Moe Htet Nay | Click here for the Burmese language version of this article.
Cite as: Moe Htet Nay. (2021). Evolution of Myanmar Political Culture. Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship, 1. https://ijbs.online/?page_id=3287
This paper discusses the evolution of Myanmar’s political culture by analyzing events from the dynastic era, the colonial era and its independence movements, the post-Japanese war period, the era of parliamentary democracy (1948–1962), the ‘Caretaker Government’ era (1858–1960), the Burma Socialist Program Party period (1962–1988), the State Law and Order Restoration Council and State Peace and Development Council era, the period from 2007’s ‘Saffron Revolution’ up until the 2010 election, and then the period after the 2012 by-election, which was characterized by the emergence of extreme nationalists attempting to politically benefit those in power at the time. To live in peace, Myanmar’s political elite should not presume that ethnic and religious issues are just everyday concerns based on socio-economic interests but must view them for what they actually are—issues that have emerged from the movements that have struggled for years against ethnic, religious, and cultural inequality—and, as such, they should be addressed adequately by the Myanmar political elite themselves.
Throughout history, numerous events have occurred due to the rise of powerful ideas based on national and cultural symbols, as well as values-based economic and political movements. Economic goals that have included the labor market and commodities markets can be clearly seen as a fundamental problem of colonialism; another key issue in the background has been discrimination such as ethnic-based and religious discrimination in the cultural sector. Colonial governments have purposefully imported their own cultures to newly-colonized nations, alongside migrations of people between colonized countries, some government-planned and some spontaneous, which then resulted in the merging of different cultures. For example, many people from India migrated to Myanmar where they participated in the agricultural economy.
Independence movements in colonized countries emerged alongside campaigns based on nationalist mottos and goals. These independence movements impacted each country’s literature and culture, as well as citizens’ ideological and political views. For example, novels, plays, and poetry which included scenes representing Chinese traditional medicine, martial arts, and military science created during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901) still have an influence even today. The nationalist mindset has been used to compensate for the difference in arms, technology, and financial means between colonizers and the colonized.
The Second World War erupted at a time when the wave of nationalism was at its peak. During that time it was evident that political, economic, and social matters were approached from standpoints based on ethnicity, religion, and culture. This was indicative of the success of harnessing the existing public value placed upon nationalism for political purposes. This also highlights the great threat that extreme nationalistic ideology can pose. During this period, other countries around the world attempted to carefully respond to the ever-increasing impact of burgeoning nationalism and discriminatory ideology; the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights was one such attempt to curb this growing movement of nationalism and discrimination. During the Cold War era, although issues based on religion, the color of one’s skin, and ethnicity were present in many countries around the world, the rise of nationalist movements seemed temporary and most came about as political distractions created under the wave of left-wing and right-wing conflicts during this period.
Movements and the distribution of ideas advocating for the acceptance of diversity increased in the post-Cold War era. During this time, the battle between groups that made efforts to utilize nationalistic ideology to gain economic and political strength versus groups which advocated for diversity and reducing discrimination was more advanced than the established struggles between the left and right political camps.
This article is a preliminary study on the evolution of Myanmar’s current political culture. It is argued this political culture developed through attempts to utilize the collective nationalistic mindset for political gains.
The Myanmar Dynastic Era
Myanmar, a nation of diverse ethnicities and religions, which has been colonized by both the English and Japanese, was already accustomed to political events rooted in nationalist ideology. Before being absorbed into the British Indian empire as a colonized country, all the regions now regarded as part of Myanmar today were, at that time, not yet under the governance of the Myanmar monarchy. They all separately and definitively possessed their own cultural identity, administrative systems, religions, and respective cultural traditions. The Myanmar monarchy only effectively governed in what is today recognized as Myanmar’s middle regions, and because of the transportation limitations during that era, a standard administrative system was unable to be established, and therefore, only existed as ‘taxable’ and ‘sworn-fealty’ regions. Because the Konbaung Dynasty was more powerful compared to the other groups living in what is now the territory of Myanmar, these minor ethnicities existed as subordinates in the country. However, these groups did not want to be nor agreed to be politically aligned with the Konbaung kingdom. Therefore, wars would occasionally erupt from rebellions, refusals to follow orders, and refusals to pay taxes.
