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How Ultra-Nationalism Undermines Democratization and Reconciliation

Ethnic delegates attend the 21st Century Panglong Conference, which began on Wednesday in Naypyidaw. (Photo: Pyay Kyaw / The Irrawaddy)

By Sai Latt, The Irrawaddy

A few days before the start of this week’s 21st Century Panglong peace conference, the State Counselor’s Office announced the formation of an advisory commission on Arakan state, to be chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. In late May this year, President U Htin Kyaw formed the Central Committee for the Implementation of Peace and Development in Arakan State. It has 27 members, all of whom are government officials, and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the chair.

The creation of these bodies, and the holding of the Panglong conference, indicates that peace is high on the government’s agenda.

For some time now, two of the most important elements in the current political landscape have been seen as distinct problems: the peace process involving the government and ethnic armed groups, and the violent and racist ultra-nationalist campaign against the Rohingya, and Muslims in general, by the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its Burmese language acronym Ma Ba Tha. Very few people working on the peace process take the nationalist campaign seriously, and vice versa.

Yet there are clear connections between the two, in terms of how the nationalist movement can undermine the peace process. For a start, lessons can be learned by looking at how Ma Ba Tha’s populist campaign against Rohingyas/Muslims turned democratic forces from “state enemies” into “public enemies,” and from the “people’s friends” to the “nation’s traitors.”

Democratic forces: from ‘state enemies’ to ‘public enemies’

One of the prime victims of the nationalist movement is the cohort of democratic forces (however problematic and racist some may have been) that have dissented from the junta since 1988. These forces include the (once) exiled media, the international community, human rights activists and monks, as well as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her loyal dissident groups.

Past regimes consistently accused them of trying to break up the Union. State propaganda called overseas and once-exiled media—including the BBC, VOA, RFA, DVB, The Irrawaddy and Mizzima—“killer media, liars and troublemakers.” State media described the international community as neocolonialists who were manipulating opposition groups in order to control the country. Human rights groups were accused of destabilizing Burma, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi described as a threat to sovereignty and culture.

But twenty-five years of such state propaganda did not work. People always supported the anti-junta forces and saw them as saviors. People looked up to them as agents of change and as friends of the people.

However, after the Arakan State riots broke out in 2012, people started believing nationalist rhetoric—that all these forces were betraying the nation by supporting the Rohingya. As the Rohingya issue was increasingly framed as a threat to sovereignty, people started seeing the democratic forces too as threatening sovereignty, religion and culture.

For instance, various media organizations were accused of taking money from the international Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in exchange for producing pro-Rohingya news. Some cartoonists portrayed them as dogs fed by the Rohingya. The Democratic Voice of Burma, whose radio and TV output people have relied on for decades, was called the Democratic Voice of Bengali. Human rights activists were accused of exchanging sovereignty, and race-and-religion, for dangerous foreign ideas. Articles were written condemning “human rights” as infringing sovereignty. Public protests against international and local nongovernmental organizations were organized. Senior UN official Tomás Ojea Quintana’s convoy was attacked. UN envoy Yanghee Lee was called a “whore.” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was criticized and insulted in ways previously unimaginable.

Within a few months, groups and individuals long known for challenging the regime were being framed as the “people’s enemies.” Members of the public started saying things about these groups that those in power had been unable to get them to say for more than two decades. Ironically, this was achieved not by the traditional state propaganda machine, but by a “people’s movement” led by monks.

This points to the need to see the anti-Rohingya/Muslim campaign as something rather more than just a distraction from the “real issues,” as some describe it. In fact, the campaign became a populist political instrument whose direct opposition to Rohingya/Muslims eventually, and ironically, weakened public support, trust and confidence in the democratic forces that had been trying to weaken the oppressors.

This raises questions around whether the Rohingya/Muslims are indeed the ultimate targets of the nationalist campaign. It may be asked if, (i) the nationalist campaign has been strategically orchestrated in unknown bunkers; (ii) those in power have just turned the violence of an unfolding nationalist campaign to their own advantage; or (iii) the outcomes have been uncalculated and merely the result of coincidence.

Whether the outcomes were orchestrated or coincidental, it is certain that the forces of democratization have been discredited and transformed into “public enemies” in sudden and shocking ways.

Moving targets

The obvious target being one thing and the result something else is not an isolated phenomenon; it is part of a pattern. Take the way many more people, for a time, came to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a threat to sovereignty, and to race-and-religion. The previous military junta spent 25 years painting her as a threat to the nation—for marrying the late Dr. Michael Aris, a British historian of Himalayan cultures—but the people did not buy that propaganda. Yet, in late 2014 and 2015, the number of people opposing her, at least on social media, seemed to rise rapidly. How did this happen?

The racist ultra-nationalist narratives are often all about women in danger, mostly in terms of sexual violence and marital strife, caused by lu myo char, bar thar char (people of a different race and religion), i.e. foreigners.

When the Arakan State riots broke out in 2012, the initial narrative had to do with “Bengali” men raping an Arakanese Buddhist woman. The narrative around victimhood shifted gradually to become about “kalar” (a derogatory term for Muslims and those of South Asian descent) assaulting Burmese women—then about “lu myo char, bar thar char” forcing Burmese women to marry them, converting them (and their children) to Islam by force, and torturing and killing them if they refused.

