Currently in Myanmar, ethnic issues and communal tension draw more attention of the international community than other issues. This focus has created many misperceptions and actions that are having a negative impact on the country.
After more than five decades of military dictatorship, Myanmar has started to embark on the path to democracy, beginning with the 2010 general election. Although institutional arrangements crafted by the highly-contested 2008 Constitution created some barriers, Myanmar has seen improvements in some areas since late 2010 when the transition started.
However, there remain many challenges facing Myanmar today which are arising out of existing social divisions and limited experience of democracy. Of those many challenges, the politicization of religion and ethnicity is perceived to be one of the biggest.
Ethnic or religious identity is not the inherent source of conflict. Rather, it is the politicisation of ethnicity or religion which can lead to conflict.
Most people see conflicts in Myanmar as rooted in ethnicity and religion and numerous reports and documents have been written that support that assumption. They portray these conflicts as between Bamar and other ethnic groups or between Buddhists and members of other religions.
However, the problems are not as simple as it might seem. While there are tensions between those different groups, these conflicts more often than not are the manifestations of a political game played out by political actors who take advantage of existing social cleavages.
Politicisation of religion has been common since ancient times in Myanmar where religion has been a crucial part of people’s daily lives. There are many historical examples of elites in Myanmar using religion to advance their political interest or reputation. Looking at the series of action by the government as well as political actors in history, they very often resort to religion to mobilise popular support, and in this way, religion has become politicised through their mobilisation.
Declaration of Buddhism as the state religion by prime minister U Nu to fulfil his campaign promise during the 1960s created social divisions between Buddhists and members of other religion.
KNU’s split up and the power struggle between KNU (whose members are mostly Christian) and DKBA (whose members are mostly Buddhist) were mainly caused by the politicisation of religions in their mobilisation of followers’ support within the organisation.
Politicisation of religion has been more serious starting from 2012 when photos of a young Rakhine woman who was raped and murdered by a group of Muslim men spreading among the people through social media led to communal violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state, with some riots spreading to other cities in the country. Who exactly instigated the riots in those places is still a point of dispute among the people.
Then the movement of a group who identified themselves as nationalists led by an organisation called Ma Ba Tha emerged in late 2012 and grew into a nationwide network of monks and laymen. To counter that group, there appeared an opposing group who identified themselves as liberals, but that group is fragmented (not centralised and organised as a self-identifying nationalist group) as there are actors/activists from some local CSOs, media and political parties in this groups.
Most self-identifying nationalists are trying to depict their opponent group as defenders of Muslims and anti-Buddhist. These groups occasionally organised political rallies in support of the Tatmadaw and former military groups like Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) through the platform of Ma Ba Tha (translated by some as Race and Religion Protection Organisation) led by some extreme nationalist monks and laymen. In the current political context, many have noted that political rivals are using that platform and religious conflicts to undermine the NLD and other democratic forces.
The self-identifying liberal groups equally attempt to portray their antagonists as ultra-nationalists and anti-democracy by speaking out for unrealistic principles which excessively favour religious minority groups, thus causing the majority to feel more polarised and sometimes defaming the Buddhist monks as a whole whose positions are generally placed on high values in Myanmar society, thus undermining traditional cultures. These groups also mobilise political support through platforms such as prayer campaign for peace by inviting different religious leaders and members, recently organised in most cities in the country, as a counter-response to the rhetoric attacks from their opponent groups.
To make the existing tension worse, international actors come into the arena of Myanmar politics by politicising Islam. Some foreign-based terrorist groups take advantage of the existing crisis in Rakhine and politicise Islam to advance their interest. Actors like deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia tried to mobilise their political support in their country by showing that he stands with Muslims being allegedly persecuted by the religious majority in Myanmar.
Consequently, all of those actors ended up politicising religions to advance their interests. As attacks between supporters of different groups intensify, the divide between these groups widens and is leading to societal polarisation. Most ordinary people are getting lost in the crossfire between these rival narratives and rhetorical manipulation due to their limited critical thinking capacity and experience with democracy.
The same can be observed in ethnic conflicts which have engulfed Myanmar since independence. Actors from different sides know their people and use the social divisions left by historical legacy for mobilising political support by exaggerating the case.
In fact, there are many political parties in Myanmar which appear to base their rationale and existence wholly on ethnic nationalism. In doing so, they limit themselves only to win the support from their own ethnic group, thereby excluding other ethnic groups. There were also some forms of campaigns in which ethnonationalism is repeatedly echoed in their public speeches during their electoral campaign.
Most ethnic armed groups are trying to win the support of their own people by highlighting the differences in identities and cultures, and the threats of Bamar dominance. Some ethnic armed groups use the terms ‘Bamar government’ or ‘Bamar military’ when they refer to military dictatorships in their statements in an effort to make their ethnic people see military dictators associated with the whole Bamar populations and encourage hatred toward them.
In fact, there are Bamar pro-democracy activists participating in many protests demanding to end wars in Kachin and other ethnic areas. There were attempts in the past to consolidate alliance between actors from pro-democracy Bamar majorities and different ethnic nationalities to overthrow the military dictatorship. Unfortunately, those efforts were almost always seen with suspicions by ethno-nationalist elites.
As a result, most ethnic people see military dictators as representative of the whole Bamar population although millions of ordinary Bamar people have not benefited at all from those situations which some ethnic minority elites labelled ‘Burmanisation’. The majority of Bamar people equally suffered tremendously under half-a-century military regimes which they kept challenging even during the country’s darkest moments.
Most ordinary Bamar people are not aware of the idea of ‘Burmanisation’ and those who are aware generally do not support it. Successive military leaders’ discriminatory policies and actions do not represent the wishes of the entire Bamar population. Military dictators tried to play Bamar against other ethnic groups by using the name of Bamar in their every activity. This is especially true in the military, where leaders encourage soldiers to be more ethno-nationalist.
Most Bamar people feel that they are being blamed for what they think they did not do and it is worrisome that the extreme Bamar nationalism will emerge among ordinary Bamar people in the future. This will lead the country to a worse situation because Bamar are the majority in the country, and peace will be unreachable if the majority becomes resentful of the minorities.
In reality, ethnic or religious conflict is not a problem arising from communities, political actors just create those settings to play their political games. Ethnic and religious nationalism will not help solve the problems in Myanmar. At the same time, affirmative actions such as extremely favouring minority groups may make majority people feel humiliated and may create resentment among them in the long term. A good analysis of the problem is important to finding a solution. Ethnic or religious identity is not the inherent source of conflict. Rather, it is the politicisation of ethnicity or religion which can lead to conflict.
Against this backdrop, one-sided approaches to Myanmar’s problems that reinforce the cleavages between various groups only become deeper with heightening tensions. It is time for local and international actors to get out of their comfort zone of ‘received wisdom’ and find a balanced approach to tackling the challenge if they really want to see the reconciliation that will contribute to the conflict transformation and democratization in Myanmar.
Zay Yah Oo is the Program Manager at PANDITA. He has worked as an Executive Director of BAYDA Institute for 3 years. The BAYDA Institute works to strengthen the civic participation in democratic transition and has wide experience of working with activists and party members who are now serving as members of parliament. He has also organized capacity building trainings for National League for Democracy (NLD) electoral candidates and has given lectures in many events. He has also worked as a working team leader of NLD central research committee until the 2015 election. Before working in the CSO field, he worked as a translation editor in international news journals and was in charge of translation team in Family Entertainment Co. Ltd and Sky Net. He holds a degree from the Yangon University (B.A.) and is now one of the finalists for Fulbright Scholarship Program. He is also a former political prisoner.