How religion is being used to win power in Myanmar

opinion January 28, 2015 01:00

By Htun Aung Gyaw
Special to The

10,625 Viewed

Controversial monk Wirathu, head of the 969 group, is abusing Buddhism to help the USDP win the election

In Myanmar this month, an extremist monk gave a speech laden with the language of hate aimed at stirring sentiment against Muslims, flouting Buddhist teachings in doing so. Meanwhile, a high-ranking member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition who gave a speech about the Buddha and Buddhist principles, and criticised the group led by the extremist monk, has been detained for insulting Buddhism.

These two controversial cases show how the government is manipulating religion in a bid to win the election later this year.

On January 16, activists from Rakhine state protested against the United Nations for urging that Muslim Rohingya be given Myanmar citizenship. Anti-Muslim Buddhist monk Wirathu, branded “The Face of Buddhist Terror” by Time magazine, gave a hate speech whose vicious insults shocked the country and many in the international community.

Wirathu’s speech targeted the United Nations’ Human Rights rapporteur on Myanmar, Ms Yanhee Lee. Here is part of what he said:

“This bitch [Yanhee Lee] learned nothing about the Myo Sount [Protection of Religion] Bill. She said the bill is against human rights, because of what those big-mouth bitches presented to her. Is she a good woman? Do not think yourself a gentle person just because you sit on the UN. For our country, you are a prostitute. If you feel sympathy for them, you can give your own ass to Kalars [Bengalis]. Do not try to sell out our Arakan [Rakhine] state! Arakan state is our fortress, [and] defence line. Arakan is our gate! Do not try to enter and break our gate! If you try we will fight back and attack you.”

Coming from the mouth of a Buddhist monk, the hate-filled words stunned many people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. The Buddha taught forgiveness, tolerance, to understand one’s feelings and to have sympathy for the weak. The Buddha taught love and kindness – not whom to love and whom to hate. Wirathu is preaching the opposite, just like the extremist jihadis who masquerade as Muslims.

However, the authorities have taken no action against Wirathu and his gang, the 969 group, which has attacked Muslim communities and encouraged Myanmar Buddhists not to trade with Muslims or buy goods from Muslim-owned shops. Wirathu has disgraced Buddhism with his actions, yet the government has done nothing to stop him abusing the faith and taking advantage of his position as a monk.

Far more interesting to the government was a recent speech by Htin Linn Oo, a well-known columnist and NLD member, delivered in Thone Pan Hla Village in Sagaing Division, at a memorial ceremony for the nationalist monk U Wisara. The speech led to his arrest on charges that he insulted Buddhism. Here are some excerpts:

“When President Thein Sein was prime minister under military rule in 1997, troops captured three monks in Pakkhokku town, tied them to a lamp-post and beat them with the butt of a gun. Now that person is sitting in the president’s seat … The Buddha never said I am telling the truth, do what I say. But people who wear monks’ robes say ‘I tell you the truth, follow what I say’. Is that correct? ... Those who shave their heads and wear yellow robes are the ones who are destroying Buddhism … Buddha was not Burmese, nor Shan, nor Kachin, nor Chin, nor Rakhine – he was not a Myanmar national. If you only love your race, do not worship the Buddha. Why do we worship him? Because of his holy teaching. His dharma is what we worship, not his race. He never said ‘Do not associate with a person who has a beard’ [like Bengalis], and never said ‘Only be friendly with a person with small eyes’ [like the Chinese]. He only said, act with compassion and kindness towards people; forgiveness will give you inner peace. He did not discriminate against any race.”

On this basis, police claim Htin Linn Oo insulted the Buddha, Buddhism and monks. He was arrested and refused bail on three occasions. The 969 group (A Myo Batha Sasana) has pressured the judge and the police to take action against Htin. A leading 969 monk, U Pamokkha told the court, “He [Htin] said ‘do not worship Buddha’. That is an insult to our Lord Buddha and Buddhism”.

 This testimony deliberately twists the truth: Htin Linn Oo insulted neither the Buddha nor Buddhism but rather praised the Buddha as a holy man with an open heart. It was not criticism of religion that landed him in jail but strong criticism of President Thein Sein and the 969 organisation. Pressure from 969 and a green light from the government were enough to put him behind bars. That is strong evidence that Myanmar’s judicial system is not independent, but controlled by the administration.

In November, four controversial “Protection of Religion” bills were forwarded to parliament. The decision to draft laws that would restrict religious conversion and interfaith marriage, and enforce monogamy and population-control measures, has been strongly criticised by local and international rights groups.

The 969 group has strong support around the various states and divisions of the country. Last year, thousands at a 969 conference in Mandalay heard Wirathu praise Aung San Suu Kyi for her dedication in fighting for democracy before adding that he would not choose her as next president because she had married a foreigner. If he had a vote, said Wirathu, he would vote for Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) chairman and lower house speaker Shwe Mann as next president. the speech demonstrates that Wirathu is using the 969 group to support the USDP.

It seems the 969 group is part of the USDP’s strategy to use religion to win the presidential election this year, with Wirathu acting as a pawn of the regime.

Wirathu’s words and actions have won strong support among Buddhist residents of Rakhine, many of whom fear the growing Rohingya population. The Rohingya have for decades been crossing the border from Bangladesh, a densely populated country that has also denied them citizenship.

Ninety per cent of the people in the border towns on the Myanmar side, Maungdaw and Buthidaung, are Rohingya – known to the 10 per cent minority of Rakhine Buddhist residents as “Bengalis”. This is a reversal of the ratio in the 1950s. Rohingya tradition allows men to take more than one wife and encourages them to have many children. As such, the part of the Myo Sount Bill that bans polygamy is accepted by women’s rights activists, who are pushing for monogamy in Myanmar.

This is just one element in the Rohingya issue, which is still poorly understood in the West and by international media who fail to see how religious issues are being twisted. Migrants from Bangladesh who are captured in Myanmar will often identify themselves as Rohingya in a bid to gain sympathy as members of an oppressed people.

In the 1950s, a Muslim separatist group from Arakan State fought the Burmese government but were imprisoned by the U Nu regime. Now, Arakanese people fear that the Rohingya will act on the same agenda – to set up a Muslim state – if they are recognised as an indigenous ethnic race in Myanmar. This is why the Rakhine/Arakanese are very sensitive about the term “Rohingya”, whose adherents claim to be indigenous. If the West dropped the name Rohingya and called them “Muslims from Rakhine State” instead, it would solve many problems. If, however, the UN and Western NGOs continue to use “Rohingya”, they will ignite more anger both among the Rakhine Buddhists and among their co-religionists in the country as a whole. Insistence on the use of the term Rohingya has helped fuel the rise of a nationalist leader like Wirathu, who opposes the democratic process and agitates for a return to military rule.


Htun Aung Gyaw is a former chairman of the All Burma Students Democratic Front. He is currently based in Tokyo.