Dealing with Growing Nationalism
Alec J. Wilmot
June , 2017

Give me a reason

On May 9 arrest warrants were issued by the Yangon Police force for nine people (including two monks) who stand accused of being the organisers of a semi-legal police raid and subsequent riot in the Yangon township of Mingalar Taung Nyunt in the second week of May. At present, seven of the suspects in the case have been apprehended and, if convicted under Section 505(c) of the Myanmar Penal Code (incitement to commit violence), could face up to two years in prison, a fine, or both. The two monks, who are currently still at large, have been identified as Pyinnya Wuntha and Thuseitta. The two are believed to be the central organizers of the raid. Both are known members of the Patriotic Monks Union, an ultra-nationalist religious group primarily focussed on fighting the influence of Muslim culture and Muslim people within Myanmar. Mob raids of Muslim majority neighbourhoods have occurred in the past under the direction of like minded groups which all share ties with the most public face of radical racial and religious ultra-nationalism in Myanmar; Ma Ba Tha.

Recent ultra-nationalist rallies and ‘missions’ of the sort that occurred in Mingalar Taung Nyunt have been organized around court dates pertaining to criminal charges over the groups’ activities in order to drum up publicity and support for the cause and to goad the authorities into reacting against them, providing fodder for their media campaigns. On April 28, the Kamaryut Township Court began hearing criminal proceedings under 505(c) charges against a number of high profile monks over an illegal congregation in front the US Embassy to protest the US ambassador’s use of the word Rohingya in a statement. When the hearing was adjourned at 3pm, ultra-nationalist supporters travelled from the courthouse to Thaketa Township where they congregated in front of four Islamic schools demanding the authorities close them on the charge that the buildings were being used as schools but also as makeshift mosques, which, if true, would constitute a breach of the building categorization code. It was on May 9 that another court hearing concerning the organizing of ultra-nationalist activities was held in Bahan and another ‘outing’ was organised to draw attention to the court case and vindicate the defendant’s frustrated supporters. The events of that night and the fallout since is indicative of a growing pattern of escalating tension and violence that, as has been seen before, could boil over into lawless communal violence and murder.

Show us your papers

The area of Mingalar Taung Nyunt was the scene of the most recent event. On the evening of May 9 a large group of ultra-nationalist supports and monks, led by a small group of hastily summoned immigration officials and police, entered the majority Muslim community in order to search an apartment for ‘illegal Bengali’ immigrants.

The group (reportedly made up of dozens of men, 50 or more) surrounded the building before police, immigration officers and a number of people from the mob itself entered and took control of the apartment to interview its residents. The residents, under a great deal of duress, were able to provide their legal paperwork, satisfying the police and immigration officers who returned to the mob and informed them that no arrests were going to be made. It was at this point that things started to get ugly.

Disappointed by their failure to catch any illegal immigrants and whipped up by mob mentality the group began to chant “Go away, stay away” outside the building (according to Frontier) which led to a heated exchange with local Muslim residents who had come out of their houses to investigate the spectacle. The situation on the street quickly led to violent confrontation. One police officer told reporters that fist-fights broke out between locals and the mob. Once moved down the street by police a witness reported that the mob took out slingshots and began firing rocks at the locals from afar. As the mob and the police started to leave the area they were pelted with sticks and bottles by the infuriated local residents. The mob did not in fact disperse until asked to do so by a full police colonel at the local police station. There was one final altercation at around 2 AM in which locals, riled by ultra-nationalists yelling from a moving truck, threw stones and bottles at a police cruiser which had failed to intervene. The officers replied by firing their weapons into the air to warn the locals off. Those gunshots put an end to the drama of the night.

Poking the tiger

It was at first unclear how the government, which to date has deferred only to the letter of the law and does not enjoy engaging with ultra-nationalists in the media, would react, but the escalation seen on the night of May 9 evidently pushed the region government to quickly issue arrest warrants for those suspected of having organised the raid to show a commitment to the idea of enforcing the law equally. It had to be an unwelcome, if calculated, move – the government understands that it is being goaded into conflict with these groups. The ultra-nationalist groups understand the power of being perceived in the media as an underdog. In fact, being small organisations made up of a few hundred to a few thousand dedicated (arguably fanatical) members each engenders a certain need for agility and wiliness. The government also has cause to feel embarrassed by the fact that officers of the law had led the party and allowed civilians into the residence whilst carrying out their investigation, which at best could be called unprofessional.

