Anti-Muslim Buddhists are entering the political mainstream of Myanmar (Burma), according to a report in Reuters (Sept. 1). The Buddhist group the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, headed by 77-year-old Buddhist abbot Ashin Tilawkar Biwonsa (Ma Ba Tha), passed four bills by Parliament and signed them into law. Critics say the new laws effectively legalize discrimination against women and the country’s minority Muslims. In preparing for the first free vote in Myanmar in the last 25 years, Ma Ba Tha has stepped up the group’s activism, launching a magazine and running programming on one of the most popular satellite channels. The abbot came out of the 969 movement, a loose collection of monks linked to a wave of violence against the country’s Muslim minority in 2012 and 2013. While Buddhists have been in the forefront of pro-democracy protests, but after a quasi-civilian reformist government took power in 2011, some outspoken monks claimed Islam was eclipsing Buddhism and weakening the country. The growth of militant anti-Muslim Buddhist groups has also taken place in Sri Lanka and Thailand. In the Buddhist state of Bhutan, the rights of Christians and members of other minority faiths have faced restrictions of their rights.
In the journal Social Research (summer), writer Min Zin attempts to explain the upsurge of militancy among Myanmar Buddhists so soon after they had become a model of peaceful activism. Zin writes that much of the violence against Muslims before 2012 (the period before the transition to democracy) were one-time events; “even if the events occasionally recurred, the clashes were never sustained over time as a series of organized campaigns.” Today, there is “undeterred propagation of hate speech coupled with clear political coordination. Unlike under previous regimes, where anti-Muslim hate speech was either-word-of-mouth propaganda manufactured by military intelligence officers or underground publications, people can now hear vitriolic attacks against Muslims in religious sermons from the intrusive loudspeakers of local monasteries or donation stations,” often with clear support by the government, Zin writes. But there may be a limit as to how much lay Buddhists will take of such overt discrimination by the Buddhist monks; the taboo against criticizing monks has been shattered. Civil society groups and players have charged that the monks are using Buddhism as a tool for extremism and nationalism, even while upholding the value of Buddhist spirituality.
(Social Research, http://www.newschool.edu/cps/social-research/)