeding into them – that has been clearly articulated by both the government and military. This will be even harder if the military continues its forceful posture on the ground.

Eight groups signed the NCA in October 2015, but at least ten other armed groups have reservations. Some, like the UWSP, have better de facto self-governance arrange­ments already and worry their status would be undermined by signing. Others are concerned that the new government has a more unilateral approach to the peace process and that if they sign, political solutions are more likely to be imposed than negotiated. Three groups without bilateral ceasefires are resisting government demands to issue statements renouncing armed struggle in principle.

The government should consider adopting a more flexible timeframe for the peace conferences and reassure armed groups by demonstrating a less unilateral approach to the process in general. It needs to ensure that civil society, women and youth have a stronger voice in the process. It should also take steps to ensure that it has the necessary support capacity in place at the NRPC.

Armed groups need to recognise that though they have legitimate concerns about the process, they are unlikely to get a better chance to achieve a negotiated political settlement. Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed firm support for a federal, democratic solution and has unparalleled political authority to deliver it, particularly with the Burman majority. Now is the time to start discussing the contours of that deal, rather than continuing to focus on preliminaries.

The alternative is not attractive. Time is not on the side of the armed groups. Unless both sides grasp the current opportunity, the prospect of a negotiated solution will recede, likely to be replaced by a messy, drawn-out endgame that fails to address the underlying grievances of the minority communities, including their demands for a federal system and greater equality. This would be to the detriment of peace and stability in the borderlands and to Myanmar’s future as a prosperous, tolerant and democratic country.

II. Peace Legacy from the Previous Government

A. Peace Process with Armed Groups

The administration that took power on 30 March 2016 inherited a peace process that had been in stasis during the lame-duck period leading up to the November 2015 elections and the lengthy handover period afterwards.[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 Reports N°s 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; 266 Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, 28 April 2015; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and, for more detailed historical background on the armed conflict, 214, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, 30 November 2011.Hide Footnote  The previous government had had considerable early success, agreeing bilateral ceasefires with fifteen armed groups between 2011 and 2013 (see Appendix B and the acronyms in Appendix C). There was much optimism on 31 March 2015, when the government and armed group negotiating teams initialled the NCA. However, concerns over the lack of inclusivity (the government did not allow the three groups without bilateral ceasefires – AA, TNLA and MNDAA – to sign) as well as about giving the government of then-President Thein Sein a major victory just ahead of elections, stalled the process. Eventually, eight armed groups signed the NCA at a ceremony on 15 October 2015; the remaining ten involved in the formal peace process did not. This led to some tensions between signatory and non-signatory groups.[fn]For all armed group acronyms, see Appendix B.Hide Footnote

The NCA contains basic principles recognising the territorial integrity of the state (making clear that separatism or irredentism is unacceptable), committing to “principles of democracy and federalism” and embracing the diversity of the peoples and cultures in “a secular state”. A military code of conduct prohibits certain conduct by all parties in ceasefire areas (attacks, reinforcement, recruitment, new bases, laying landmines, etc.) and sets out troop deployment provisions to avoid clashes. There is provision for a joint ceasefire monitoring body, and “interim arrangements” endorse armed groups’ de facto authority in their areas of control for a transitional period. The NCA is to be followed by a “political dialogue”, consisting of a Union Peace Conference to reach a comprehensive peace agreement that would be “the basis for amending, repealing and adding provisions to the constitution and laws, in line with agreed procedures” – that is, through the legislature – along with armed group disarmament and security sector reform.[fn]For a detailed summary of the NCA, see Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process, op. cit., Section IV.Hide Footnote

Finalisation of the NCA was thus only the first step in a long, difficult process needed to reach a comprehensive peace agreement. Many of the most challenging issues, including a possible form of federalism, how revenue would be shared, future status of the armed groups and their possible integration into the military, were deferred to the political dialogue, as were some technical military issues on ceasefire monitoring and code of conduct. It is thus neither a classic ceasefire agreement – many military issues, such as force separation, demarcation and verification, are vague, not included or need further agreement to come into force – nor a full political agreement, as it references many political issues but defers detailed discussion. This hybrid status reflects its genesis, the diverse actors and priorities around the table and political constraints.

