Why we need to worry about Burma’s extremist Ma Ba Tha monks
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Why we need to worry about Burma’s extremist Ma Ba Tha monks

One of the most concerning developments in any nascent democracy is the institutionalisation and mainstreaming of extremist ideologies. Countries undergoing political transitions are perhaps most susceptible to this, given that the conditions of early democratization — the jockeying of groups for power at a time when institutions are too weak to constrain those forces—are ripe for mass ideologies to take hold and proliferate. Groups can use more open media channels to manipulate nationalist sentiments, play on the public’s fears of what democracy will bring, and spread new “truths” about the hostile intentions of elements within society. They assert values of tradition, and warn that change of any sort—whether it be new political parties gaining power, or the demographic make-up of society altering—is inherently threatening. In doing so they gain widespread popular support for policies or actions that in other contexts appear extremist, but are seen to be just responses to the prospect of change.

Burma (Myanmar) has not escaped this. The most visible playmaker in this arena is the Ma Ba Tha monk group, which grew out of the anti-Muslim 969 movement and now has offices across the country, staffed by both monks and civilians. This week it took it upon itself to expel a local NGO aiding flood victims in northern Burma on account of the fact that the NGO hadn’t coordinated with Ma Ba Tha over relief operations. In the town of Kawlin where the NGO had been working, nearly 50,000 people have been affected by the flood and therefore urgently require this assistance.

But what is perhaps more concerning than Ma Ba Tha’s actions — to deny aid to those who need it — is that it was able to do so with such ease; that it now has the confidence to wield authority in such a manner. That confidence doesn’t emerge from thin air — it requires the tacit backing, or indeed cowering, of elements within the state and the support of a sizeable chunk of the population. Several years ago Ma Ba Tha may not have netted such a quick result in Kawlin, but over time it has been able to build, brick by brick, a formidable institution with the power to steer debates in parliament and cajole MPs into backing discriminatory and outwardly anti-democratic laws that its members themselves crafted. It preaches an exclusionary brand of nationalism that has found widespread support because it ties the fate of the country to the fate of Buddhism, so that anyone not supportive of Buddhism — namely, other religions — doesn’t support the national project and, ergo, threatens Burma and those within it. It is fear-mongering of the most astute variety.

The government has lacked both the capacity and the will to rein in the group. The fact that parliament passed several highly discriminatory “Race and Religious Protection” laws shows that ideological support of the group exists at the highest levels of power. Of course not all in Burma back Ma Ba Tha — and vital and courageous voices rally against it — but it now carries enough influence to take it from the level of a small-scale activist collective to a kind of mass nationwide pressure group that can effectively write legislation. It has openly backed the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — despite some conflict with it — and slandered the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) as Muslim-loving, unpatriotic troublemakers who will bring about exactly the kind of changes that Ma Ba Tha has been able to frame as so threatening. With the resources already available, popular fears that stem from the prospect of having such a “hostile” party in power can be quite easily activated, therefore drawing support away from the NLD. While this is unlikely to sway the result of elections in November, a focused campaign is well underway that could have longer-term repercussions.

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Hardline Burmese monk Wirathu, the symbolic leader of the Ma Ba Tha group. Pic: AP.

U Wirathu, its symbolic leader, has talked of the group as a deity: “We came down from the sky … We are brilliant people.” This is particularly sinister because it carries the implicit message that those not ideologically aligned with it are the precise opposite—not pure, not brilliant, but nefarious and threatening. That dichotomy has driven much of its work—the “Race and Religious Protection” laws are geared towards protecting Buddhism from the evils of Islam, as if they are binary “good” and “bad” forces whose members all share those traits. Despite the facile nature of such a framing, the passing of the laws shows this campaign has proven highly effective.

“Uncivil society” groups like Ma Ba Tha can in many ways become more powerful than formal power holders, for they both heavily influence legislation yet are not constrained by the same laws that limit the clout of political parties and subject their actions to scrutiny. Their base isn’t made up of registered party members but fluid networks of supporters and agitators that exist across all rungs of society, and who can campaign on issues regardless of the rules of election cycles, or can threaten mass protests when things aren’t going their way. Their rhetoric is not tempered by political orthodoxy, but is free to create “facts” about rival groups, funnel them through increasingly open information channels, and prescribe quite sinister solutions to the problems supposedly created by those rivals.

So while we can be shocked at what has occurred in Kawlin, we shouldn’t be surprised. Ma Ba Tha’s power has been growing unchecked for too long, and now functions on two levels: the local, where its network of offices across Burma increasingly show signs of operating as de facto local authorities, and the national, where it can draw on an expanding civilian support base to pitch self-serving, but highly dangerous, policies to parliament with the veneer of popular backing. Groups like Ma Ba Tha are direct products of democratization — their goal is to exploit emerging freedoms of movement and information to capture state institutions when they are still weak. As we’ve seen in Burma, no one in power is putting up a fight — this void is exactly what Ma Ba Tha, now perhaps one of the biggest threats to Burma’s transition, needs to better direct the course of the transition.