By Adrien Chorn —
The recent warrants issued by the Yangon regional government for the arrest of Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monastic figurehead of Myanmar’s ultranationalist anti-Muslim movement, may produce complications for Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the lead-up to the 2020 general elections. Wirathu was charged with sedition in late May 2019 under Article 124 (a) of the Penal Code for his recent vitriolic speeches made against the NLD government and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi over the past few months. As of July 2019, he is avoiding arrest and on the run, while authorities are preparing to put him on trial in absentia.
The official order for the Yangon regional government to file a legal complaint against Wirathu came from the office of President Win Myint, a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi. In the past few months, Wirathu has been speaking out against Aung San Suu Kyi’s aim to amend Article 59(f) of the 2008 Constitution that currently blocks her from the presidency and accused her and the NLD of going against the efforts of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military that is still entrenched in politics) to protect Buddhism from Muslims and other foreign influences.
Myanmar has a long, complicated history of ethnic tensions and religious strife provoked by the cementing and constructing of Myanmar’s Bamar-Buddhist national identity during the British colonial period. This fostered the creation of “ethnic armed organizations” (EAOs) in Myanmar’s outer states, which have created issues for Myanmar’s stability and unity that persist today. However, these constructed identities also spurred on anti-Muslim sentiments in Myanmar, which were likely exacerbated by policies during the military junta period (1988-2011). The junta zealously promoted Buddhism to legitimate their authority at the expense of Muslim populations, particularly the Rohingya in Rakhine, which the junta and the current government refuses to recognize.
Wirathu leads a contemporary iteration of this longtime movement with a large following of monastic and layperson supporters that argues that Myanmar, Buddhism, and its Bamar-Buddhists are under threat by Muslims. This line of thought has become a leading rationale for the violence against the Muslim Rohingya today, which has caused mass, forced relocation of nearly one million Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh and formed the largest refugee camp in the world. While many are active followers of Wirathu’s movement, there are others still who tacitly support it.
While Myanmar is preparing to hold its next general elections in 2020, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government are being pressured to accomplish two major responsibilities: brokering peace with numerous EAOs in Myanmar’s outer states through the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and the repatriation of nearly a million Rohingya refugees back into Myanmar. The ability of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to maneuver these issues is likely to affect the stability of the country and the country’s reputation with its international partners.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are possibly trying to undermine Wirathu’s momentum in Myanmar’s ultranationalist movement to assert their authority as leaders of the government. But the recent attempts to arrest Wirathu may be used to galvanize increasing anti-NLD government sentiment that could subsequently increase the popularity of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the successor of the junta government during Myanmar’s transition to a nominal democracy and Myanmar’s main opposition party.
Hundreds of lay protesters, led by Buddhist monks of the outlawed Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation (formerly known as Ma Ba Tha, the Burmese acronym for the Association to Protect Race and Religion who advocate for Buddhist supremacy in Myanmar) rallied in Yangon around Shwedagon Pagoda in response to the recent allegations against Wirathu. The protesters accused the NLD government of being oppressive against Buddhist monks and complained that the government was slacking in their duties, which they perceive is to protect the Bamar race from the alleged Muslim threat.
The USDP may gain a boost of support from these protests, particularly due to the connection between Wirathu’s anti-Muslim movement and the Tatmadaw. Myanmar’s military junta was regarded as a partner in the anti-Muslim movement due to their staunch patronage of state Buddhism. Wirathu and his followers now see the USDP as a useful partner against the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, who they perceive as antagonistic to their cause. Most recently, the Buddha Dhamma Parahita received a personal donation of 30 million kyats (about $19,600) from the military commander of Yangon Region on June 17, 2019.
Competition between the USDP and the NLD may further shift the focus away from the Rohingya issue toward winning the 2020 general elections, which would demonstrate a lack of resolve to repatriate Rohingya refugees and ease ethnoreligious tensions in the country. This would negatively impact Myanmar’s relationship with its partners in the region, including ASEAN’s majority Muslim members Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as the United States and the EU, who have increasingly voiced their disapproval of the violence against Rohingya people in Myanmar.
In November 2018, ASEAN members led by Indonesia and Malaysia delivered a strongly worded statement, demanding that Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry “carry out an independent and impartial investigation of the allegations of human rights violations and related issues and hold those responsible fully accountable.”
In August 2018, the United States Treasury Department placed targeted sanctions on several Myanmar security officials and military units through the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows U.S. officials to sanction individuals for human rights abuses. Undersecretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker articulated the U.S. government’s indignation, saying “there must be justice for the victims and those who work to uncover these atrocities, with those responsible held to account for these abhorrent crimes.” More recently, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously approved the Burma United through Rigorous Military Accountability (BURMA) Act in June 2019 (now awaiting approval of the full House) to further punish those responsible for the human rights abuses in Myanmar.
In April 2019, the EU prolonged sanctions on Myanmar until April 2020 that would include “an embargo on arms and equipment that can be used for internal repression, an export ban on dual-use goods for use by the military and border guard police, and export restrictions on equipment for monitoring communications that might be used for internal repression.”
If the NLD fails to navigate the Rohingya conflict and the upcoming 2020 elections, this may result in Myanmar’s further isolation from its international partners. Furthermore, it could jeopardize ASEAN unity if Myanmar accuses ASEAN partners of interfering in its internal affairs.
Moreover, successfully arresting Wirathu would not eliminate the feelings toward the Rohingya that are deeply embedded into Myanmar society. Such actions would also be ineffective in decreasing the influence of the anti-Muslim movement over Myanmar’s populace. This would require putting greater effort into a well thought out, reconciliatory approach between peoples that were subject to generations of distrust. This includes the silent citizens of Myanmar who may fear any repercussions for contradicting this movement. Trying to remedy Myanmar’s deeply entrenched ethnoreligious issues through a quick arrest will likely backfire for the NLD.
Mr. Adrien Chorn is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.