Using made-up stories, the narrative warned that Burmese people should not engage socially with Muslims, and that inter-marriage was dangerous. The spinning went further. Nationalists distributed Facebook photos of Burmese ladies overseas dating black men, and then images of Burmese girls in sexy clothing partying with white people. They were relaying a message that such Burmese women were disrespecting Burmese culture and therefore posed a danger to race-and-religion. Eventually, the message morphed into the idea that it was wrong for Burmese women to have sexual and marital relations with foreigners. Prior to the 2015 general election, the prime target of this idea became Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Had the campaign been launched directly against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the first instance, people would have immediately understood it as the usual propaganda. But when the idea that Burmese women marrying foreigners is wrong was constructed in the context of the Rohingya, who were already painted and often taken as outcasts, more and more people internalized the notion. As the idea traveled through different contexts under the guise of disciplining young women and protecting culture and religion, it became more accepted. In 2015, when the issue was overheating, it was used directly against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. By that time, the overtly sexist and racist content of the messaging was unlike anything that had been seen before. This was a powerful psy-war achievement, until people realized it was propaganda against her.

To recap, whether it was orchestrated or a mere coincidence, the outcome was obvious: a narrative of condemning rape in 2012 became one of anti-Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015.

Nationalists against reconciliation

Just as the racist nationalist movement has been seen in the two examples above to have successfully undermined the forces of democratization, it could work similarly against the forces of national reconciliation in unexpected and unforeseen ways. This may sound speculative, but the matters already discussed show signs of what could happen, and how.

National reconciliation requires equality between the Burman majority and ethnic minorities, in terms of political decision-making, defense, economic rights and cultural rights. Predominant or significant populations of many ethnic groups are Christian. But the nationalist campaigns, speeches and writings work against equality among all groups. The nationalists’ calls for Buddhist Burman supremacy in the political hierarchy reinforces what minority groups see as chauvinism—a root cause of ethnic conflict.

Recently, anti-Christian articles and cartoons have been seen in print publications and posted on social media, including on Ma Ba Tha’s official Facebook page. Signboards have been put up in various towns saying that lu myo char, bar thar char are not allowed to live in the locality, or to buy and sell at the local markets. A signboard in Shwe Naung in Shan State identified Muslims, Christians and Hindus as those who are so barred.

The discourse around lu myo char (different race/ethnicity) reinforces discrimination based on ethnicity.

Even poetry is not immune. A poem by Shin Myo Chit about marriage and the expression of Burmese pride is titled “Avoid lu myo char.” A poem by Maha Bawdi Myein Sayadaw warns readers not to sell land to lu myo char so as to preserve sovereignty. While these poems do not specifically define wholu myo char are, the call for “pure Burmese” blood, and even “pure Buddhist” blood, indicate that they proscribe everyone who is not Buddhist and/or Burmese.

Moving towards the political arena, a senior monk wrote an article titled “Traitors of the Country,” published on the Ma Ba Tha (Central) Online Media and Thargitwe Journal Facebook pages, which said that everyone has the responsibility to protect sovereignty, culture and race-and-religion. He stated that those being influenced and supported by foreign countries were traitors—so were politicians defending bar thar char (non-Buddhists) with outside support.

Many poems, articles and short stories conflate the protection of Buddhism and Burman culture with the perpetuation of sovereignty. This is at odds with calls from ethnic groups for federalism, in which all members are equal partners.

In addition, discourses around “lu myo char,” “bar thar char,” “land,” and “protecting sovereignty” run the risk of becoming powerful propaganda tools for those in power to criminalize ethnic armed groups’ struggle for equality and national reconciliation. For ethnic groups can be seen as lu myo char, bar thar char or both. Their struggle for equality, self-determination and federalism, which is in part a struggle for what they see as their ancestral land, could be distorted as an attempt by lu myo char, bar thar char to control “our forefather’s” land, break up the Union and threaten the nation’s sovereignty.

The point is that, if any unforeseen circumstance were to trigger a mass movement against the forces of national reconciliation in the name of protecting sovereignty and race-and-religion, the movement’s aims would be all too achievable—because the narratives around national traitors and lu myo char, bar thar char threatening sovereignty and race-and-religion are all already in place.

Many people already hold such notions, at least in some form. If ultra-nationalists were to embark on a mass campaign against ethnic groups, neither historical context nor facts would matter much. For the campaigns discussed earlier, which succeeded in discrediting the democratic forces, were all based on lies, deception and hatred—perpetuated in this case not by the traditional state propaganda machine, but by monks who are supposed to never lie, deceive or hate. They could do so by invoking the uncontested power of the Sangha and their special status in society.

The fact that nationalists are deploying ideas around sovereignty is concerning, because protecting sovereignty is a very distinctive military discourse that has been invoked to crush ethnic minority groups. As recently as June 21, Burma’s armed forces chief stated during a meeting with members of the Tatmadaw in Shan State that national defense was about more than just military activity, but also about protecting race-and-religion.

A threat to peace

In short, whether a coincidence or not, the nationalist movement’s key narratives of protecting race-and-religion continue to contribute to blocking recognition of diversity and equality as necessary conditions for national reconciliation.

Looking at the ways in which the forces of democratization became public enemies, receiving the brunt of public outcry as a by-product of the racist nationalist campaign against Rohingya/Muslims, who can guarantee that the same campaign won’t provide a platform to be used against the forces of national reconciliation, at the very least as an unintended consequence?

It is to be hoped that people in the government and the peace movement have a vision and a strategy for such an outcome, before it strikes at the heart of peace and national reconciliation.

(This is a shorter version of a research paper in Burmese titled “Beyond Muslims: Ma Ba Tha’s Impacts on Democratization and National Reconciliation” to be published in the Myanmar Quarterly Journal in September).


Dr. Sai Latt received his Ph.D. in Human Geography from Simon Fraser University in Canada. He is a Research Associate of the York Center for Asian Research at York University in Toronto. His research covers violence, securitization and displacement.