Following the partial signing, the previous government took formal steps to implement the NCA, specifically:

  • A first session of the Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting, the body mandated to oversee NCA implementation, was held 15-17 October 2015. It established the committees set out in the NCA to take the process forward: the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) for military and ceasefire matters and Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) for political dialogue. The JMC contains ten representatives of NCA-signatory armed groups, ten of government (including military), and four independent civilians; there are also subnational committees. The UPDJC initially had sixteen representatives each of NCA-signatory armed groups, government (including military and legislature) and political parties and was chaired by then-Vice-President Sai Mauk Kham.
  • A joint legislative session ratified the NCA on 8 December, giving it legal status.
  • A Framework for Political Dialogue was agreed on 15 December, including the mandate, agenda, working methods and proportions of representatives to be included in the dialogue.
  • The first Union Peace Conference was held 12 to 16 January 2016, with opening addresses by the president, commander-in-chief, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mutu Say Poe, the head of the Karen National Union armed group. The conference had 700 participants but, occurring in the lame-duck period after the elections, was largely symbolic, intended only to launch the process and keep to the NCA’s ambitious political roadmap. Armed groups that did not sign the NCA were invited to observe, but nearly all declined.[fn]In accordance with the Framework for Political Dialogue, the 700 seats were divided 75 each for government and legislature, 150 for military, 150 each for ethnic armed groups and registered political parties, 50 each for ethnic representatives and other relevant persons. The roadmap required the Framework for Political Dialogue to be agreed within 60 days of the NCA signing and the dialogue to commence within 90 days. One non-signatory group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang, did accept the invitation. Three non-signatory armed groups without bilateral ceasefires (Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) were not invited.Hide Footnote

B. Armed Conflict

Notwithstanding these important procedural developments, the peace process essentially was in stasis between the NCA signing and the new government taking up the issue in April 2016. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground remained volatile, with fighting continuing to break out sporadically, and often unexpectedly, in many different parts of the country.

Most groups that signed the NCA are based near the Thai border in southern Shan State and the south-east. Their signing consolidated a fragile local peace, or at least absence of war, that had prevailed for some time. Groups based near the Chinese border did not sign, and the situation in many of those areas continued to be unstable, with regular, sometimes intense fighting, including between ethnic armed groups. The geographic split reflects very different political-economic realities between the areas, including access to funding and weapons and the distinct policies and approaches of China and Thailand.

Serious bouts of conflict since early 2015 include:

  • in Shan State, resumed major fighting between Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) troops and government forces in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone since February 2015, which was particularly intense from February to June that year and again in October 2015. Elsewhere in Shan State, there have been sporadic clashes between government forces and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and between that group and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South). There have also been clashes between government forces and the SSA-North, of particular intensity from October to November 2015 and in August 2016;
  • in Kachin State, between government forces and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) throughout the period, and in particular from July to November 2015, and again from April to August 2016;
  • in Rakhine State and southern Chin State, occasional, sometimes heavy clashes between government forces and the Arakan Army, in particular in April 2015, January 2016 and from April to June 2016; and
  • in Kayin State, clashes in July 2015 and again from August to September 2016 between a renegade faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and government troops together with Border Guard Force soldiers.

Such conflicts are usually accompanied by grave violations of human rights by all belligerents.[fn]See, for example, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar”, UN OHCHR A/HRC/31/71, 18 March 2016.Hide Footnote  They undermine stability and trust in the peace process and severely impact lives and livelihoods – particularly of those most at risk, including women and children – often causing internal displacements.[fn]For a detailed risk analysis, see “Kachin and northern Shan protection concerns and risk analysis”, Protection Sector, October 2015.Hide Footnote  Some 100,000 people remain displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states as a result of fighting following the 2011 breakdown of the KIO ceasefire. Fighting in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone displaced around 80,000 in February 2015, the majority to China, though most have now returned. At least 12,000 were displaced in northern Shan State in the first half of 2016 in the complex conflicts that included government forces, the TNLA and the SSA-South; most have returned home, but some 3,000 remain displaced. The fighting in Rakhine State in March-April 2016 displaced approximately 1,900, who have yet to return home. Most recently, fighting in Kayin State displaced some 4,000 in September 2016.[fn]Figures from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, except Kayin State displacements, from “Tatmadaw launch operations against KKO splinter group in Wah Boh Taung-Kyonhtaw, Methawaw regions”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 17 September 2016.Hide Footnote

III. The New Government’s Approach

A. First Steps

During the previous government’s tenure, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was invited, with other political parties, to participate in the peace process. Though it sent representatives, their engagement was limited. Aung San Suu Kyi kept her distance and was at times critical of the process. Her speech to the inaugural Union Peace Conference in January 2016 (above) was thus significant.

Suu Kyi had indicated that achieving peace would be a top priority for her government, and the NLD’s election manifesto addressed this as its first item, promising to “hold political dialogue based on the Panglong spirit in order to address the roots of internal armed conflict” – referring to the pre-independence Panglong Conference, convened by her father in 1947.[fn]“2015 Election Manifesto”, NLD, official translation, p. 5. For details on the 1947 Panglong Conference, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, op. cit., Section I. The 1947 Panglong Agreement was not a peace deal – there was then no insurgency – but an agreement by some ethnic areas (Shan, Kachin and Chin) to join an independent Burma in return for promises of full autonomy in internal administration and an equal share in national wealth.Hide Footnote  In her first major speech after the transfer of power, a Myanmar New Year’s message to the nation on 18 April, Suu Kyi stated that the government would aim to bring remaining organisations into the NCA, and “through peace conferences, we’ll continue to be able to build up a genuine, federal democratic union”.[fn]“State Counsellor offers New Year message”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 18 April 2016.Hide Footnote  She indicated that she would personally lead the process.