When the English began governing parts of Myanmar, culture started to change with the introduction of new religions such as Christianity, and the replacement of the traditional religions that already existed in Myanmar. With these new cultural traditions existing alongside pre-existing cultural traditions, and combined with increased interaction between regions, cultures increasingly came into contact with one another and mixed together.
In a method differing from Myanmar’s dynastic style of administration, colonial governance meant dividing the country into regional mountain and mainland administrations, which were managed more effectively and intensely. Cultivation of colonial culture and discrimination against the Myanmar people was practiced simultaneously, especially in the fields of ethnicity and religion. Religious conflicts and some political movements occurred.
Independence Movements During the Colonial Era
Evidently, independence movements that began during the colonial era were based on nationalistic ideology. The Do Bama Association (Our Burmese), a group which played a significant role in the independence movements, spouted slogans such as, “Burmese literature is our literature…the Burmese language is our language, our Burmese race is the master race…”—all of which were well known among players in the independence movements. The Do Bama Association’s influence existed only within the mainland administration regions but not in the mountain administration regions. ‘Master’ was used as a title in front of members’ names to highlight the notion that they were more noble than the English, and this idea was promoted as such to the Burmese public. The nobility of Burmese people, the reverence and devotion to Buddhism, and tales from the bygone victorious wars were all incorporated into the songs of the Do Bama Association era. In such songs, ethnic names such as ‘Yodaya’ (Thai), and ‘Kala’ (India) were commonly used.
Explanations came later stating that the word ‘Burmese’ in Our Burmese Association referred to all the ethnic groups and religions who live in today’s Myanmar. However, according to the records of the Do Bama Association, during that time there were no clear indications of other ethnic people’s names bearing the word ‘Master’; nor are there records of independence movements that coordinated with ethnic groups as we know them today. And, although there were non-Buddhist members within the association, their numbers were few.
The Japanese Era
This Japanese-led era within Myanmar operated jointly under the banner of ‘equality in Asia’ with the shared goal of going up against the European nations. During this Japanese era, there was an ethnic Karen-Bama conflict, rooted in the Bama’s belief that the Karen people were English sycophants because they served in the English army. However, this conflict was contained within a few days and there were no further significant ethnic-based or religious conflicts; both sides then acted to fight for freedom from Japan’s extremist nationalistic ideology. This joint movement started as the ‘People’s Liberation Front Against Fascism’ which was later renamed the ‘Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League’ (AFPFL) in the hope of stopping the reemergence of extreme nationalistic ideologies such as Nazism and fascism. This was the period in Myanmar’s history where the idea of opposing extreme nationalism was most prominent.
The Post-War Era
During this time, a treaty (the ‘Panglaung Treaty’) was successfully signed between mainland and ethnic representatives who were living under the mountain region administration. This treaty stipulated that when claiming emancipation from the English, the mainland and mountain regions would do so jointly and would then go on to build a federal-based system of states together. The treaty was signed by the Myanmar government (made up of parliamentary representatives for nation-building), and ethnic committees represented by the Kachin, Chin, and Shan ethnic groups. Other ethnic groups such as the Karen, Kayah, and Mon people, along with representatives from many other less populous ethnic groups, were not involved in the treaty. The ethnic regions were areas where there was almost no Burmese dynastic influence before Myanmar lost its freedom to the English, but according to this Panglaung Treaty and the new modern government system, these lands were now fully and legally absorbed under the union.
However, no thorough discussions were held nor was there any consensus reached between the leaders of the regions that formed the union with the ethnic leaders on the actual systems the new union would require.
The Parliamentary Democracy Era (1948–1962)
Civil war began as soon as Myanmar became independent. This was the era of generations who engaged in World War II independence movements using armed weaponry. This included the ruling AFPFL government (‘Pha Sa Pa La’) as well as those from various armed groups that had previously fought together for freedom against the Japanese. There were also different armed groups such as the Communist Party of Burma and the Communist Party (Burma) which adhered to the same ideology, as well as organizations like the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) who were fighting for their respective ethnic rights.
