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Benedict Rogers

Coup plunges Myanmar further into a climate of religious nationalism

Aung San Suu Kyi has been betrayed after defending the generals against charges of genocide
Published: February 03, 2021 04:03 AM GMT

Updated: February 03, 2021 04:04 AM GMT

Coup plunges Myanmar further into a climate of religious nationalism

People rally in Yangon in support of Aung San Suu Kyi in December 2019 as she prepared to defend Myanmar at the International Court of Justice against accusations of genocide against Rohingya Muslims. Her ousted National League for Democracy party has described the Feb. 1 coup as a 'stain' on the military's history. (Photo: AFP)

Myanmar’s coup is not simply an attack on Aung San Suu Kyi or even on her government or party. It is an all-out assault on democracy and a dismantling of a decade of reform.

That is evidenced by the fact that among those arrested are not only National League for Democracy (NLD) ministers and leaders but also civil society activists, writers, a musician, a filmmaker and several Buddhist monks. Key 88 Generation activists including Min Ko Naing and Mya Aye have also been detained.

The idea that this is about challenging an election that the army alleges suffered from voter fraud is a total fallacy. It’s about rounding up anyone who may be critical of the military and reasserting the armed forces’ total dominance.

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It is peculiar for three reasons.

First, the military itself initiated the last 10 years of reform and managed it very tightly. It wrote the constitution, ensured that it controlled three key ministries — home affairs, border affairs and defense — and reserved a quarter of parliamentary seats for soldiers. It clipped Suu Kyi’s wings, preventing her from becoming president, used her as a firewall to take the flak from the international community for its crimes against humanity, and kept control of its budget and business interests. In other words, it was already in power before Feb. 1, so why seize power directly and return Myanmar to total pariah status?

Second, a fragile working relationship appeared to have developed with Suu Kyi over recent years, to the extent that she went to The Hague to defend the generals against charges of genocide. She shattered her international reputation for them — and this is how they repay her?

Third, it has appeared that one of the motivations behind the reform program a decade ago was that the generals did not want to be in China’s pocket, and they knew the only way to dilute Beijing’s influence was to reform in order to attract the engagement of the international community.

That worked for a few years, resulting in the lifting of sanctions, successive visits by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other world leaders. By 2014, Myanmar had come in from the cold. In 2017, Pope Francis visited the country. The generals achieved all this without conceding very much in substance, and yet now they have thrown it all away.

Of course, the rise of ethno-religious nationalism, especially the genocide of the Rohingya, was already straining relations between Myanmar and the free world. For the past four years or more, since the military’s brutal campaign against the Rohingya in 2016 and its genocidal terror a year later, the starlit spotlight that we saw in the sunny days from 2012 onwards had obviously waned. Nonetheless, even if conversations were strained, Western leaders were, until this week, still able to talk with Suu Kyi. What channels could there possibly be to Min Aung Hlaing?

This coup makes no sense until you look at it from Min Aung Hlaing’s perspective. He has to retire as commander-in-chief of the army in June, his family has extensive business interests, he stands accused as a war criminal, he wants to be president and his party lost badly in November’s general election.

Not content with going into retirement to read or write books, tend a garden or take up painting, as others have done, and not secure in the belief that his assets will be protected, he is lashing out, seizing power and fulfilling an ambition that the electorate at the ballot box deprived him of.

As a result, the people of Myanmar will suffer. Everyone who wants freedom, has enjoyed the opening of the past decade and is now plunged back into a new era of fear is in danger. And most of all, the country’s ethnic nationalities and religious minorities are in yet more peril.

The return of the military to direct control of government can only mean bad news for the ethnic states — an escalation in conflict, an intensification of attacks and a resumption of atrocities.

And in terms of religious freedom, it plunges Myanmar further into a climate of religious nationalism that can only make life more difficult for diversity.

The past decade has seen not only the rise of religious intolerance but also the rise of interfaith dialogue and civil society initiatives to counter it. With civil society space now constrained, and with the military’s history of weaponizing religious nationalism, we must brace ourselves for more difficult times for the Catholic Church, for Muslims, Hindus, other religious minorities and for Buddhists who dare to suggest that hatred and violence are contrary to the precepts of Buddhism.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has already warned of this. Vice-chairperson Anurima Bhargava said: “Given the history of brutal atrocities by the Burmese military, our fear is that violence could quickly escalate, especially towards religious and ethnic communities, such as the Rohingya and other Muslims. We urge the Burmese military to honor the faith and will of the Burmese people and restore democratic civilian rule as soon as possible.”

At least three Buddhist monks — Ashin Ariya Vansa Bivansa (also known as Myawaddy Sayadaw), Shwe Nya War Sayadaw and Ashin Sobitha — have been arrested. I know Myawaddy Sayadaw personally, and he is one of the most courageous, beautiful people I’ve had the privilege to meet, a courageous voice against hatred and intolerance. If voices like his are silenced, it does not bode well for religious freedom in the country.

Myanmar’s courageous Cardinal Charles Bo, an outspoken voice for human rights in recent years, is understandably quiet, no doubt waiting to see what develops. His auxiliary bishop of Yangon, John Saw Yaw Han, whom I also have the privilege to know, love and admire, made a balanced but brave statement calling for “vigilance and prayer.”

There have been reports that Yangon’s regional general has already visited a prominent Hindu temple to urge it to support the military. Myanmar’s religious leaders may find they are under pressure and facing a moral dilemma.

This crisis turns off the lights in Myanmar, not only literally in some cases but politically and spiritually too. Let us hope this is only temporary. It is up to faith leaders, in the country and outside, to be bold and wise, to send a signal that this coup cannot stand. And it is time for Pope Francis, once more, to express prayer and solidarity with the suffering people of Myanmar, and for the Church to stand with Myanmar in its hour of need.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist, writer and senior analyst for international human rights organization CSW. He is the author of four books on Myanmar, including ‘Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads’. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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