Is Myanmar's new government serious about curbing religious extremism?

Long criticized for its silence on the plight of the country's Muslim minority, Myanmar's newly-elected governing party has taken steps to address religious intolerance that often boils over into violence.

Hkun Lat/AP/File
In this Sept. 21, 2015 file photo, nationalist Buddhist monk Wirathu, center, marches in Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar. Myanmar's government has denounced an influential Buddhist nationalist group, led by Wirathu, after failing to speak against it strongly while others were accusing it of using hate speech and inspiring violence against Muslims. The Ma Ba Tha organization's charismatic leader, Wirathu, responded Wednesday, July 13, 2016 by calling the country's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a "woman dictator."

Myanmar (Burma) is a country in transition, journeying from a military dictatorship to a democracy with an abruptness that few anticipated. And while the signs are promising that this transformation is genuine, there has long been an unsightly blot tarnishing the record of the governing party – its apparent silence in the face of discrimination and violence against the Muslim minority.

That inaction appears to be changing. In the wake of two attacks in recent weeks targeting Muslims, during one of which a mob of hundreds of Buddhists burned down a Muslim prayer hall, the government has spoken out, condemning an organization of radical Buddhist monks known as Ma Ba Tha.

The question remains, however, as to how significant this turn of events actually is – whether the government has the will and the wherewithal to turn the tide and improve the lot of the Muslim Rohingya minority, whom Amnesty International has described as “the most persecuted refugees in the world.”

“Whatever the personal sympathies or biases of individual members of the government,” says Lynn Kuok, a fellow at Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, “the government as a whole understands that Myanmar’s development is contingent upon stability, which in turn cannot be achieved with the blight of religious violence hanging over the country.”

Persecution against the Rohingya people, a Muslim group that has lived in Myanmar for generations, has been vicious for years. In 1982, members of the group were denied citizenship by the Burma Citizenship Law, which, in turn, stripped them of a whole slew of rights.

Violent clashes in 2012 between Muslim and Buddhist communities were perhaps the troubles' peak, in which scores were killed and up to 140,000 people displaced, mostly Rohingya. As the violence spread, a band of Buddhist monks began claiming that their faith, the dominant religion in Myanmar, was under threat from “Islamic interlopers.”

From this protest movement, Ma Ba Tha was formed, and they had some success in persuading the military junta then in charge to pass further laws targeting minorities. But when they threw their weight behind the incumbents in last November’s elections, their warnings appeared not to resonate as much as they had hoped. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a decisive victory, although she and the party were also criticized for weak responses to anti-Muslim rhetoric, The New York Times wrote. 

The final indication that Ma Ba Tha’s star may be waning came Tuesday, when the state-backed Buddhist cleric organization, Ma Ha Na, declared that Ma Ba Tha was not a “lawful monks’ association.”

“It’s another sign that Ma Ba Tha has probably overreached its self-importance and overestimated its public appeal,” David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Burma with Human Rights Watch, told Time. “Chastised by their weak showing of political clout around the election, the movement has tried to move back to some … nationalist and defender-of-the-faith credibility, but [they] are seriously hobbled by some of their prominent monk leaders and their shrilly racist and clearly unspiritual messages.”

Not everyone is convinced of progress, however. According to Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, while the government’s efforts could be genuine, he worries that “deep anti-Rohingya feeling in the NLD” remains.

“I mean, it's a step – a step beyond what the Thein Sein government [the previous military government] took,” says Mr. Kurlantzick. “Myanmar's laws on hate speech are very unclear. [I’m] not sure what the government could do even if it wanted to take a harder line against monks' hate speech.”

Yet the government has begun to take action. It has threatened legal steps against Ma Ba Tha, should the group spread hate speech or incite violence, and also launched a taskforce to prevent violent protests, Reuters reports. 

In the words of Dr. Kuok of Brookings, it is too early to speculate on the success of this taskforce, but “failure is not an option if the country is to flourish and prosper.” Overall, she says, there is cause for optimism. 

“Progress will take time – in the case of fostering appreciation between groups, possibly decades,” says Kuok. “Yet, if you look at the tremendous strides Myanmar has made just in the last five years or so, including ushering in the first democratically elected government since 1962, it shows the country is serious about change.”

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