Although the AFPFL government was formed under the guise of combating extreme nationalism, they attempted to gain the support of the Buddhist population (Buddhism being the majority religion within the country) by holding the sixth ‘Thengayana’ event to spread Buddhist dharma via state-owned radio channels. Furthermore, as a result of the government depicting people with pro-communist political beliefs as atheists who were trying to destroy Buddhism, this indirectly caused Buddhism to be perceived as a more noble religion over other religions.
This propaganda negatively impacted not only communists but also the ethnic armed organizations with lower numbers of Buddhists, as well as all the other different societies within the country. The government-led Buddhist religious ceremonies, and the building of pagodas and monasteries strengthened the existing yet misguided assumption held by Buddhists that they were the ‘privileged ones’ within the country.
The ‘Caretaker Government’ (1958–1960)
During the 1960 elections, U Nu’s proposal to establish Buddhism as the country’s official religion was the most deleterious attempt to acquire political power by invoking religion. However, this was just another instance of the political machine using religion as part of its propaganda since the early times of the civil war. Only twelve years after independence was the habit of looking at political events through the lens of religion successfully embedded into the consciousness of Myanmar’s people via the use of state-level resources and authority. Buddhist people thinking and acting under the belief that their particular religion was foremost became increasingly widespread with concepts such as ‘host and guest’ and ‘majority and minority’ becoming further embedded. The construct that Buddhism was a more righteous and noble religion compared to other religions became even more ubiquitous within Myanmar Buddhist society during this time. Minorities practicing other religions eventually split—some accepted second-class citizenship based on their religious beliefs, and some instead chose to fight for religious equality.
The Burma Socialist Program Party (1962–1988)
During these years, the country was substantially marked by wars; similarly, ethnic and religious conflicts also plagued the land. The government utilized Buddhist ideology as a cover to excuse some of their political processes.
The National Sangha Maha Nayaka Group was formed with government backing to execute matters related to Buddhism. Using religion for political purposes became increasingly common. Some key examples included creating conflict with neighboring China and creating conflicts as distractions when people were unsatisfied with the one-party rule of the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP)–conflicts which targeted Islamic people in Pyay and Taunggyi. In 1976, a ‘clear and hold’ military operation called Nagar Min (‘the Dragon King’) was also enacted to specifically target the Rohingya people. Additionally, there were attempts to use prisoners as human shields.
The State Law and Order Restoration Council (‘Na Wa Ta’) & State Peace and Development Council (‘Na A Pha’) Period (1988–2010)
After the People’s Revolution in 1988, Myanmar people demanded equality, democracy, and a non-dictatorship–all demands which had existed since the beginning of the civil war. Alongside these demands came calls for increased human rights, acceptance of diversity, and the creation of federal states—demands that were also rapidly becoming more prominent. The military government continued to commit ethnic and religious discrimination and exert acts of oppression. There were attacks targeting the character of opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, focusing on the fact that her husband was a foreigner, under the rubric that marrying a foreigner made you a traitor to the nation.
During the Na Wa Ta/Na A Pha period, the oppression of democratic and human rights movements intensified. Collaboration between international human rights organizations, activists, academics, international governments, and internal activists strengthened. To oppress and curtail the democratic and human rights movements, the military government arrested members of the opposition and distributed propaganda stating that the opposition movement only existed because of support from foreign countries. Foreign countries were also portrayed as interfering with Myanmar’s internal affairs and seeking to colonize the country. In state-owned media, the democracy and human rights movements were represented as causes betraying the nation.
The number of displaced people fleeing to Thailand rose due to the many offensive military operations in Karen State and elsewhere during this period, including the displacement of Rohingyas around Maungdaw in Rakhine State. The use of religion in politics increased and nationalist ideology was employed to disrupt the democracy and human rights movements. Citizenship Scrutiny Cards (CSC) were distributed in place of the former National Registration Cards; when registering for the CSCs, there were stricter conditions in place for non-Buddhists to obtain their cards. Although there was no official directive to do so, there was implicit pressure to state one’s ethnicity as ‘Bama’ and one’s religion as ‘Buddhist’ on these cards. There was also an expansion in the number of military universities and science colleges offering engineering and medicine degrees. However, Islamic people, Christians, and Hindus were restricted from joining these university-level military courses. The military was slowly being dominated by Buddhists and Buddhism.
At this time, multiple religious and ethnic issues arose and there were also numerous government-led public events held to protest against western countries. Almost every town would hold government-led public assemblies to protest against western nations whenever there was international pressure on, or actions against, the Myanmar military and its stance on democracy. Similarly, rallying events would be held whenever the United Nations made decisions or published reports recommending action against the Myanmar military. If the internal political situation appeared to be at stake, rumors would be spread and religious and ethnic conflicts were used as a distraction.
Civil servants were ordered by their respective superior officers to attend such gatherings; similarly, civilians were directed by their respective quarter administration groups to be present at the events. Any news surrounding these events was published elaborately and extensively by state-owned media as headline news. Prepared decisions and slogans were shared at these government-planned public events. It was at these contrived public gatherings that the infamous “Public Opinion” points, the anti-western slogans, and anti-international media rallying cries were created.
The distribution of rumors during the Na Wa Ta/Na A Pha time was carried out by various informer organizations under the management of local intelligence, frontline members of government organizations, the reserve fire brigades, and the reserve armed group called the Public’s Powerful People (‘Pyi Thu Swan Arr Shin’) who were mainly responsible for first-level dismantling of activist and public movements. This group would also initiate conflicts, and when doing so, would often disguise themselves as monks.
Another method of distributing rumors was by illegally publishing nationalistic and religious articles and papers. After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States of America, discrimination against Islam and Muslims within Myanmar accelerated. Propaganda about religious conversions and jihad was distributed. The spread of rumors included that Muslims were marrying those from other religions and converting them to Islam. Other propaganda stated that if Islamic men married a woman from another religion, they would be rewarded or compensated by other Islamic nations based on the woman’s level of education.
A noticeable change made to the military’s promotion system was that service members’ spouses and their education—study discipline, level of graduation—now had to be factored into decisions on their husbands’ promotions and admissions to training courses. Moreover, military personnel were not given permission to marry those from other religions or non-graduates (I.e., high school dropouts); those who had already done so were transferred to civil service departments where any promotions due to them would be delayed indefinitely.
Ethnic and religious discrimination was systematically used in government organizations including the military. They did so through state-owned media, intelligence members, informants, illegal publication of books and papers, and so on. Anti-foreign, nationalistic, and religious statements were regularly shown on state-owned media and other methods of distributing propaganda—these were systematically used whenever there was a need to create conflict or overwhelm the public with fear and insecurity.
From the 2007 Saffron Revolution to the 2010 Election
Although Myanmar has had the Internet since 2001, usage was initially low as only certain military groups and bases, and large cities such as Yangon and Mandalay, had access, and even that was limited and rudimentary. However, by the time of the Saffron Revolution in 2007, most towns in Myanmar were able to access the internet, and therefore, internet communication was used in anti-government movements. International media and exiled activists reported on the 2007 uprising and the military’s brutal responses in real time through news outlets, web pages, and blogs. During this time, cooperation with the international community was at its peak.
Also at this time, there were junior officers from the Myanmar military studying in Russia who were writing blogs. Among these, there was one blog called ‘Opposite Eye’ which was administered by a group of junior military officers. Here, they wrote about how they stood by the actions carried out by the military, responded from chat rooms, and debated with pro-democracy activists through telecommunication networks such as ‘G-talk’ and ‘Skype’. In the beginning, the military prohibited its members from writing blogs, but later they understood the effectiveness of the platform for spreading propaganda. Much later, blog pages, social media pages, and FM radio channels were established with government support and utilized for propaganda distribution. One such example was ‘Padauk Myay’. The military came to systematically use the pervasiveness of the internet and social platforms to their advantage. At Yadanarpon Cyber City center near Pyin Oo Lwin, the military utilized computer college graduate sergeants and engineers from the communications column, as well as specialists who had returned from Russia, to help monitor citizens’ internet usage and ban certain internet pages. That was the beginning of the military’s campaign of distributing propaganda via the internet, and the inception of digital monitoring and control in Myanmar. These surveillance bases now operate from Nay Pyi Taw, employing hundreds.
All the above mentioned events are ways in which successive Myanmar governments used religion for political gain. During the AFPFL and the BSPP era, there were no significant campaigns that directly opposed the government’s misappropriation of ethnicity and religion. Although there were criticisms of the government from the left regarding the use of religion and ethnicity to discriminate against citizens, their approach was based on class rather than culture or religion per se.
