Monks With Machetes

Why Buddhist nationalists are leading the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the current humanitarian crisis in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Both the human rights chief at the United Nations and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have affirmed that Myanmar’s security forces are engaged in ethnic cleansing to wipe out the Muslim, ethnic Rohingya group in Rakhine State. Since August 2017, when violence spiked in Rakhine following the alleged attack by a shadowy Rohingya insurgent group on several police posts, more than 615,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh. The wave of murders, land grabbing, and arson allegedly has been directed by the armed forces, and local police, but has also been carried out by local vigilantes.

Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Violence
by Francis Wade
Zed Books/University of Chicago Press, 256 pp.

Those who have fled Myanmar since August join the tens of thousands of Rohingya who have already streamed into Bangladesh since the violence in Rakhine State first began in 2012. Then, the alleged rape of a Buddhist ethnic Rakhine by a group of Rohingya led to fierce attacks on Rohingya communities. Groups of Buddhists, often equipped and driven by local police, security forces, and political agitators, attacked Rohingya towns, burning many to the ground. Over the past five years, many Rohingya have been evicted from their old communities and confined to ghettos or camps located inside Rakhine State that human rights organizations have called “open-air” concentration camps.

Myanmar’s top generals, still in control of the security forces, bear the ultimate responsibility for the bloodshed, but the de facto head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, has done nothing to stop it and bears responsibility as well. Outside powers, too, are accountable. The United States and most other democracies continued to promote closer ties with Myanmar throughout the 2010s, even as the crisis in Rakhine State was intensifying into ethnic cleansing. Well before the escalation this past August, the U.S. and other democracies should have publicly warned Myanmar’s generals to stop the killing or face severe targeted sanctions.

Yet one group’s responsibility for the Rakhine crisis has not been fully explored: that of Myanmar’s nationalist Buddhist leaders. Since the early 2010s, hard-line Buddhist monks have played a central role in fomenting anti-Rohingya sentiment, which has spiraled into a nationwide campaign of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim attacks. They have further destabilized an already precarious political situation, and revealed to the world that Myanmar’s democratic success story is unfulfilled and leading to illiberal majoritarian rule.

To many Americans, the idea of Buddhist monks taking hard-line, nationalist positions, organizing hate speech, and advocating violence might seem difficult to fathom. I have done several interviews with American journalists who found the idea of monks being involved in violent politics strange, if not shocking. Views of Buddhism in the U.S. have been shaped by the writings and teachings of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, celebrity Buddhists, and authors focusing on Buddhism as a self-improvement vehicle. (To be fair, several journalists with long experience in Southeast Asia, like Hannah Beech at the New York Times, have thoroughly covered the rise of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar.)

In many parts of South and Southeast Asia, however, Buddhism has long been intertwined with politics, just as other major religions have in other countries. Not only in Myanmar but also in Thailand and Sri Lanka, Buddhist nationalism, combined with majoritarian politics and aimed at ethnic and religious minorities, has in recent decades proved a powerful political force. In Sri Lanka, nationalist Buddhist monks have moved from the fringe of politics to becoming important political players, advocating anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim policies. Through effective campaigning and the use of modern media, they have forced major parties to adopt much of their hard-line rhetoric. In Thailand, nationalist monks have advocated making Buddhism the state religion and have supported a brutal government response to an ethnic Malay and Muslim insurgency in the country’s deep south. In all three countries, nationalist Buddhists have used social media to share hateful and often factually inaccurate articles and jeremiads against Muslims.

In his insightful, well-researched new book, Myanmar’s Enemy Within, journalist and analyst Francis Wade shows the role that nationalist Buddhist monks have played in the ongoing devastation of the Rohingya in Myanmar. He reveals the flaws that have always existed in Myanmar’s fragile democratization. In the 2010s, the military, which had ruled the country for decades, allowed a transition to civilian rule, and a free election in 2015 that gave Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), control of the lower house of parliament and made her the de facto civilian ruler. The country’s leaders rebuilt ties with the United States and other democracies, opened the doors to aid and investment, and welcomed back exiles, who then built up a vibrant media and civil society. The Obama administration, which had shifted U.S. policy away from decades of sanctioning and isolating Myanmar to rebuilding economic and political links, celebrated the country’s transition as a major foreign policy victory.

But these positive developments concealed serious problems. Most importantly, the army has not fully handed over the reins of power. By law, Myanmar’s military controls 25 percent of parliament, makes its own decisions about when and how to use force, and often does not inform Suu Kyi or other civilian leaders in detail about its operations. It also constitutionally controls three of the most powerful ministries, including interior and defense.

As Wade demonstrates, by the 2010s Myanmar was a ruined country, full of deep-seated ethnic and religious nationalism and lacking unifying institutions or political culture. The era of British colonial rule, which lasted from 1824 until 1948 and is mostly forgotten by Americans and other non-British foreigners today, pitted ethnic and religious groups in Myanmar against each other. Buddhism was sheared off from the monarchy and the state, and British officials stoked tensions within the population in order to keep potential allies from rebelling against the Crown. The British also encouraged immigration from British India into Myanmar, fostering a climate of nativism among many in the ethnic Burman majority.

These tensions crested in the early days of independence. At the end of the colonial period, many ethnic minorities launched insurgencies, fighting the ethnic Burman–dominated central government almost as soon as Myanmar, then known as Burma, became a free state. In 1962, after a brief and shaky experiment in democracy, the army took over. Decades of xenophobic, isolationist, and nativist military rule followed, impoverishing the country and leaving its civil society shredded.

Wade understands how ruined Myanmar was when it began its political transition in the early days of the Obama administration, but many outsiders only saw the promise at the time. They were focused on a binary struggle, between the (supposedly) angelic opposition leader and the horrible military government; they often assumed that once Suu Kyi ran Myanmar, many of the country’s problems would be solved. Some foreign diplomats, investors, and journalists saw it as another potential Thailand—a future economic powerhouse. Or they saw it as another Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s (relative) democratic triumph—a country where the military gradually gave way to democratic leaders, who ended most of the country’s separatist conflicts and gradually decentralized power and created a stable political system.

In reality, Myanmar was more like Angola or Afghanistan—a shattered country, and a state that would take decades to achieve even a rough stability. American and European businesspeople who traveled to Myanmar in the early 2010s to assess the country’s business potential often returned shocked at the country’s devastated state. (Foreign investors from Thailand, Singapore, or other countries who’d had much more experience in Myanmar were generally more realistic about the country and potential business.) Many could not believe the shape of Myanmar’s physical infrastructure, the open hostility voiced toward ethnic minorities by members of Suu Kyi’s party—many of whom had themselves suffered miserably for years at the hands of the military and police—and the overall instability of large swaths of the country.

Even before the 2010s and the end of complete military rule, the Rohingya had already suffered for decades. They had faced disenfranchisement, abuses, and land grabbing, including a 1982 decision by the military government to disenfranchise much of the Rohingya population. The Rohingya were not recognized by many Myanmar people as “real” citizens of the country, even though many of them had lived in Myanmar for generations. In Rakhine State, community leaders divided people into what Wade calls “in-group” identity and its opposite—only Buddhist, ethnic Rakhine people could be “real” inhabitants of the state. The paranoid and isolated army men who ruled Myanmar helped foster this narrative by delivering public messages warning that the country could be corrupted by a range of foreign forces, including immigrants, democratic ideas, the foreign media, and Suu Kyi, a cosmopolitan woman who had lived outside Myanmar for decades and was married to a British citizen. To delegitimize Suu Kyi, her followers, and ethnic minorities, Wade notes, the junta used incessant propaganda to publicize the idea that outside forces would “swallow the Myanmar people in their entirety.”

Growing Islamophobia in Western and other countries had seeped into Rakhine State by the 2000s. This sentiment, including the idea that Muslims might breed and eventually be the majority of the country, then swept across the entire country. (These fears were, and are, ridiculous: Myanmar is about 95 percent Buddhist, and there are no Muslim members of parliament today.) Still, a nationalist Buddhist movement did not fully and aggressively emerge until the 2010s, due to a number of factors, among them limited internet connections, no social media, firm army rule, and restrictions on Buddhist monks. Before the end of formal military rule, monks had been somewhat restricted in their ability to give speeches that could be construed as political—after many of them took part in a nationwide demonstration against the military in 2007 (known as the “Saffron Revolution,” for the color of the monks’ robes), and the conflict turned violent, the armed forces cracked down on monasteries.