The groups understand press relations and the power of social media well – harnessing media coverage and maximising the impact of their public displays are important tools when it comes to seizing attention and simultaneously embarrassing the government (whether that government is led by Aung San Suu Kyi or by Thein Sein, who also butted heads with ultra-nationalists). Well known race and religion ‘defender’ Wirathu, as the most public face of these collective movements, is a known manipulator of the media and has long employed these tactics to garner attention to the movement. Wirathu is currently banned from speaking due a court order but still manages to make the most of his ‘celebrity’ by attending ultra-nationalist events to draw crowds but does not directly participate. As a sort of visual gag he decided to tape his mouth shut in a show of defiance against the order. Photographs of his doing so spread rapidly on social media.

The Myanmar government, on the other hand, has proven itself time and again fairly unable or unwilling to combat racial and religious extremism in the media sphere for, firstly, fear of eliciting public backlash and, secondly, giving those groups the status and media coverage they so crave. Statements by the government tend to stick strictly to the facts and to the rule of law of which they are so fond. People can hardly forget the controversy that erupted almost one year ago when Yangon chief minister Phyo Min Thein told a crowd in Singapore that Ma Ba Tha was an unnecessary council (he cited the existing council of government approved monks who oversee monastic discipline). The reaction was fierce and fast. Ma Ba Tha demanded the Union government remove Phyo Min Thein from his post and, in fact, confronted the chief minister at Yangon International Airport upon his return.

Between June and October of last year things appeared to settle again. The chief minister’s words were the strongest public condemnation the ultra-nationalists had heard from the NLD and they took great pains to milk it for publicity and legitimacy. Despite their publicity the groups remain a fringe element in Myanmar. Most people are too moderate in their beliefs to be inspired by its bellicose propagandists and doomsday rhetoric. The prevailing attitude is that reform and legislation are the ways forward for the country, including in the sphere of immigration, citizenship and border control. It cannot be discounted, however, that the constant stream of fake news, opinionation and propaganda has had a hugely detrimental effect on the common perception of Muslims in the country and has, more than once, directly contributed to communal violence, lynching and murder, most notably in Rakhine State.

Yet still, to do battle with them in the media is seen as a losing game. The leaders of the movement are senior monks which makes them difficult targets for criticism. Muslim communities are, of course, the frequently attacked for supposedly harbouring illegal immigrants or for plotting to outbreed the Buddhist population. The members frequently try to increase their participation in national affairs and justify their issuing demands to the government at all levels. More worryingly, ultra-nationalist supporters are known to harass/assault journalists who give the movement negative press. For a society striving to be seen as peaceful, prosperous and democratic, free-range mobs shaking down terrified urban communities in the middle of the night does not play well internationally.

Putting the movement back in its box

The Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, Myanmar’s highest Buddhist authority, sent a letter to government ministries on May 23 ordering Ma Ba Tha to cease all activities by mid-July or face prosecution, signalling the strongest response from the government to date. While the message is strong, the delivery has once again fallen flat as the announcement follows the same pattern of politics that has preceded it. The movement has learned that it can punctuate the otherwise routine, dull trials of its members with a rally or a raid (or a riot) to make their imprisoned brethren household names and their motives and policies spoken about across the country. This is a dangerously foward footed position for such groups in a lawful society and those fanatical members will continue to find ways to force conflict whether it is under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, another organisation or even just as flash mob violence. The credibility they gain by co-opting officials into their terrorizing raids comes at direct expense to the government. Ultra-nationalist, though they claim to abhor violence, are absolutely responsible when their words are inspiring the violent actions of others. The government, then, must choose a new way to deal with this problem – there are a number of solutions on the table when it comes to public engagement and clearly setting a vision for civil society that does not include extremism is key among them. The current cat and mouse game of jailing activists and not condemning them on a political level will only continue to create headaches for the government when peace and prosperity are it’s goals

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