However, during the Na Wa Ta/Na A Pha time, the goal of the anti-dictatorship movement was approached from the perspectives of several other values, namely, human rights, the acceptance of diversity, democracy, and equality. Defenders of human rights and organizations that were attempting to eliminate religious and ethnic conflicts also began contributing to Myanmar’s political landscape. The military dictatorship used patriotic Bama ideology, religion, and discrimination in order to stay in power; meanwhile, democracy activists fought for the elimination of nationalism and military dictatorship, freedom for all religions and ethnicities, and advocated for all the diverse groups within Myanmar to live in harmony.
The 2010 Election Era
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won the 2010 election through the use of slogans spouting the catch-cries of, ‘democracy’, ‘peace’, and ‘human rights’. However, this election did not include the National League for Democracy (NLD) party who had won the 1990 election. In the 2010 election, the Rohingya—suffering from one of Myanmar’s long-running political conflicts—were provided with ‘white cards’ which allowed them the right to vote as Myanmar citizens. Not only that, but the USDP also nominated Islamic candidates to run in the election. During the election campaign, the USDP also attempted to convince voters that they would advocate for the Rohingya in Rakhine State to become Myanmar citizens. Also, there were pledges made about stopping the civil war and working towards peace—all to begin in 2011. The USDP is made up of ex-military personnel who liked to portray themselves as a party that respected the ideals of democracy, human rights, equality for all, and diversity—all of which they violated and suppressed during military rule.
Ma Soe Yein Shin Wirathu was a monk well-known for being imprisoned for his role in instigating ethnic and religious conflict in Kyaukse. Upon his release however, Wirathu organized campaigns advocating for the release of Muslims who were involved in the same conflict he was imprisoned for.
The pre-existing fear of foreigners present in the minds of the citizenry for many years, were consolidated in this era and can be seen in reactions to the Myitsone Dam construction project, the Letpadaung Copper Mining project, the Kyaukphyu–Kunming railroad construction project, and oil and natural gas pipe construction projects. These were all viewed through the lens of anti-Chinese sentiment. Movements rose up where political activists and monks participated in organized activities such as boycotting Chinese-produced snacks sold in primary schools and manufacturing Myanmar traditional snacks—essentially promoting the boycott of Chinese goods. That is not to say that movements coopting nationalism had completely disappeared. During this time, early variants of the Patriotic Association of Myanmar (‘Ma Ba Tha’) were mostly participating in anti-China movements rather than anti-Islamic campaigns. Ashin Wirathu himself actively participated in the anti-Letpadaung Copper Mining project and anti-gas-pipeline movements. The anti-Chinese movement was one of the biggest problems between the USDP-led government and activists. During the military dictatorship era, where the military carried out oppressive and unjust actions against democracy and human rights activists, these same actions were now enacted upon anti-Chinese project activists.
After the April 2012 by-election, some representatives of the NLD entered parliament. This was when the population’s opposition to Chinese-run Myanmar projects was at its peak. In June 2012, a series of anti-Islamic movements erupted and religious conflicts re-occurred, up-ending the political situation. Ma Ba Tha (here recognized as the ‘969 movement’) became increasingly widespread throughout the country. The mere mention of ‘969’ was used as a targeted message against the symbolic Islamic number ‘786’. The increasing anti-Chinese sentiment from before 2012 was oft-referred to and utilized. For example, the negative attitude towards buying Chinese products was now redirected towards not purchasing products from shops owned by individuals of a different religion. During this time, the 969 identity was consolidated through symbolic flags, slogans, branding, songs, journals, and articles, alongside the systematic use of the propaganda machine. 969 was the first pervasive ethnic and religious discriminatory organization to operate systematically. After the 2012 Rakhine conflict, anti-Organization of Islamic Cooperation campaigns, and pro-President U Thein Sein rallies, 969 ceased campaigning against Chinese projects—they now acted as an anti-Islamic force.
