The rise of a sometimes violent anti-Muslim movement has tarnished Burma's transition from a military dictatorship toward democracy. But the country's hard-line nationalists now find themselves isolated.
Members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) have openly criticized the most prominent group responsible for spreading Islamophobia. And the country's officially sanctioned council of monks this week declared that the group — the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by the Burmese-language initials Ma Ba Tha — should be disbanded. Could Burma finally be squaring up to its bullying Buddhists?
Tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Burma, formally known as Myanmar, have heightened since a military junta began handing over power to civilian leaders. In 2012, violent clashes in the west of the country saw scores killed and about 140,000 people displaced, mostly from the Muslim Rohingya community whose claims to citizenship in the country are angrily contested. As outbreaks of communal violence then spread to towns across the country, a contingent of Buddhist monks — claiming the country's dominant faith was under threat from Islamic interlopers — used their sermons to call for a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses and to push legislation restricting religious conversion and inter-faith marriage. Some of those monks, most prominently the cherubic-faced Wirathu (who featured on a TIME cover story titled "The Face of Buddhist Terror"), formed Ma Ba Tha to organize this movement.
After setting up branches nationwide, the group had success in getting the military-backed administration of former President Thein Sein to pass four "race and religion" laws that clearly targeted Muslims (one law allowed the government to attempt to stem population growth; the nationalists' hallmark scare story is that Muslims will eventually outnumber Buddhists in parts or the whole of the country). But when Ma Ba Tha threw its weight behind the then ruling party at elections last November, most people ignored its call to vote for candidates who “will not let our race and religion disappear.” After the elections, a senior Ma Ba Tha monk left the group, denouncing its political activities. Anti-Muslim sentiment has continued to simmer, however. The NLD and its leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have been accused of not standing up for the Muslim minority. The party purged Muslim candidates from its lists ahead of the polls and, since it came to power in late March, has been labeled "cowardly" for its approach to the Rohingya issue. In just the past few weeks, mobs in two separate areas of the country attacked mosques, setting one on fire.
The Plight of the Rohingya by James Nachtwey
James Nachtwey for TIME
But the tide appeared to turn earlier this month when Phyo Min Thein, the NLD's new chief minister of Rangoon, was recorded during a trip to Singapore openly criticizing Ma Ba Tha. The group responded by calling for the official to be punished. (In the not too distant past, an NLD official was jailed for "insulting religion" after he criticized the group.) But a senior NLD member said the party would not heed Ma Ba Tha's demands. And when Phyo Min Thein, arrived at Rangoon's airport last week, greeted by reporters and a handful of pro–Ma Ba Tha demonstrators, he refused to roll back on his statements. He had meant what he said: Ma Ba Tha was unnecessary, given the existence of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a panel of 47 of Burma's most senior monks that oversees the practice of Buddhism in the country. On Tuesday, the committee itself came to the same conclusion, throwing the future of the saffron-robed nationalists into doubt.
"It's another sign that Ma Ba Tha has probably overreached its self-importance and overestimated its public appeal," says David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Burma with Human Rights Watch. "Chastised by their weak showing of political clout around the election, the movement has tried to move back to some ... nationalist and defender-of-the-faith credibility, but [they] are seriously hobbled by some of their prominent monk leaders and their shrilly racist and clearly unspiritual messages."
Although Ma Ba Tha may be weakened, that doesn't mean Buddhist nationalism is going away, Mathieson says. Tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities stretch back to when Burma was under British colonial rule, and later were fanned by dictators seeking legitimacy. There's no reason to think anti-Muslim sentiment has vanished overnight, in recent years there has been a drastic uptick in Islamophobic messages spread on social media, and by other means. Mathieson says that a network of schools giving nationalistic instruction to Buddhist children also warrants concern. The Dhamma School Foundation — which has links to 969, a movement focused on identifying Buddhist businesses, in contrast to Muslim-owned ones — is setting up schools all over the country. An even more virulent anti-Muslim movement also remains in the country's western Arakan state, where local Buddhists continue to seek further marginalization of the Rohingya.
As for Ma Ba Tha's front man, Wirathu has indicated that he won't go quietly. In a Facebook post on Wednesday, he branded Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader, "a woman dictator," according to Agence France-Presse. "I have seen that the ruling party and the new civilian government is stepping forward to target me as 'enemy No. 1' to destroy the whole Ma Ba Tha group to the end," Wirathu wrote.