But once the military stepped back slightly from power, monks had more freedom to travel and give speeches, and some army officers began to realize that they and the hard-line Buddhist clergy shared a common enemy. In addition, with the opening of the media market and faster internet speeds, social media became more available, and quickly developed into a Wild West of paranoid rumors and fears. This combination—decades of identity sorting, modern Islamophobia, social media–fueled paranoia, young hard-line Buddhists finding their voices, and local police and army commanders willing to help harm and kill—has proved disastrous.

Many monks, like the infamous U Wirathu, who quickly gained notoriety in Myanmar for his anti-Muslim speeches, took advantage of the growing freedom and the advent of social media to spread their sermons. These became fiercer and more pointed after the initial wave of violence in Rakhine State in 2012. Many of these commentaries were eerily similar to the types of hate speech circulated on Hutu radio stations in the months before the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Some monks further have called for “exposing sympathizers” of the Rohingya among the non-Rohingya population, Wade notes—moderate Buddhists who do not see Rohingya and other Muslims as a threat, and do not support a strategy of ethnic and religious cleansing.

Indeed, nationalist Buddhist leaders, much like the broadcasters of Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda or the Serbian Orthodox leaders who backed Slobodan Milosevic, have dominated social media, while moderates have cowered or been (electronically) shouted down. And, as in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, these hard-line Buddhists have used the media and their own standing as religious leaders to create an environment that has made it acceptable for people to commit violence against men, women, and children who were once their neighbors, their customers, their friends, and even their family.

Hate speech spread widely in Rakhine State and in other parts of Myanmar. Army and civilian leaders either ignored it or openly encouraged Buddhist nationalists, because they either shared their views or feared their political power. Even prominent supporters of Suu Kyi—veteran pro-democracy protestors—helped create the environment that “allowed” many ordinary Buddhists to participate in pogroms against people with whom, Wade notes, they had once lived and worked. Wade argues that “it had seemed for so long that the major unifying force in Myanmar was opposition to the military,” holding together Myanmar people from various ethnicities and religions in opposition to the ruthless junta. In demonizing Muslims, he shows, former activists who now had to work with the military could develop common ground, and also could demonstrate that ethnic Burmans would always rule Myanmar, no matter what type of government the country had. In other words, Wade writes, they would show that full “human rights . . . were only open to select groups”; whatever changes were coming, those shifts would not diminish the power of the Burmans.

As the International Crisis Group reported in an excellent recent study of Myanmar Buddhist nationalism, hard-line monks did not only begin to speak out in the early 2010s, encouraging violence against Muslims. They also created a nationwide social movement that became a kind of adopted home for many young Burmese, particularly unemployed men who had no other community to be part of. But this movement also could be activated to pressure politicians to adopt anti-Muslim legislation, ignore rights abuses, and take extreme ethno-nationalist positions. Members of the nationwide movement played important roles in supporting a hard-line, anti-Rohingya political party in Rakhine State that won enough votes to take control of the state parliament in 2015.

Nationalist Buddhists have not necessarily always provided weapons or transport for vigilantes in Rakhine State; it is often the security forces that have cordoned off towns, provided equipment, and even committed the rapes, burnings, and shootings. But the Buddhist hard-liners have often played a role in the organization and provision of vigilantes.

Wade is—correctly—not optimistic about Myanmar’s future. Some two-thirds of the Rohingya who were living in Myanmar before August 2017 have now fled the country, and many Rohingya who remain in Myanmar have been telling reporters, like Beech, that their group has been ethnically cleansed—that they have no future in Myanmar and their history will be forgotten. The anti-Rohingya violence has even spread to parts of Myanmar where Buddhist-Muslim relations have historically been much better than in Rakhine State. In addition, in anger some Rohingya apparently have begun to organize a violent resistance, creating an insurgent network that operates in Rakhine State and along the Myanmar border, and has launched multiple deadly attacks on Myanmar police and security forces in the past year. As the insurgency grows, and perhaps draws more on Islamist rhetoric, it will only fuel Buddhist nationalism, and the cycle of violence will continue.

Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.