Rohingya, ethnic conflicts and nationalism are challenges facing Myanmar
"Although Myanmar’s constitution permits freedom of religion, many Myanmar people see the country as Buddhist and tend to worry about the influence of non-Buddhist religions, mainly Islam." Minorities “were promised autonomy and self-determination in their own regions. So, when this promise was broken, many ethnic groups took up arms against the central government”.
Rome (AsiaNews) – In recent months, the humanitarian crisis affecting Rohingya Muslims has been at the centre of international concern. But Myanmar's problems have not been limited to Rakhine State. Isolated from the rest of the world for more than fifty years, the country and its young democracy are threatened by the influence of some Buddhist nationalist groups. Added to this are the consequences of the long-standing conflicts between minority ethnic armies, like that of Kachin Christians, and government forces.
We publish the analysis by contributor who, together with AsiaNews editor, took part in the World Conference on Xenophobia, Racism and Populist Nationalism in the Context of Global Migration, currently underway in Rome. The latter was organised by the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development and the World Council of Churches (WCC) in cooperation with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Myanmar finds itself in a period of democratic transition; unfortunately, the country faces serious challenges. The Rakhine issue has been regarded as communal conflict between Rakhine and Rohingya communities. It has never been regarded as a religious conflict. Nowadays the Rohingya issue is at the centre of attention of the international community and global news media, and is seen as one of the worst humanitarian crises.
The Rohingya issue has been handled and responded nowadays with the coordination between Myanmar and Bangladesh governments and United Nations agencies such as UNDP and UNHCR. Myanmar has been implementing the recommendations of Kofi Annan commission on Rakhine issue, requested by Aung San Suu Kyi. In recent months, Myanmar government has been establishing and preparing repatriation camps to accept Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh envoys have also visited Myanmar capital city Naypyidaw, where they met with Myanmar government ministers. They also visited repatriation camps in border areas in Rakhine state in August to draft agreements on Rohingya return.
However, very few Hindu refugees have returned and most Rohingya refugees are not returning yet because they don’t trust the Myanmar government guarantee on their safety. At the same time, there are some news about Rohingya militants killing Hindus and Rohingya refugees who wanted to return to Myanmar.
In Rakhine, communal conflicts started in 2012. There was communal violence between local Myanmar people and Muslims. In August 2017, after Rohingya militants attacked Myanmar regional police forces in Rakhine, the Myanmar army responded with force. Due to the actions by the Myanmar army, thousands of Rohingya fled for their life to Bangladesh. Before the conflict in August 2017, there were 120,000 Rohingya refugees in 36 IDP camps, according to the UNHCR cluster report.
Some studies showed that communal conflicts in Myanmar were due to hate speeches. Before communal violence in 2012, there was the Buddhist 969 movement and audio/video DVDs attacking Muslim people received wide circulation in conflict areas. These Buddhist movement is believed to be led by MaBaTha group.
The Word MaBaTha is the abbreviation of the protection of Ma (Amyo), races; Ba (Barthar), religion; and Tha (Thartanar), Buddhism. In the past, before 2010, Buddhist monks mainly preached about Buddhist virtues. During the first parliamentary election around 2012, some Buddhist monks started preaching about protecting the race and religion.
We all must aware that Myanmar has been isolated for more than five decades. In the past, Myanmar people didn’t have a chance to interact with the outside world and the international community. The international community also didn’t interact with Myanmar people a lot. When the parliamentary democratic system in 2010 was put in place, some Myanmar people became concerned that Myanmar Buddhism and Burmese culture would be affected by an open democratic society. Although Myanmar’s constitution permits freedom of religion, many Myanmar people see the country as Buddhist and tend to worry about the influence of non-Buddhist religions, mainly Islam.
In such conditions, the Buddhist nationalist organisation MaBaTha and the infamous monk U Wirathu began causing fear and hatred among many uneducated Buddhist followers. Communal violence broke out in 2012 and continued due to such incitement. But one interesting fact is that before the violence, unidentified groups (not local residents) appeared from nowhere, attacking people and destroying properties.
In Myanmar, typically there are two types of Buddhist associations: the MaHaNa and MaBaTha. MaHaNa is State Sanga Maha Naryaka Committee. theHaNa association is made up of some elderly senior Buddhist high monks. Myanmar’s government pays respect, donates and presents state honour to these high monks. When Pope Francis was in Myanmar in 2017, he met with MaHaNa high monks. This state level monk association has however been criticised by Buddhist monks and lay people because they believe this association has been under the influence of Myanmar Ministry of Religion and Culture.
