Myanmar: The calm before the storm?

How should we interpret the current state of anti-Muslim Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar that has emerged as one of the greatest threats to the country’s still-uncertain political transition? Compared with previous moments, the last few months have been relatively quiet, with no riots or bloodshed. U Wirathu’s summit meeting with Bodu Bala Sena leaders in Sri Lanka was cause for concern, but it is still unclear what cooperation might actually materialize between Buddhist partisans in the two countries. Large demonstrations in several cities in favor of four pieces of religious legislation proposed by monks that unfavorably target Muslims have kept the issue in the headlines, but given other pressing constitutional and legislative concerns, there seems to be no rush in Parliament to pass them.

Is this merely a lull, staged possibly in connection with the visits of so many world leaders this month? Can we expect—as many do—to see a renewal of religious violence, possibly even intensifying as we move closer to the 2015 presidential elections?

My colleague Susan Hayward and I have recently published a paper through the East-West Center’s Policy Studies series, analyzing the current religious conflict in Myanmar, including the historical dimensions of Buddhist nationalism, the contemporary anxieties that fuel it, and alternate interpretations that could counter its current anti-Muslim orientation. We outline the many factors that have contributed to the present situation, all of which are likely to persist for at least the near future. While the piece is a relatively comprehensive overview up to the moment, the situation on the ground continues to change.

Between the first draft as a conference paper in November 2013 and revisions in mid-2014, the 969 Movement was eclipsed by MaBaTha (The Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion) while the strategy of “buy Buddhist” boycotts of Muslim businesses shifted to a legislative agenda, with large public rallies and cooperation between nationalist groups and political parties. As the tactics of nationalist organizations shift in response to changing political opportunity structures, anyone seeking to effectively respond to religious violence and discrimination must take this into account.

While the first year or so of religious conflict in Myanmar saw little organized opposition, eventually civil society was galvanized in important ways. In March 2014, many groups came together to create the Pan Zagar campaign, which has sought to promote “flower speech” on- and offline, and to discourage people from dangerous or incendiary speech. Civil society groups also spoke out strongly against the proposed law that would restrict inter-religious marriage. Women and women’s organizations took the lead in this case, debunking the nationalists’ argument that the bill was designed to protect women and instead demonstrating how it was a further restriction of women’s freedoms.  The price for taking these public stands in opposition to the legislation was high. Some activists faced death threats for speaking out. While human rights activists in Myanmar are no strangers to these kinds of threats, having faced persecution from the paramilitary thugs of previous regimes, the shadowy source of the threats in today’s more complex political environment heightens their chilling effect.

Although the current moment may appear to be a lull, it is critical that those who oppose religious violence and discrimination use these moments of relative calm to counter misguided and bigoted views and to renew social and economic ties between religious communities that have been strained or severed by recent tensions. Effectively responding to religious intolerance in Myanmar will take coordinated efforts on several fronts. Long-term efforts to redesign monastic and school curricula to promote peace and inclusion should be complemented by outreach programs in the short-term that counter misinformed rumors about Muslims that have circulated in Burmese society for decades.

Campaigns that seek to gradually change social norms can also bear fruit now as networks like Pan Zagar create safe spaces for people to stand up to their friends, neighbors and co-workers by challenging religious stereotypes or hurtful language. And of course, the Myanmar government will have to be a part of the solution, ensuring that law enforcement is ultimately empowered as a tool of justice, while being monitored and guided in the interim, as security forces and government officials navigate their roles in a new system that requires them to be compassionate and fair rather than patron-bound and fearful.

We know both the opportunities and the motivation to use religious identity for political gain will increase as the 2015 elections draw closer. Now is the time to ensure that we are doing our best to understand this rapidly changing political landscape and to put in place programs that will strengthen community resilience to withstand these inter-religious tensions and limit the possibility of violence in the short term while building a more tolerant and just Myanmar in which all communities feel secure and included.

Matthew J. Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford