What’s attracting women to Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalist movement?


Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State, in 2012. PHOTO:FCO/Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0). Some rights reserved.

Amid Myanmar’s transition towards democracy, a dangerous Buddhist nationalist movement is on the rise, and women are playing a key role.

In the hastily-built displacement camps of Rakhine state, in the western part of Myanmar, where some 129,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya people have been interned since 2012, there’s very little to look forward to. With no freedom to work outside the camps, the survival of this long-persecuted minority hinges on international aid deliveries and special permits to leave which are granted only for medical emergencies.

In August 2017, the latest outbreak of violence returned to the fore long-standing anti-Muslim sentiments amongst the region’s ethnic Rakhine (primarily Buddhist) communities. Some of these communities went as far as blocking vital assistance from reaching the camps and, perhaps surprisingly, women were often seen taking a lead in efforts and protests aimed preventing life-saving aid.

Women “will actively stop heavily pregnant Rohingya women from getting to the nearest hospital,” a seasoned representative of an international aid organisation working in the area told us, speaking anonymously due to fear of reprisals from the government. “I’ve worked in many complicated places around the world, but I had never experienced this.”

“I’ve worked in many complicated places around the world, but I had never experienced this.”

In October 2017, the leader of a group called the Arakan Women’s Network, who staged a sit-down protest over another NGO’s attempt to provide education, hygiene and sanitation services to displaced Rohingya in the camps, called this assistance “simply unacceptable.” She told Reuters: “They have food, they have shelter to live… We can’t accept these kinds of excess things for them.”

Rakhine is the most visible and stark example of such extremism in action, but Myanmar (also known as Burma) is home to a growing ethno-nationalist movement that has gained widespread grassroots support.

At the heart of the ideology is the idea that Burmese Buddhism needs to be “protected”; extreme notions of ethnic purism and xenophobia; and violence-justifying concepts of “self-defence” against external and internal “threats” posed by Muslim populations, and by the Rohingya in particular.

Along with Sri Lanka, Myanmar is considered by many to be Asia’s last bastion of Buddhism. Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, is viewed by members of the country’s Buddhist population as the “Western Gate” through which Islam will spread unless action is taken to stop it. This is despite the fact that barely 5% of Myanmar’s 54 million population is Muslim.

Buddhist nationalists are capitalising on often repeated claims that the Muslim Rohingya are “illegal immigrants.” They use religious and racial rhetoric to present their arguments. Some have made chilling claims that the Rohingya are reincarnated from insects and snakes, echoing the language of genocide heard in other parts of the world.

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