The 2013 Meiktila conflict was the turning point upon which the role of nationalists reached its peak within the country; after these events, there was an outbreak of anti-Islamic movements throughout the country. Ma Ba Tha-like groups sprung up increasingly, while 969 logos were plastered all over houses, shops, and vehicles. During this time, attacks targeting Muslims, and other conflicts, were also happening nationwide. Adding further negativity to the situation, the term ‘Rohingya’ itself was deemed derogatory, and those peoples’ inability to sing the national anthem, as well as other dissimilarities due to different languages, cultures, and socio-economic structures, were exaggerated to further inflame conflict. Such propaganda was distributed systematically via online social networks, events were organized with ease, and disinformation was circulated by various fake accounts. Currently, even though Facebook has removed some of these users for spreading hate speech, these extreme nationalists are still active in secret and closed groups.
During this period, human rights protectors—as groups and as collective networks—opposed the religious conflicts while protecting and looking after the minority Muslim communities. In the 2010 election, the Rohingya were legally recognized as ‘Rohingyas’ and were permitted to vote as Myanmar citizens. However, following the 2014 census, not only were their identity cards taken away from them, but the Rohingya were now also forced to refer to themselves as ‘Bengali’, I.e., people from Bangladesh. Because many Rohingya found this unacceptable, they were omitted from the census. Their white cards were taken away and, as a result, voting turnout of eligible voters in Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and Sittwe townships in Rakhine State was significantly lower in 2015 than in 2010. Moreover, the USDP was no longer nominating Islamic candidates, and in most of the other major political parties there also ceased to be any Muslim parliamentary representatives. This was done in hope of garnering even more support from the Buddhist majority.
After the ethnic and religious conflicts of 2016 and 2017 when the NLD was in power, the term ‘Bengali’ was more commonly used in place of the proper ethnic name ‘Rohingya’–this word came to represent those perceived as national traitors and the sentiment was supported by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation and so on. The Myanmar media platforms commonly used the word ‘Bengali’. After many people fled to Bangladesh in 2017, there were numerous disagreements among human rights activists, political parties, and the nation’s leaders. This was the period in recent history in which both the anti-Islamic movement and wave of nationalism peaked.
Those who initially supported human rights and democracy now distanced themselves from the standpoints of human rights and ethics; discussions were approached from the angles of nationalism, home affairs, and the legal system. In reality, the laws—both regional and national—had been created during the colonial government era with their successors adjusting them as they saw fit. Therefore, laws deviated from human rights and ethical standards. Rule of law can only be enacted when laws are fair and operating in accordance with human rights and ethical standards.
Nationalistic Ideology (2018)
Nationalist movements can be clearly seen in the current political landscape in Myanmar. The population is generally split between creators and participants in such organizations and those that pay no mind to such movements. Those opposing extreme nationalism fall in the minority.
The Extreme Nationalists
Extreme nationalist groups have been rigorously implementing increasing numbers of religious and ethno-centric campaigns. These have included not only campaigns against the Rohingya but also requesting the elimination of ethnic armed organizations by the military, supporting the military’s presence in Rakhine State and its civil war, holding ceremonies such as ‘pork-eating festivals’ in mockery of others’ religious practices, and banning and disrupting Islamic worship and religious ceremonies. Clearly, the authorities failed to effectively put a stop to these types of extreme nationalistic activities. Any prohibitory directives issued from the government in attempt to combat such actions were, in turn, portrayed and propagated as insults to Buddhism and viewed as such by the majority Buddhist population.
The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) was founded during the military rule era to split the Karen National Union based on religion. Likewise, the Border Guard Force which was previously a part of the DKBA but later reformed in 2010 are also subordinate to the military. Both groups are clear examples of extreme nationalist armed forces. Furthermore, in ethnically diverse regions like Shan State, formerly dissolved armed groups were being rearmed with the intention of tackling patriotic matters; people’s military groups were also being established with Buddhist Danu people. In Rakhine State, ethnic Rakhine villages were established to create a human barrier, and attempts were also made to establish armed defense groups in these villages. Thinbaw Kway village was one such village established for these reasons and, when the village was demolished, numerous grenades, communications devices, bullet-proof vests, and bullets were seized. However, when prosecuting the leaders of the village, they were not charged under any arms or telecommunications-related sections from existing laws (punishable with long sentences), but instead, prosecuted under Article 505(b) whereby the accused may only be sentenced to a maximum of two years imprisonment if found guilty.
The Tatmadaw (or, the Myanmar Military)
After 2015, the Tatmadaw increasingly discriminated against the ethnic armed forces who signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). They also undertook more offensive operations against the ethnic organizations who refused to sign the NCA. Unjust laws came to be used in Rakhine State in increasingly brutal ways. However, when the international media reported on the situation, those who carried out the crimes were prosecuted. On the other hand, the military was spreading misinformation that the Tatmadaw was actually protecting the nation in accordance with the law; those who were being prosecuted had sacrificed themselves in the name of nationalism and for the sovereignty of the nation.
When such misinformation was distributed, the Tatmadaw utilized not only Tatmadaw-owned media but also social media platforms. When using these platforms, not only did they use individuals’ and officials’ real names, but fake accounts were also created. When Facebook started acting against hate speech on their platform, the Tatmadaw tried to establish their own social media platforms. Parallel to this, they also continued using other social media platforms which had not established any anti-hate speech policies for users (for example, YouTube). Currently, the Tatmadaw is no longer able to organize and hold public gatherings as part of their anti-foreign movement. They have instead turned to speeches, the media, and meetings with international representatives. Here, they have taken to stating that the international community is trying to interfere with Myanmar by presenting false news through the international media when foreigners actually do not fully understand the Myanmar situation. However, in contrast to this, the Tatmadaw maintains that they are carrying out their duties in accordance with the law under the leadership of the government. However, they are still carrying out anti-foreign movements through veterans’ associations.
Some political parties, including the USDP, are working together in riding the wave of nationalism to establish power. Apart from the USDP and some other political parties, the leaders of most parties remain opposed to dictatorship, and were either sentenced to prison, or captured and tortured for being part of human rights and democracy movements in the past. These leaders are now collaborating together, though with their own individual reasons, to gain the support of the majority Buddhist people via extreme nationalist groups. They have released statements in response to international sanctions and have been seen taking part in both public and private collaborations with extreme nationalist groups. They are working together in opposing the NLD’s attempts to take action to stop Ma Ba Tha. As for the NLD, it can be clearly seen that they do not have a strong policy to combat the extreme nationalists.
Currently, using nationalism as a cheap weapon to build political power can be vividly seen in the Myanmar political arena. Among the twenty-two political parties that ran in the October 2018 by-election campaigning via government media, there were only six political parties that campaigned on a platform based on diversity. Among these six, five of the parties were ethnic minority parties with one being mainland-based. Although nationalistic ideology was not part of the NLD’s election campaign, in Buthidaung and Maung Daw townships, the party chairmen of the townships made donations on the behalf of the government to help rebuild the townships’ destroyed monasteries. These acts were reported on in state-owned newspapers–clearly, an indirect method of using religion for political gain in the election.
As a more pressing political goal, the government is currently working towards removing the military from political involvement. In trying to enact this, they are using methods based on negotiation, national reconciliation, and rule of law principles. However, in the situations when the Tatmadaw’s willingness to cooperate seems suspicious, and it is unclear as to their genuine desire for real peace, the national reconciliation goals of accepting democracy, human rights, and the diversity can be obstructed by many barriers. When working towards rule of law, amending existing laws that lack justice is a fundamental requirement and imperative. However, doing so would impact the interests of previous Myanmar leaders including the Myanma Economic Holdings Limited, and therefore the government cannot amend anything nor deny the political advantage that the Tatmadaw holds and this essentially has the government in a political corner. Because of the above-mentioned factors, the existing laws lacking in justice are still being applied. Ethnic minorities, religious minorities, the media, and human rights activists are still being processed within this flawed judicial system. However, because of the current situation, these injustices are being passed off as rule of law. Under the national reconciliation priorities, even theoretically protecting groups such as the Rohingyas, human rights protectors, and the ethnic armed organizations was a weak response from the government; this was one of the reasons that pushed Myanmar’s political situation into an even worse state.
The government released a statement with the backing of State Sangha Maha Nayaka Group as an attempt to put a stop to Ma Ba Tha. However, there were no particular policies in place to practically implement their statement. Another thing to note is that the Minister for Religious Affairs, an ex-military officer named Thura U Aung Ko, made threats against Rohingyas and Myanmar Muslims; this shows the need for identification and monitoring of ministries’ attitudes towards ethnicities and the religions. Although the government is leading the way in forming advisory and investigation forces, because the military do not agree with them on these matters, the suggestions and findings of such forces were not able to be implemented effectively, and as such, these actions seemed as if they were only carried out to alleviate some of the pressure coming from the international community.
The local media channels are following military-mandated rules when covering any news about the Rohingya crisis and the civil war. The word ‘Rohingya’ simply means ‘from Rakhine’ and the word is used as a legitimate descriptor of one of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups, but the term was misused by extreme nationalists and propagandized to mean “people from Bangladesh”. Because both the government and military media use the word Bengali instead of Rohingya, most local news media outlets follow suit when covering related news. Additionally, when reporting on crimes between individuals from different religions, the parties’ religions are unnecessarily stated in the article. Also, local media channels have been publishing anti-minority articles, cartoons, and news articles. Even the media platforms established in aid of human rights and democracy are complicit and part of the problem as they are failing to prevent ethnic and religious discrimination.
The influence of nationalism can be seen not only in the ideology of Ma Ba Tha but also in that of different ethnic groups. They became more outspoken about their own cultural identities. Rakhine State held a ‘Lost Freedom’ event—the loss of freedom caused by the invasion of the Myanmar monarchy. In 2018, the event was prohibited and conflicts ensued between the central government and Rakhine ethnic people. During these conflicts, there were shootings, detentions, and arrests of many individuals. They are still being prosecuted to this day, with unlawful practices being used in the trials.
Throughout Myanmar’s history, successive governments have abused racial and religious issues for political power–this is still prevalent in Myanmar’s political landscape today. Now, anti-Rohingya movements are widely accepted as a foundation of Myanmar nationalism. Moreover, there are other ethnic problems due to the imbalances in population ratios of different ethnicities in specific areas. For example, in Kachin State, issues arise even between one Kachin group and another, or between the Kachin and Shan Ni ethnic groups. In Shan State, these imbalances in numbers can be seen between the majority Shan ethnic group and other ethnicities such as the Pa-O and the Palaung. These inter-ethnic group issues will continue to be permitted by the ruling class so long as they remain contained within minority groups, and until they turn into anti-Bama or anti-Buddhist sentiment.
On Facebook, there are still closed and secret groups that are used for distributing propaganda, spreading hate speech, and discussing social movements. Although the military has always used nationalism and religion for political authority, nowadays, most of Myanmar’s political elite are using these tools for their own agenda. Political conflict between groups that protect the dictatorship and those seeking to protect human rights and democracy have already transformed the political culture into one that utilizes nationalistic ideology.
Myanmar political elites’ standpoints on religion, nationalism, and nation building need to be further researched by analyzing the papers that they have written, interviews and speeches that they have given, and meetings that they have participated in. Treating religious minorities as hostages of nationalism and patriotism should be comprehensively studied on a case by case basis, and these cases must be connected in order to piece together the whole picture that shapes nationalism’s primary ideas. Research showing evidence that movements based on nationalism and religion serve the purposes of the dominant patriotic Bama ideology and help maintain the power of the military must be published. The ethnic and religious problems that are happening in the country cannot be assumed to be based on socioeconomic issues arising from cohabitation, but rather, must be seen as systematically created problems, and therefore action must be taken so that the international community can help the Myanmar political elite to effectively address these issues internally.
The current Rohingya crisis and the civil war against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities are not based on socioeconomic interests as the Myanmar government often assumes, but rather, developed from years of struggles and political movements that opposed racial, religious, and cultural inequality. The government’s current policies, and its attitudes towards ethnic armed organizations, prevent its goals of peace and reintegration from being achieved. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees in Bangladesh and Rakhine State who have been displaced since 2012 and are still not able to return to their place of origin to this day. As for those living in the refugee camps, the more prolonged the stay, the higher the likelihood of losing basic human rights such as education, economic status, society and culture, which could lead to responses driven by lack of patience and hope.
The thousands of young people without access to any educational opportunities could be a target for pro-terrorism campaigns. However, they are also a strong resource for the equality and independence movements for their societies. The Rohingya crisis will always be a ticking bomb as long as it is approached in terms of disagreements on history, ideological differences, and hatred based on ethnic identity. This flies in the face of the Rohingya and the fundamental human rights that they are entitled to, as members of the human species.