She gave the first concrete indication of her plans at a 27 April JMC meeting, announcing that a new 21st Century Panglong (Panglong-21) peace conference would be held within two months. This caused consternation among ethnic leaders due to both form and substance. There had been no prior consultation with ethnic armed groups or political leaders; and no details were provided on the initiative, which was seen as potentially signalling a unilateral shift in approach in a process with a legally-binding framework that had required months of detailed negotiation. The venue for the announcement compounded these concerns, as the JMC is tasked with military or ceasefire matters, not the political dialogue, for which the UPDJC is the mandated body.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ethnic party and armed group leaders, Yangon, May-July 2016. For example, a month later the leader of the Shan State Army-South, a major armed group that signed the NCA, expressed concern on both aspects. “Lt-Gen Yawd Serk: If this conference is wrong, it will affect the future of the union”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 26 May 2016.Hide Footnote

In a 26-28 May meeting of the UPDJC, which she chairs, Suu Kyi sought to allay some concerns. She confirmed she would continue to follow the NCA framework, and Panglong-21 was only a different name for the Union Peace Conferences that framework envisaged. While this reassured ethnic leaders, other comments raised new concerns, notably her stated intention to narrow the scope of discussions in the political dialogue from the five thematic areas agreed in the UPDJC to federalism and security.[fn]Ibid. “NCA to guide 21st Century Panglong Conference”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 28 May 2016. The previously-agreed five areas are set out in the Framework for Political Dialogue, which is being amended. The three thematic areas proposed to be dropped were: social issues (including culture, language, gender, resettlement, human rights, drugs), economic issues (including foreign investment, tax and revenue distribution and regional development) and issues around land and natural resources (including resource management and revenue sharing).Hide Footnote  This would leave out some key areas of concern and missed an opportunity to build confidence by addressing easier issues, such as language policy. With armed group leaders strongly opposed, the matter was not settled before the Panglong-21 conference, and discussions are ongoing. It is likely armed group concerns will be accommodated, and the dialogue’s scope will remain unchanged, though with some effort to focus on priority issues.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of UPDJC, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  There has to date been little outreach to civil society, and few efforts to engage a wider range of voices in the peace process, particularly women and youth.

The government also announced a new peace architecture on 31 May, with three sets of structures:

  • the NCA-mandated JMC and UPDJC, the latter now chaired by Suu Kyi and with party membership limited to those that won seats in the last elections;
  • a committee to transform the previous government’s Myanmar Peace Centre into a National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC). This new centre, launched on 11 July, is headed by Suu Kyi. Under it is a new Peace Commission, chaired by Dr Tin Myo Win, her personal physician and newly-designated chief peace negotiator.[fn]Established by President Office Orders 50/2016 and 51/2016, 11 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Unlike its predecessor, a semi-government body staffed mainly by non-government experts, it is a government institution under Suu Kyi’s State Counsellor Office, staffed by civil servants and governed by civil service laws and financial rules; and
  • a Panglong-21 preparatory committee also chaired by Dr Tin Myo Win and sub-committees to liaise respectively with NCA-signatories and non-signatories.

B. Peace Conference Preparations

Though the date for Panglong-21 slipped from her initial late-June proposal, Suu Kyi appeared determined to avoid major delays. This seems to stem from two considerations: not wanting to repeat the experience of the previous government, when negotiations bogged down over process, particularly which armed groups would be included; and a sense that her leverage would be at its greatest early in her term, due to the election landslide. Some observers also believed she wanted the conference before her September meetings with President Obama in Washington DC and at the UN General Assembly. Thus, at her urging, there was agreement with the NCA signatories for Panglong-21 to begin no later than 31 August, a very ambitious timeframe both logistically and for obtaining buy-in of non-signatory armed groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group leaders and international peace-process adviser, Yangon, July-August 2016. “Gov’t, NCA signatories agree to hold UPC no later than 31 August”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 29 June 2016.Hide Footnote

The intention to make Panglong-21 inclusive of all armed groups, stated from the outset, was positively received. This has long been a demand of the non-signatories. On 3 June, as a first step to secure their participation, Dr Tin Myo Win met the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), the main umbrella organisation of non-signatories. He then met separately on 17-19 June with the UWSP and NDAA, non-signatories that are not UNFC members. Under the previous government, non-signatories were only invited as observers; the new government got around this by indicating that since the first Panglong-21 conference would be symbolic, with presentations but no negotiations or decisions, all armed groups would be “attendees” (tet-yauk-thu). The government position remained, however, that only signatories could participate in the future political dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Peace Commission, Yangon, August 2016.Hide Footnote

