By Mark Wang | December 19, 2017
Since the surprising acceleration of Myanmar’s democratization and political liberalization in 2011, Buddhist nationalist movements have been playing an alarmingly prominent political role. This could pose a serious threat to the secular principles of the transitional state that are enshrined in the 2008 constitution, and could further marginalize and irritate ethnic minorities and fuel communal conflicts.
The emergence of Buddhist nationalist movements can be seen as a continuation of both the anti-colonial nationalist movement in the 1930s and the mass mobilization of secular citizens and monks by the pro-democratic movements in late 2000s. On one hand, the nationalist movements heavily borrow the anti-colonial and anti-Muslim narratives crystalized by the pre-independence nationalist movement. On the other hand, the ongoing democratization released political monks out of authoritarian control. As a result, these movements and their preeminent monks gained strong respect and support among the the general public in a transitional era marked by uncertainty and unease.
Along with changing political opportunities, Buddhist nationalist movements experienced significant structural transformation and gained more agenda-setting capability. Despite its anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Buddhist nationalist 969 Movement launched in 2012 had no intention to participate in party politics and was extremely informal and decentralized in form. By contrast, its successor, the Mabatha Movement had a more institutionalized structure which allowed it to launch organized campaigns. It was formed explicitly for political and legislative purposes, and submitted to the parliament four radical bills “to protect race and religion”. Also, it was far more than a simple hate group as depicted by the international media: it engaged in a range of social and cultural services that the government failed to provide. Finally, when the brand Mabatha was banned early this year, it split into a Buddhist nationalist party and a religious organization dedicated to philanthropic and educational efforts.
Institutionalized structures enabled the 969 and Mabatha movements to adopt various strategies to interact with major political actors, including political parties, the government, and the military to push their agendas successfully.
Firstly, Myanmar’s two major political party, namely the NLD (Aung San Suu Kyi’s party) and USDP (party of the former president Thein Sein) reacted very similarly to the political participation of Buddhist nationalist groups. On the one hand, most of the major party legislators considered the “protect race and religion” bills inappropriate and managed to delay the debate on them. On the other hand, ahead of the 2015 national election, major parties began to bow to the pressure of Buddhist nationalism. For the USDP, it began to work with the Mabatha and made a U-turn on the bills. For the NLD, it clearly responded to USDP’s use of Buddhism by not yielding any Muslim candidate in the election. In addition, both parties donated heavily to the Mabatha during the campaign.
Secondly, without constituent pressure, military lawmakers were in a better position to resist Buddhist nationalism from below. In contrast to the military-backed USDP, they did not support these “protect of race and religion” bills. Also, the military backed president Thein Sein’s refusal to disenfranchise Rohingya Muslims. Seeing itself as the guard of “national unity and security”, the military prefers a form of harmonious nationalism and is especially averse to Buddhist nationalists’ attempt to amend the secular 2008 constitution, which it deems as the blueprint for democracy.
Lastly, in contrast with the legislature, the executive branch has been more willing to curb the political activity of Buddhist monks. However, neither the USDP nor the NLD government was able to effectively control the Buddhist nationalist movements through the official monastic order, which exerts far less popularity and moral authority than preeminent nationalist monks. Therefore, bans on 969 and Mabatha movements by the government were largely futile: nationalist monks painlessly rebranded and reorganized themselves.
The involvement of Buddhist nationalist groups in electoral politics is not good news for those who would like to see a democratic Myanmar able and willing to protect minority rights. As happened in Myanmar and Sri Lanka in the 1950s, the anti-minority activities of nationalist Buddhist organizations and religious outbidding by mainstream parties would severely diminish the secular nature of the state and further marginalize religious minorities. In both cases, the desecularization of the state led to bloody and decade-long civil wars.
Unfortunately, this may be a likely future for Myanmar. The social effect of Myanmar’s economic reform would be fundamental. A capable state will minimize the prospect of a national crisis scenario, in which the monastic order would have a moral obligation to intervene. However, Myanmar’s current model of development, relying heavily on the natural resource sector, is rife with inequality. The NLD government by now has not been able to initiate necessary reforms that will allow more inclusive growth. Arguably, a lack of socio-economic development initiatives could further divert electoral campaign to the identity politics of religion.
Secondly, mainstream parties would be the key gatekeepers between religion and politics, but only if they refrain from catering to the Buddhist majority or forming partnership with political monks or small nationalist parties. Hence, the danger lies in the ideological re-orientation of mainstream parties, which would incorporate Buddhist nationalist agendas into formal party politics.
Overall, Buddhist nationalism is at present entangled with the internationalized communal violence in Rakhine state. The military, which still dominates Myanmar’s national security policy making, will also play a significant role in politics and policy making. Although it has historically been a defender of the secular state and demonstrated antipathy towards political activity of religious organizations, any deterioration of the situation will increase the odds of the dangerous alliance between religious organizations and the military. Unfortunately, nationalist monks’ pro-military demonstration last month in Mandalay and Karen state shows that this scenario might be closer to reality than imagined.
Mark Wang is a Master of International Affairs candidate at the School of Global Policy and Strategy focusing on Southeast Asia. He is interested in current Southeast Asian and Indian politics and political economy, and wishes to see secularization theory as part of the modernization grand narrative modified by non-Western, especially Buddhist, Confucian and Hindi traditions. He believes that a bridge needs to be built between the spiritual and the political if we want to unbiasedly understand the social and political transformation of the emerging Asia. He previously earned a B.A. degree in international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai,