In late 2015 people in Myanmar will vote to elect the members of the bicameral legislature, as well as the indirectly elected president. The country’s transition to democracy is being led by Thein Sein, a former general who participated in the previous military rule, and symbolically began in 2004 with the release of a ‘Roadmap to Democracy’. On the surface, this transition appears to be going relatively well. When visiting the country in mid-November, American President Barack Obama claimed to be optimistic about Myanmar’s future. Yet Myanmar’s democratic transition is not proceeding as smoothly as many had hoped. In fact, inter-sectarian violence and low human rights standards are casting a shadow on the new born democracy.
Amongst the many difficulties, the rise of the Buddhist nationalist movement is threatening the stability of the country. Buddhist radicalism is characterized by a strong anti-Muslims stance and the rejection of the idea of a multicultural identity. The movement, which started in 2011, is structured like a real political network, under the name of ‘696’. Monks say the three digits symbolize the virtues of the Buddha, Buddhist practices and the Buddhist community. Although the movement claims to be pacifistic, it leads boycotts against Muslim-owned businesses, with the goal of promoting the rise of a richer Buddhist community. Stickers with the movement’s logo are used to identify Buddhist shops so Buddhists know where to shop. These actions are exacerbating existing tension between communities, and often these tensions lead to violence. Since 2013, sectarian violence has caused 50 deaths, with the most recent attacks occurring this past summer.
This ‘Burmese’ movement has been condemned by Buddhist leaders abroad and it is generally isolated to Myanmar, without support from Buddhists in other countries and parts of the world.
However, the Sri Lanka radical Buddhist movement, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). is an exception to the isolation of the Burmese movement. At the Buddhist Power Conference on 28 September in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 696 and BBS made an alliance with the aim to ‘protect Buddhism around the world’[i] from the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The monk Ashin Wirathu, 696’s leader, was allowed to take part in the event despite calls from Muslim and Christian groups in Sri Lanka that demanded the government to cancel his visa. This alliance marked the start a radical Buddhist transnational movement.
The Sri Lankan movement shares similarities with its Burmese counterpart, including its recent formation in 2012, and its action to bring forward a distinct anti-Muslim plan. Like 696, it has been accused of fuelling sectarian violence in the country. Last summer, between June and July, episodes of violence took place in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the protests following the alleged attack on a Buddhist monks turned into a series of violent attacks on the Muslim community that caused four deaths, left 80 wounded, and forced about 10,000 people to flee from their homes. BBS’ main efforts are directed to the marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities. It also promoted laws for the creation of special corridors for accessing higher education reserved for young Buddhists, and for having the clergy teaching the principal subjects in public schools.
The weaknesses of the governments in Sri Lanka and in Myanmar provided the opportunity for the radical Buddhist movements to advance. In Sri Lanka, the government is still recovering from the armed conflict between the government and the pro-independence Tamil Tigers. In Myanmar, the government is finding it difficult to develop inclusive social policies, and the hostility towards Muslims is deep-seeded. It goes back to the time of British colonial rule, when Indians, many of them Muslims, were brought into the country as soldiers and civil servants. Today, Buddhism is predominant religion in the country with a 90 per cent majority, including most of the country’s top leaders. Christianity and Hinduism are also practiced in Myanmar, and Muslims constitute between four and eight per cent of the population of 55 million people. However, the radical Buddhist monks fear that a rising Muslim population is threatening Buddhist religion and traditions, as Muslims suffer continuous oppression and abuses. For instance, the problem of Rohingya Muslim minority group has been an open wound for over sixty years. The Rohingya community claims to be originally from Rakhine, a region on the border with Bangladesh, but the government says they are illegal Bengali migrants and does not recognize them as citizens, depriving them of the rights that come with citizenship.
Therefore, 696 is living out of this fear and sectarian hatred, which is not a good premise for a democratic transition.
Crucially, politicians in Myanmar seem to have paid insufficient attention to the rise of Buddhist radicalism. Even the much-celebrated advocate for democracy Aung San Suu Kyi has not taken a position on the issue, claiming that she wishes to maintain neutrality[ii]. Both Suu Kyi and her opponents have been accused of wanting to bring about change within the regime by empowering only certain parts of societies, rather than bringing about a meaningful transition to democracy. The Burmese government claims it is making great efforts to provide security to the population, but unless the rise of Buddhist radicalism is tackled, security will not be provided, or at least not to everyone.
During his recent visit, Obama has softly raised the issue of human rights standards and has said that: ‘we recognize that change is hard and it doesn’t always move in a straight line.’ The White House has agreed to the request of Myanmar’s government to send Peace Corp volunteers to Myanmar in late 2015. The US seems to be supporting Myanmar’s democratic transition without being truly concerned for the process through which democracy is obtained, nor what kind of democracy it will be.
As things are now, what 696 is really boycotting is Myanmar’s transition to a meaningful democracy.
[i] Bastans D., “Radical Monk in Myanmar Pledges to Protect Global Buddhism”, The New York Times, September 28, 2014. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/29/world/asia/radical-monk-in-myanmar-pledges-to-protect-global-buddhism.html?_r=0
[ii] Hume T., “Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘Silence’ on the Rohingya: Has ‘The Lady’ Lost Her Voice?”, CNN, June 1, 2014. Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/04/15/world/asia/myanmar-aung-san-suu-kyi-rohingya-disappointment/