There were also negotiations with the three previously-excluded groups: AA, TNLA and MNDAA. Since these lack bilateral ceasefires, they are not eligible to sign the NCA, and the military previously insisted they must disarm, something the groups equated with surrender. The commander-in-chief subsequently proposed that it would be sufficient to put their arms beyond use in some verifiable way, along the lines of formulas used in Aceh, Nepal and Northern Ireland, but this was rejected.[fn]Ibid. Also, commander-in-chief meeting with press, 13 May 2016, reported in “Tatmadaw sets out peace conference conditions”, Myanmar Times, 16 May 2016.Hide Footnote  Negotiations then focused on a statement committing the groups to renounce armed struggle in principle. Considerable progress was made, with the only sticking point being the Burmese-language term for “armed struggle” versus “violence”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Peace Commission, Yangon, August 2016.Hide Footnote  However, no agreement was reached, the three issued no statement, and they were not invited to Panglong-21. Crucially, however, that did not lead to the UNFC and other non-signatories boycotting, though lack of inclusion had been a key reason cited by groups for not signing the NCA.[fn]See Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process op. cit., Section III.B.Hide Footnote  

In the lead-up to Panglong-21, representatives of seventeen armed groups held a major strategy meeting in the KIO-controlled town of Maijayang, 26-30 July, to coordinate positions on key issues; the UN and China attended as international observers. Four armed groups did not attend (UWSP, MNDAA, TNLA and NSCN-Khaplang). The UWSP, together with its NDAA ally, went to Naypyitaw to meet on 29 July with Suu Kyi and then the commander-in-chief.[fn]The NDAA participated in both the Maijayang meeting and the Naypyitaw visit.Hide Footnote

C. The Panglong-21 Conference

The conference, officially the “Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong”, was held in Naypyitaw from 31 August to 3 September. Suu Kyi’s opening address was followed by plenary speeches from the lower and upper house speakers, the commander-in-chief, the KNU chairman, NLD patron Tin Oo (an ex-commander-in-chief), the KIO vice chairman and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.[fn]The KIO vice chairman’s talk was a last-minute concession; there was initially no speaking slot for the non-signatory groups (Major-General N’Ban La also chairs the UNFC).Hide Footnote

Representatives of nearly all armed groups attended, except the AA, TNLA, MNDAA and NSCN-Khaplang.[fn]The first three were not invited; the NSCN-Khaplang, though invited, had long made clear it would not attend, as it is committed to the creation of an independent Naga homeland out of parts of Myanmar and India, which is politically inconsistent with the NCA and the peace process.Hide Footnote  Some 850 attendees participated over the four days. In a move armed group representatives welcomed for its transparency, the 72 ten-minute speeches were carried live on national television, “the first time in more than 50 years that they [were] able to express their desires and pent up aspirations to a national audience without fear of being arrested and put in prison”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group representatives, Yangon, September 2016. Quote from “Political Monitor No. 20”, Euro-Burma Office, 20 August-2 September 2016.Hide Footnote

The attendance of most non-signatories was an important step forward. However, it does not necessarily indicate significantly greater trust in the new government on the part of armed group leaders. It more reflects the very different political landscape – in particular, the domestic and international legitimacy of Suu Kyi. Many armed group leaders felt they had little alternative but to participate, despite reservations or concerns; some came under pressure from China to attend (see below).[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  A prominent ethnic politician, Khun Tun Oo, who chairs the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, did boycott on the basis that the conference was not fully inclusive of armed groups (though the decision was undoubtedly influenced by political tensions between his party and the NLD).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group representatives and analysts, Yangon, September 2016. “Khun Tun Oo absent from peace talks”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 31 August 2016. For details on the tensions, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s New Government, op. cit., Section III.C.Hide Footnote

Several groups felt the conference had been hastily convened, and there was considerable unhappiness at flawed arrangements. Armed group delegations were not met at the Naypyitaw airport and had to find their own way to their accommodation; delegations, including some senior leaders, were housed dormitory-style by the government; written documents and nameplates did not give military ranks of armed group representatives or other honorifics (failure to use the equivalent of “Mr” or “Ms” before a name is culturally very impolite in Myanmar). A major group, the UWSP, walked out after the first day, saying it felt discriminated against, though this was at least as much a reflection of its ambivalence about the NCA as it was over a specific issue; it had sent only a low-level delegation.[fn]The UWSP delegation had booked itself into a prominent hotel, rather than stay at the government-assigned accommodation. Since groups were not met at the airport, the delegation did not collect its conference passes, and on the opening day a government organiser arranged temporary “observer” badges so the delegation could attend the plenary. Since these were not valid for the following day session, when the UWSP was to give its presentation, security barred the delegation, which then walked out in protest before organisers could remedy the problem. Crisis Group interview, organising committee member, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  Some of these issues arose from the tight timeframe for convening the conference, but others appear to have been the deliberate result of the government’s approach to organising it.

IV. Huge Challenges Remain

The government has indicated that it plans to hold such Panglong-21 peace conferences every six months.[fn]“Union Peace Conference to be held every six months”, State Counsellor Office statement, 15 August 2016.Hide Footnote  This would impose an artificially rigid set of deadlines on a process that must achieve the buy-in of diverse stakeholders on very contentious issues. Challenges lie in the preliminary matters that must be settled before the next session, the content of future political discussions and the political and security context.

A. Preparations for the Next Conference

Achieving broad participation by armed groups at the recent conference hinged on three things:

  • Suu Kyi, who won an electoral landslide, including in many ethnic areas, and enjoys strong international support as well, has great political capital and legitimacy. Most armed group leaders accordingly felt politically compelled to attend, unlike in the past. This was reinforced by the military’s support for the conference and the clear convergence of views between the soldiers and government on the peace process. China’s backing was also critical. The combination gave Suu Kyi a large advantage over the previous government, which had military support but far less legitimacy and no backing – indeed, sometimes obstruction – from China. (It also amplified the power asymmetry between the government/military and the armed groups, making the latter nervous.)
  • Decisions on difficult issues were postponed until after the conference. In particular, discussions on a revised Framework for Political Dialogue continue, and there is not yet agreement on topics to be included and how a series of “national dialogues” to feed into the next Panglong-21 will be conducted. Non-signatory groups declined to attend a September framework review meeting.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UPDJC member, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote
  • Perhaps most importantly, the requirement that armed groups must sign the NCA to participate was not enforced. This was possible because the conference was billed as a symbolic launch, without discussions or decisions. But it remains firm government policy and a red line for the military that armed groups wishing to participate in the political dialogue must first sign the NCA. This message was reinforced by Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who made the NCA a key focus of their opening speeches.[fn]Reproduced in Global New Light of Myanmar, 1 and 2 September 2016, respectively.Hide Footnote

The timeframe is extremely tight. The next conference is due in February and may be timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary on 12 February of the 1947 Panglong agreement, celebrated annually as Union Day. Before this, there is need for negotiations to secure signing of the NCA by non-signatories and agreement on a revised Framework for Political Dialogue (targeted for end of October), followed by national dialogues in each state and region. All these steps are difficult, time-consuming or both, particularly getting more groups to sign the NCA. The largest armed group, the UWSP, is very reluctant to sign, because it is a de facto mini-state with far more autonomy than anything the NCA offers. The closely-allied NDAA is likely to follow its lead.

The seven UNFC groups (see Appendix B), particularly the larger ones, desire to reach a political settlement on the grievances driving decades of conflict – fundamentally, lack of autonomy and equality. They recognise the current moment may be the best opportunity they will ever get, but exclusion of the AA, TNLA and MNDAA makes the NCA politically problematic for them and a ceasefire militarily unfeasible. They also have not yet been offered any concessions – not even of the face-saving kind – for signing,[fn]In particular, the UNFC has put forward an eight-point proposal for amending/supplementing the NCA. It will be very difficult for the government to accept any changes now that it is signed by the former president, commander-in-chief and legislative speakers, as well as eight armed groups, and been ratified by the legislature. Some of the specific proposals are also quite difficult, but a compromise must be found. See also, Sai Wansai, “Framework for Political Dialogue: UNFC’s boycott leads to peace process deterioration”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 21 September 2016.Hide Footnote  and will be reluctant to do so if the only reason is to gain access to a process they view as driven unilaterally by the government and insufficiently sensitive to their concerns. They worry that conforming to an artificial, government-imposed timeframe would set a precedent for unilateral imposition of any subsequent political solutions.

Some UNFC members may also want to delay major decisions until the KNU holds its congress in November.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior armed group representative, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  If a more hardline leadership results, they believe it could pave the way for this influential armed group to rejoin the alliance, enhancing its power and bargaining position. However, if the UNFC tries to prolong the process too much, it risks being marginalised, for example not being eligible to participate in the national dialogues, thereby giving government and political parties a stronger role in defining the peace process agenda.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group leaders, members of government peace bodies and analysts, Yangon, July-October 2016.Hide Footnote

