Evidence is emerging that a shadowy group of “patriots” nostalgic for junta rule is exploiting religion in the hope of creating a national emergency that would justify a Tatmadaw takeover.
By SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER
ON MAY 20, four days before the second 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference opened in Nay Pyi Taw, thousands of Buddhists protested in the capital to call for the resignation of the Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture, Thura U Aung Ko.
The protesters travelled to Nay Pyi Taw from throughout the country, reportedly after being told they would be paid to participate in the rally. After it ended some complained on social media that they had not been paid and could not travel home.
Asked about the protest when he arrived at the peace conference on May 24, Aung Ko told reporters that those behind the event wanted to return to dictatorship and authoritarian rule. How much truth is there in Aung Ko’s accusation? What is the real intention of the so-called patriotic groups that are inciting Islamophobia and spreading hate-speech? What effect might their activities have on Myanmar politics?
Aung Ko wondered aloud about the cost of holding the rally. He said there were many poor people in Myanmar and it was easy to organise protests by paying them to attend, although this is illegal under the protest law.
Those at the rally had travelled from throughout the country, including Mandalay and Mawlamyine, and the cost of transport, food and accommodation might amount to hundreds of millions of kyat. This cost was borne by those who organised the rally, he said.
Aung Ko said he had noticed since 2016 that the activities of religious extremists were receiving considerable financial support. He had asked the Central Bank of Myanmar to investigate, through the Ministry of Home Affairs, but was dissatisfied with the lack of cooperation from private banks and referred the case to the President’s Office.
A subsequent unconfirmed report said there was a fund of about K5 billion (US$3.68 million). Aung Ko said he believed the fund was being used to incite unrest and violence and those contributing to it wanted to return the country to military dictatorship.
(He also alleged that a contributor to the fund was the United Amara Bank, owned by a son of a hardline former junta minister, the late U Aung Thaung, whose family is one of the wealthiest in Myanmar. UAB denied the allegation and the Ministry of Religious Affairs apologised to the bank.)
The communal violence that erupted in Rakhine State in 2012 after a woman was raped and murdered was followed by religion-based unrest throughout the country. The incidents at Meiktila (March 2013), Lashio (May 2013), Thandwe, southern Rakhine (September-October 2013), Mandalay (June 2014), and elsewhere in Myanmar, including Yangon Region, coincided with a surge in anti-Muslim activities.
In most cases the security forces, which are under the Tatmadaw, were ineffective in quelling the violence. Since then, financial support has been provided behind the scenes to hardline Buddhist nationalist groups, including those headed by monks. This financial support has been provided in the guise of donations. Among the donors are many former Tatmadaw officers.
Ahead of the 2015 election, the propagators of anti-Muslim hate-speech campaigned for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and against the National League for Democracy. It has become increasingly evident since the time of the U Thein Sein government that those responsible for inciting communal unrest and violence are motivated by political intentions.
After the NLD government took office, Aung Ko, in his capacity as Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture, began moving against the hardline nationalist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by its Myanmar acronym Ma Ba Tha, for disgracing Theravada Buddhism and its messages of peace, metta (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion).
In July 2016, the supreme body representing the monkhood in Myanmar, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, which is under the ministry, declared that Ma Ba Tha was not a lawful monks’ organisation. In March, the committee banned controversial Ma Ba Tha leader, U Wirathu, who is notorious for hate speech, from giving sermons for a year. On May 23, the committee ordered Ma Ba Tha to cease its activities immediately and to remove its banners and signs throughout the country by mid-July. At an event in Yangon on May 27 and 28, Ma Ba Tha leaders mocked the ban and Aung Ko, indicating that they are unlikely to comply.
It is worth mentioning that Minister for Home Affairs, Lieutenant-General Kyaw Swe, told a news conference in February a few days after the assassination of prominent Muslim lawyer, U Ko Ni, that the former Tatmadaw officers who plotted the killing were motivated by “extreme patriotism”.
Some people who recently formed a shadowy “patriotic association” seem to be intent on inciting religious conflict throughout the country. They were behind the recent incidents targeting Muslims in Yangon Region’s Thaketa and Mingala Taung Nyunt townships but their attempts to incite a major confrontation were unsuccessful and subsequently many of them have been arrested.
Among the supporters of this so-called patriotic association is a notorious crony businessman who has been working closely with former senior Tatmadaw officers loyal to former junta chief, U Than Shwe.
When all facts are considered, there seems to be no doubt that members and supporters of the former junta are trying to foment religious unrest and violence in the hope of creating a situation in which the military would seize power under the provisions of the 2008 Constitution and return the country to dictatorship.
These so-called patriots have adopted this strategy because in the aftermath of the NLD’s crushing victory in 2015 they realise they have no hope of regaining power by democratic means.
In trying to incite communal unrest, these so-called patriots have showed that their real intention is to exploit religion for political gain.