The impact of Myanmar’s repressive policy toward Rohingya Muslims was made clear in recent weeks with scenes of desperate people crammed into boats, an escalation of a miserable maritime flight in which an estimated 90,000 people have fallen prey to smugglers and traffickers since early 2014. The United Nations estimates that around 1,000 people have died on the way.
The root cause is the long-term reprehensible treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar (also known as Burma) — stateless, officially and socially reviled, with severe curbs on their rights to work, travel, get health care and education, and practice their religion.
Yet even as this anguishing exodus has gripped international attention, it has obscured a connected and equally troubling pattern of rising religious extremism in Myanmar. At the height of the boat drama, parliament passed the “population control law,” which permits the government to identify areas in Myanmar that could be subject to repressive birth control measures. The law was inspired by Buddhist extremists whose stated agenda is opposition not just to Rohingya, but to all of Myanmar’s sizable Muslim minority. The law was sharply criticized by many activists in Myanmar and opposed by the opposition National League for Democracy, but passed a joint parliamentary vote, 530 to 443, with 39 abstentions.
The population control law is one element of a package of four “race and religion protection” bills. The other elements are an interfaith marriage bill, which grants government oversight of any marriage between a Buddhist and non-Buddhist; a religious conversion law, which requires government permission to change one’s religion; and a monogamy law, which could limit the rights of people living in unmarried relationships and potentially target Muslims.
These laws were proposed by the increasingly influential Race and Religion Protection Association, known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha, consisting of prominent Buddhist abbots. The problem is that Ma Ba Tha has tapped into a deep and divisive strain of ethnic Burmese ultranationalism and a belief in Buddhist religious supremacy that has contributed to vexed and violent relations with scores of ethnic minorities since independence from the British in 1948. U Wirathu, Myanmar’s most vitriolic Buddhist monk, infuses his regular public rallies with populist paranoia over a nonexistent Islamic takeover of Myanmar.
To push for passage of these discriminatory laws, the Ma Ba Tha staged public events throughout Myanmar and collected nearly 1.5 million signatures. The purportedly reformist government of President Thein Sein, pandering to Ma Ba Tha’s agenda, then drafted similar pieces of legislation and submitted them to parliament.
There are fears that the three remaining draft laws will pass in this final parliamentary sitting ahead of the first ostensibly free national elections in decades later this year — and possibly fuel anti-Muslim violence during what will be a very tense period. After all, a surge of violence in 2012, which amounted to ethnic cleansing, displaced about 140,000 Rohingya, who languish in squalid camps. At the same time, security restrictions on the estimated 1 million Rohingya in areas abutting the Bangladeshi border have been tightened. Several incidents of anti-Muslim violence in the past two years have caused dozens of deaths.
Last month, local authorities and Thein Sein’s office denied permission to hold a Union Muslims Nationwide Conference in Yangon, citing its potential for instability. On June 2, a court in upper Myanmar sentenced a writer and former National League for Democracy official to two years in jail with hard labor for “insulting religion,” over a 2014 speech defending the purity of Buddhism from Ma Ba Tha’s political distortion.
Diplomats in the country realize that the race and religion laws could spark not only attacks on Muslims but justifications for government crackdowns. The United States, European Union and numerous United Nations officials have therefore conveyed their deep concern, although Burmese officials have rejected this out of hand.
Meanwhile, many Muslims see the laws as just one part of a long-term plan to extirpate the Rohingya and other Muslims from the country, and there is a danger that all this could lead to the collapse of the nascent political reforms over the past four years that have led to the beginnings of economic development, increased international assistance and direct foreign investment that are crucial to help pull Myanmar from the hole dug by 50 years of dictatorial military rule.
By mining the darker nature of Myanmar’s Buddhists, religious extremists and the political opportunists who seek to profit from them are thwarting the aspirations of generations who have struggled for democracy and openness. Sadly, the extremism reflected in the laws suggests a future of even greater violence and division.
David Scott Mathieson is the senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.