The issue of the three groups, AA, TNLA and MNDAA, without bilateral ceasefires is even more difficult. Including them in the next conference requires, at a minimum, agreement on a statement renouncing violence in principle; even then, they could likely attend only as observers. Having declined that for the last conference, it is far from clear whether they will do so ahead of the next; the TNLA sent an open letter to Panglong-21 stating it would “never lay down arms or renounce arms, at any time or under any circumstance”.[fn]TNLA open letter to the Panglong-21 conference, 31 August 2016.Hide Footnote  This not only matters for inclusivity, but also has on-the-ground consequences. These groups are to various degrees allied with or supported by the UWSP and KIO, and they fight together in joint patrols and in some cases together with the KIO and SSPP. All operate in adjacent or overlapping territory, and it is hard to imagine any ceasefire being sustainable without the three non-ceasefire groups.[fn]See “Military confrontation or political dialogue: Consequences of the Kokang crisis for peace and democracy in Myanmar”, Transnational Institute, July 2015.Hide Footnote  

A huge amount of procedural work and negotiation is required before the next peace conference. In addition to the inherent challenges, the peace architecture has quite limited capacity. Lead negotiator Dr Tin Myo Win works extremely hard but has no chief of staff for the process and continues his medical work for Suu Kyi and as a surgeon at a philanthropic hospital. The NRPC, tasked with the day-to-day work, has only a handful of staff, compared with 120 under its predecessor. Because Suu Kyi decided to establish it as a fully government entity under her office (its predecessor was semi-independent, at least administratively), it must follow civil service staffing and budgeting regulations. Scaling up will take considerable time, and it will be difficult to draw on outside expertise.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, individuals with direct knowledge, Yangon, June-September 2016. The new multi-donor Joint Peace Fund is an initiative that can provide significant resources, but it cannot necessarily overcome the regulatory restrictions the NRPC operates under.Hide Footnote  There is thus a worrying lack of institutional capacity to support peace-process mechanics, and the armed groups also have little support capacity.

B. Questions of Content

Now that the peace process set out in the NCA has been launched symbolically on two occasions – the Union Peace Conference in January 2016 and Panglong-21 in August – the next conference will have to start addressing the substantive issues. Assuming that a revised Framework for Political Dialogue can be agreed and reasonable inclusivity of armed groups can be achieved through an expansion in NCA signatories, participants will then need to start grappling with the substance. All agree this will be very challenging, and it will likely be many years before a comprehensive peace agreement can be reached. Three key questions arise:

  • Is a negotiated federal solution possible? This is the main demand of armed groups and ethnic leaders, and Suu Kyi has strongly committed to achieving “the democratic federal union of our dreams”. The military is far more cautious. The commander-in-chief did not use the term “federal” in his opening speech at Panglong-21, emphasising “peace and unity” and that armed struggle is inconsistent with democracy. However, the military is not rejecting federalism; the commander-in-chief signed the NCA, whose first point is to “establish a union based on the principles of democracy and federalism”, and a senior military officer used the term at Panglong-21.[fn]Aung San Suu Kyi, opening speech, Panglong-21, Naypyitaw, 31 August 2016. NCA Section 1(a); speech of Lt. General Yar Pyae, JMC chair, at Panglong-21, reported in “21st Century Panglong commences in Nay Pyi Taw”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 1 September 2016.Hide Footnote  The potential deal is federalism in return for disarmament of armed groups. However, this will be complicated given the number of armed groups and their divergent interests, and the extent of federal powers that military and government are ready to devolve is not yet clear. There are also hundreds of armed militias, some of which have ethno-nationalist positions, but most are primarily economic actors.[fn]For details, see John Buchanan, “Militias in Myanmar”, The Asia Foundation, July 2016.Hide Footnote

  • Can the concerns of sub-minorities be accommodated? One of the more intractable issues is likely to be their status. Federalism has tended to be conceived, in geographic terms, as devolution of powers to the existing seven ethnic states.[fn]Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.Hide Footnote  This alarms smaller minority groups within these states, who fear that political domination at the state level will replace domination by Naypyitaw. This was already clear from the speeches at Panglong-21, where specific claims for new states were made by the Wa, Ta’ang and Pao (all currently having self-administered areas within Shan State) and the Red Shan (in Kachin State and Sagaing Region, where they have no territorial designation). Many other potential claims can be anticipated.[fn]See comments of Sai Htay Aung (Red Shan), Khun Myint Tun (Pao) and U Yan Kyaw (Wa), Global New Light of Myanmar, 3 September 2016; and TNLA open letter, op. cit., which specifically calls for creation of a Ta’ang (Palaung) State.Hide Footnote  Shan and Kachin political and armed group leaders in general oppose these proposals.
  • Will any negotiated solution be regarded as legitimate and be implemented? Even if a reasonably inclusive process can be achieved and consensus reached on the complex substantive issues, many constituencies may feel marginalised by the process. Minority ethnic representation is limited to those that have armed groups or political parties that won seats (in a recent change Suu Kyi initiated, those that did not win legislative seats in 2015 have only a token number at the peace conference and no UPDJC representation).[fn]See “Kayah political parties boycott Panglong Conference”, Myanmar Times, 22 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Many influential ethnic parties won nothing in the NLD landslide and will have a minimal voice in the process; some minority groups are not represented by an armed group; and questions can be asked about how representative armed groups are of communities in their areas.

