The Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, is gaining ground in Myanmar. It has also been receiving increased international attention—last month for its proposal to ban Muslim headscarves in public schools.
The organization was founded in 2014, when central figures from the more widely known 969 movement started campaigning for four laws to ban polygamy, restrict interfaith marriages and religious conversions, and enforce birth control measures among groups with high rates of population growth. All four laws, which are aimed at Myanmar’s Muslim population, passed parliament earlier this year. The new initiative to legally ban Muslim headscarves in public schools is the group’s latest.
Buddhism in Myanmar has become increasingly politicized with the rise of the Ma Ba Tha, which has its roots in 2012, when the loosely organized 969 movement of monks and laypeople called for a boycott of Muslim businesses. The numerological symbol 969, which represents the triple gems of Buddhism—the noble qualities of the Buddha , the dhamma , and the sangha —is meant to counter that of Islam, 786 (Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim). 969 campaigns have coincided with a number of serious violent attacks on Muslim neighborhoods by Buddhist nationalist mobs in Rakhine State and several urban areas across Myanmar.
Ma Ba Tha seeks to protect the “Burmese race” and Buddhism against the perceived threat of Islam, a religion that has deep roots in the histories and cultures of Theravada Buddhist countries across South and Southeast Asia. Muslim populations in these countries remains small—officially 9.7 percent in Sri Lanka, 6 percent in Thailand, 4 percent in Myanmar, and 1.6 percent in Cambodia. Nevertheless, Buddhist monks and laypeople have expressed grave concerns about the future of Buddhism amid fears of Muslim expansion.
Buddhists in South and Southeast Asia recognize that few Buddhist states remain. Areas once belonging to the ancient Brahman-Buddhist kingdoms exist today as Muslim states—Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—with marginal, if any, remaining Buddhist populations. Many Buddhists fear that the tendency of Buddhists to convert in interfaith marriages, combined with a generally higher birthrate among Muslims (mainly in impoverished families), presents an imminent threat to the future of Buddhism. Fear and skepticism toward Muslim neighbors make Buddhist populations increasingly receptive to anti-Muslim agitation from Buddhist nationalists.
In Myanmar, as in other Theravada Buddhist countries, Buddhism and nationalism are inextricably linked. This phenomenon can be traced back to the close, reciprocal relationships between the ancient Buddhist kings and the sangha, modeled on Ashoka’s empire in which the king reigned with a moral legitimacy as a righteous chakravarti or dhammaraja. In the struggle for independence from the colonial powers across South and South East Asia, from the late 19th century through much of the first half of the 20th, a modern Buddhist nationalism that invoked and reinvented this ideal Buddhist kingdom emerged.
In Myanmar, the British Raj banned political organizing but permitted religious institutions and organizations, which were quickly politicized. Later, in the formative years of post-independence Burmese nation building, Buddhism would play a prominent role, along with the culture of the ethnic Burmese majority, in constructing a national identity. The alienation of Myanmar’s many ethnic and religious minorities continues to this day. Today the Myanmar government juggles peace negotiations with some 17 ethnic armed groups, after about 60 years of armed conflicts and civil wars.
Following 50 years of military dictatorship, Myanmar’s current struggle to develop sustainable political reform remains hampered by narrow Burmese-Buddhist nationalist ideology.
The Ma Ba Tha, a new political expression of this ideology, has been known to threaten and intimidate Burmese who advocate for tolerance of diversity and to use its religious power to exercise political pressure. As November’s general elections quickly approach, existing Buddhist anxieties and skepticism toward Muslims could be exploited by political interests, which could lead to a resurgence of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar. By framing the widely popular Aung San Suu Kyi, and her National League for Democracy, as “soft on Muslims,” her opponents may succeed in challenging her political and moral authority.
In the long term, Myanmar will need to reassess its national ideology in order to give space for the emergence of new national identities that respect ethnic and religious minority rights without compromising the country’s Burmese and Buddhist heritage.
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