MaBaTha is infamous for its extremism. MaBaTha had published four journals between 2014 and 2017. However, these four journals ceased to exist in mid-2017. Now they have only one journal. The MaBaTha journal is called Myanma U Dan and is about Buddhist history, Buddhist scriptures and teachings, criticism of public figures like Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) and criticism of the opposition to the MaBaTha, Islamic threats, reports on MaBaTha activity, justification of monastic involvement in politics. Some MaBaTha supporters and donors are former military leaders and parliamentarians.
Due to the confrontation between MaBaTha and the NLD government, MaHaNa instructed MaBaTha to change their organisational name. Most of the MaBaTha leaders accepted it and their new organisational name is Buddha Dhama Parahitha Foundation (I.e. Buddha teaching charity foundation). Although MaBaTha and the NLD government had some confrontation, their influence and popularity among Myanmar Buddhists has not decreased. MaBaTha has been also involved in other charitable and relief activities in times of natural disaster. So, Myanmar Buddhists feel that MaBaTha is closer to lay Buddhists people in their ordinary life.
Some Myanmar Buddhists blamed Muslim people for starting the Rakhine communal violence in 2012. The communal violence was believed to have been started by news or rumours about Muslim men raping a Rakhine girl. They said that where there are Muslims, there is rape. Nationalists blamed the whole religion for the crime. However, when the media showed some Buddhist monks sexually abusing children, they did not blame Buddhist religion. Accusations are biased and one-sided.
At the same time, it should be noted that similarly one-dimensional, negative portrayals exist on the other side too. For example, Muslims call Buddhist monks “shaved heads” who steal from the poor. So mutual respect between these two communities is needed. However, since Myanmar is Buddhist majority country, the persecution of non-Buddhist religions is stronger.
Problems are not limited to Rakhine State. Myanmar is a country made up of seven ethnic states and regions. Out of more than a hundred recognised ethnic groups, seven are the largest. Ethnic Burmese are the majority and the Myanmar military is made up of majority Burmese. Non-Burmese ethnic groups agreed to become independent with Burmese people from British rule because they were promised autonomy and self-determination in their own regions. So, when this promise was broken, many ethnic groups took up arms against the central government in 1950s. Myanmar has suffered from one of the longest civil wars in the world and, due to the conflict, especially in South eastern part of Myanmar, Karen and Karena Kayah people have taken refuge in Thailand for decades.
In Chin, the state is one of the least developed in Myanmar. So many Chin people are taking refuge regionally and internationally fleeing famine and extreme poverty. The Kachin territory has suffered for decades from armed conflict between the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and government troops. Due to the renewed fighting in Kachin since 2011, more than 130,000 Kachin people were internally displaced, finding shelter in 165 camps. Kachin IDPs have been staying in camps for over seven years for now.
The international community and global media pay little attention to Kachin IDPs in northern Myanmar. That’s why, a few media outlets have been describing the Kachin conflict as a “forgotten conflict”.
Over 90 per cent of Kachin people are Christian. Due to the seven-year conflict, over one hundred villages have been abandoned and destroyed and several Christian Churches have been looted and destroyed. Kachin people and KIA want self-determination and autonomy rights.
Government forces are fighting KIA in spite of peace talks and a peace conference. Some see the Kachin conflict as war over natural resources. Kachin land is rich in precious mineral resources such as gold, jade, ruby, amber and valuable woods. According to some reports, jade mines in Kachin state has produced jade worth from 8 to 40 billion US dollar every year.
The country that benefits from the fighting in northern Myanmar is China. China buy precious stones and tick wood at bargain prices from Myanmar’s military and Kachin armed groups. Lately China has bought jade at a very low price, affecting Myanmar’s jade market. China has been building oil refineries and offshore oil stations in Rakhine coastal areas. Gas pipe lines have been built in Rakhine to mainly serve China. We cannot ignore Chinese investment in most Myanmar business sectors.
In Myanmar, racial and religious discrimination has been obvious in the legal structure. There are administrative barriers for many minority ethnic and religious groups. Nowadays Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar have shown intolerance towards non-Buddhist people. They target not only Muslims but also Christians. On 30 October 2017, Sitagu Sayadaw, a Buddhist high monk, said that the lives of thousands of non-Buddhist soldiers are worthless.
Recently Myanmar’s first ever cardinal, Mgr Charles Bo, released a statement. The history of Myanmar "is a wounded story. It is time to heal, not to open new wounds”, writes Card. Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, in an appeal to "those who are interested in peace" in the country.
He wrote Myanmar is going through "a challenging historical phase", by and supports the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi underlining "the important role of the military in the democratic transition.”
Addressing the international community, he said "We need cooperation and accompaniment, words like genocide, ethnic cleansing, sanctions, ICC do not help.”