There is a fundamental doubt about whether state-based federal solutions can appropriately be negotiated between armed groups and government, in particular when civil society voices, women and youth feel marginalised in the process.[fn]“CSOs pine for seat at table”, Myanmar Times, 26 August 2016; statement by Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process on Panglong-21, September 2016; “No women, no peace: Gender equality, conflict and peace in Myanmar”, Transnational Institute, 13 January 2016; “Youth ethnic alliance emerges after summit”, Myanmar Times, 3 August 2016.Hide Footnote  That process should be adjusted to ensure that it has broader legitimacy. Even where representation has strong legitimacy – for example, the NLD government’s support from the majority Burman group (and many others) – the population at large has had little engagement with the peace process and may oppose solutions that devolve too much political authority and economic control to minority areas. Minority communities will not necessarily see the NLD as representing their interests, even if they voted for it, because that vote was in many ways a referendum on military rule, reflecting determination to vote out the military-backed party.[fn]For discussion of the election outcome in ethnic areas and its interpretation, see Crisis Group Briefing, The Myanmar Elections, op. cit., Section IV.C; and “The 2015 general election in Myanmar: What now for ethnic politics?”, Transnational Institute, December 2015.Hide Footnote

While Suu Kyi’s focus has been on federalism and security – she initially proposed that the political dialogue deal directly with only those issues – minority communities have many other concerns. These include rights and discrimination, revenue sharing, natural resource management and language policy.[fn]For detailed discussion, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, op. cit., Section IV.Hide Footnote  Whether these are dealt with up-front as potentially more tractable confidence-building measures or sidelined by more fundamental issues can have a big impact on the dynamics of the peace process. Overlooking them would likely be a mistake.

C. The Political and Security Environment

Since the peace process was launched in 2011, it has had to face significant external and domestic challenges. Serious armed conflict on the ground and China’s role have been particularly important and are to some degree interlinked.

The most significant outbreak of conflict in recent years was the collapse of the KIO ceasefire in 2011, the seeds of which were sown prior to the 2010 election. Fighting resumed ahead of the formal launch of the peace process in August 2011, and a serious escalation in December 2012 threatened to derail it, but China’s intervention, prompted in part by fighting spilling over its border, pushed the sides back to the negotiating table.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°140, A Tentative Peace in Myanmar’s Kachin Conflict, 12 June 2013.Hide Footnote  Another major test came in April 2014, when serious clashes displaced some 5,000 civilians and eroded the trust of all parties in the NCA negotiations. The crisis deepened in November 2014, when an army mortar attack on a military training centre at KIO headquarters almost caused the talks to collapse. Serious fighting in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone between government forces and the MNDAA from February 2015 hardened opposing positions of the military and several armed groups over inclusivity, part of the reason why a number of groups were unwilling to sign the NCA that year.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process, op. cit., Section II.D.Hide Footnote

With a fragile peace holding in parts of the borderlands and clashes ongoing in many others (Section II.B above), the peace process is likely to continue to be buffeted. Rigid timelines for Panglong-21 conferences risk becoming an obvious target for spoilers and an unsatisfactory framework for adjusting to unpredictable but inevitable escalations in the conflict. The military may feel less constrained by the peace process than under the previous government; given the power asymmetries, it is likely to continue pressing its ground advantage, especially with NCA non-signatories and in particular if the peace process moves slowly or it feels that armed groups are being obstructive.

China’s influence can have a big impact on ground dynamics and the peace process, given its considerable leverage over the groups on its border. It has regularly intervened, positively and negatively. Relations with the Thein Sein administration were often strained, starting with suspension of the Myitsone dam project in 2011 and difficulties with the Letpadaung copper mine – both major China-backed projects – and long delays in announcing that a Chinese company had won the tender for the Kyaukpyu deep-sea port and special economic zone, a major Chinese strategic interest.[fn]See Yun Sun, “Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Beijing: Recalibrating Myanmar’s China policy”, Transnational Institute, 16 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Myanmar’s markedly improved relations with the U.S. intensified China’s angst that it had lost its “traditional advantage”.[fn]“China’s engagement in Myanmar: From Malacca Dilemma to Transition Dilemma”, Transnational Institute, July 2016.Hide Footnote  The poor relations, combined with specific irritants such as Myanmar’s intrusion into Chinese airspace in 2015 to attack the MNDAA, a flood of refugees into China and Naypyitaw’s invitation to Japan and the West to become involved in the peace process, produced a negative stance toward the NCA, to the point that persistent allegations emerged that China was lobbying armed groups in 2015 not to sign.[fn]China has denied the allegations, which were made publicly by a member of the Myanmar Peace Centre and subsequently retracted, and privately to Crisis Group and others by a wide range of people connected to the peace process. Whether true or not, it is clear from talk with armed groups leaders at the time that there was no Chinese pressure to sign the NCA and massive private financial support from China that the authorities must have been aware of. See “Fraud probe alleges Chinese firm sent money to Myanmar insurgents”, Frontier Myanmar, 3 February 2016.Hide Footnote  

