More than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed and at least 270,000 have fled to Bangladesh since an army crackdown began on August 25, against the besieged minority group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Deprived of citizenship and legally restricted when it comes to travel, marriage, and the number of children they can have, the more than 1 million Muslim minority Rohingya are effectively stateless and have been denied civil and economic rights since Myanmar’s independence from British colonial rule.
After colonialism ended, Buddhist nationalist sentiment became the foundation for Myanmar’s state institutions. Indeed, the military junta (1962 – 2011), which ruled the country for much of its post-colonial history, drew legitimacy as a protector of Buddhism, which the British had marginalized from the public sphere.
During the recent mass violence against the Rohingya, the population’s third mass exodus in the past four decades, the military has joined forces with religious forces to legitimize its actions. Ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups, which have been a powerful force since Myanmar’s political liberalization began in 2011, are actively legitimizing the military’s oppressive policies against the Rohingya.
With branches in 250 of the country’s 330 townships and a vanguard of monks and millions of followers, the hard-line nationalist group Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known as Ma Ba Tha, is one of the most notorious and influential of these groups. Deeply embedded in Myanmar’s civic and religious life, through service deliveries, aid relief, and educational activities, Ma Ba Tha is led by widely-revered monks, including the fire brand extremist, Ashin Wirathu, who has long made claims about a Rohingya plot to take over the country and convert Buddhist women to Islam.
Branded the “Face of Buddhist Terror” by Time magazine, Wirathu makes incendiary speeches on social media about impending “jihad,” spreads rumors about the systematic rape of Buddhist women, says Muslims are “snakes” and “mad dogs,” and has called for the boycott of Muslim-owned businesses.
Rights groups say Wirathu and the Ma Ba Tha played a central role in inciting sectarian riots in the country in 2012, 2013 and 2014, which left hundreds dead and saw Rohinyga shops and villages burned to the ground.
Aside from inciting violence, Ma Ba Tha enjoys significant political influence. The group initiated a huge lobbying effort in 2015 to pass four new race and religion laws in the country targeting the Rohingya, including placing restrictions on inter-religious marriages, family size and religious conversion.
While the government banned the Ma Ba Tha in April, after it forced local authorities to close two Muslim schools, the prohibition has been largely ineffective, and, if anything, has amplified nationalist Buddhist narratives in Myanmar.