The situation has shifted significantly under the new government. China feels Suu Kyi gives more priority to the bilateral relationship, and it supports her peace overtures. At the July summit of armed group leaders hosted by the KIO, the Chinese special envoy publicly called on all groups to attend Panglong-21, and Beijing successfully put considerable pressure on several to do so. China has also given several million dollars to fund the JMC but remains uncertain about the trajectory of relations, the chances for success in the peace process and how many years that would take; it is thus likely to continue to balance support for Naypyitaw and maintaining ties with armed groups along its border.[fn]Yun Sun, “Aung San Suu Kyi visit to Beijing”, op. cit. Crisis Group interview, Myanmar expert on China, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

The Panglong-21 conference encapsulated both the significant advantages Suu Kyi has for forging peace and the enormous challenges she must surmount. The broad attendance of armed groups gives hope of a more inclusive, successful peace process, but it would be a mistake to think that the fundamental problems have become easier to solve. It will take difficult negotiations to convince most groups to sign the NCA, a sine qua non the government and military have each expressed. The announced scheduling of Panglong-21 conferences every six months artificially limits the flexibility required to secure signatures. Weak capacity in the government’s NRPC peace secretariat makes the job more difficult.

The government should consider adopting a less rigid timeframe and less unilateral approach and take steps to ensure it has the necessary support capacity in place. Armed groups need to recognise that, though they have legitimate concerns about the process, they may never get a better chance to negotiate a settlement. Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed firm support for a federal, democratic solution and has the political authority to deliver. Now is the time to start discussing the contours of that deal, rather than continuing to focus on preliminaries.

Yangon/Brussels, 19 October 2016

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar. CRISIS GROUP

Appendix B: The Main Ethnic Armed Groups and their Ceasefire Status

  1. United Wa State Party (UWSP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 6 September 2011. NCA-signatory: No
  2. National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA, “Mongla group”)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 September 2011. NCA-signatory: No
  3. Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army (DKBA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 3 November 2011. NCA-signatory: Yes
  4. Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-South)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 2 December 2011. NCA-signatory: Yes
  5. Chin National Front (CNF)  
    Bilateral ceasefire: 6 January 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  6. Karen National Union (KNU)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 12 January 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  7. Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-North)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 28 January 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  8. New Mon State Party (NMSP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 1 February 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  9. Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 February 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  10. Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 March 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  11. Arakan Liberation Party (ALP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 5 April 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  12. National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang
    Bilateral ceasefire: 9 April 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  13. Pao National Liberation Organisation (PNLO)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 25 August 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  14. All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 5 August 2013. NCA-signatory: Yes
  15. Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO)
    Bilateral ceasefire: (30 May 2012)*. NCA-signatory: No
  16. Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: No. NCA-signatory: No
  17. Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA, “Kokang group”)         
    Bilateral ceasefire: No†. NCA-signatory: No
  18. Arakan Army (AA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: No. NCA-signatory: No

* An agreement was signed on 30 May 2012. It was not a formal ceasefire, but contained inter alia a commitment to “efforts to achieve de-escalation and cessation of hostilities”.

† The MNDAA’s 1989 ceasefire ended after an army attack in 2009, with one faction being routed (and its leaders fleeing to China) and the other agreeing to become a Border Guard Force unit under partial army control. The routed faction subsequently reactivated, with support from other groups.

The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) is an armed group umbrella organisation, whose seven members have not signed the NCA: SSPP/SSA-North, NMSP, KNPP, KIO, Lahu Democratic Union, Arakan National Council, Wa National Organisation. The last three do not have significant armed forces, so have not been directly included in the ceasefire process.

Appendix C: List of Acronyms

AA: Arakan Army

ABSDF: All Burma Students Democratic Front

ALP: Arakan Liberation Party

CNF: Chin National Front

DKBA: Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army, Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army

JMC: Joint Monitoring Committee

KIO: Kachin Independence Organisation

KNPP: Karenni National Progressive Party

KNU: Karen National Union

MNDAA: Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang)

NCA: Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement

NDAA: National Democratic Alliance Army (“Mongla group”)

NMSP: New Mon State Party

NRPC: National Reconciliation and Peace Centre

NSCN-Khaplang: National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang

PNLO: Pao National Liberation Organisation

RCSS: Restoration Council of Shan State

SSA-North: Shan State Army-North

SSA-South: Shan State Army-South

SSPP: Shan State Progress Party

TNLA: Ta’ang National Liberation Army

UNFC : United Nationalities Federal Council

UPDJC: Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee

UWSP: United Wa State Party

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.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

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 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