The recent elections in Myanmar marked a significant milestone in the world political landscape with the return of a fully-fledged democracy to a country that had been governed by successive military regimes for over five decades. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by the most globally popular democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi had a landslide victory against her political rival, though she cannot assume the highest position of presidency due to a constitutional barrier. The foreign matrimonial links of ‘The Lady’ - as she is popularly known in Myanmar - does not allow her to take up the position. Many believe that this is a technical point that had been brought forward by the designers of reforms – mainly the military junta – to block her in assuming the highest post in the country.
Apart from The Lady winning Myanmar’s the most awaited democratic polls, there was another significant feature in Myanmar’s politics – the role played by the extremist Buddhist clergy, who were openly campaigning against The Lady and her political party NLD.
The stand of the Buddhist ultra-nationalist group was clear. “If you vote for NLD, that will be the end of Buddhism”. They supported the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and sometimes openly requested the people to vote for USDP “to protect Buddhism in Myanmar”.
Many accused the Patriotic Association of Myanmar (Ma Ba Tha in Myanmar language) as the sole perpetrator behind the religious violence that was taking place in the country for the past few years. The movement received extensive state support – both indirect and otherwise, as is widely believed.
The significant results of the polls were clear responses to the claims of the Ma Ba Tha movement. More than 85 per cent voted against their request and brought The Lady’s party into power. We are talking of a country where the total Buddhist population is over 80 per cent, yet the support of the ultra-religious nationalistic movements failed even to get 15 per cent of the total votes for USDP.
Myanmar through its 2008 Constitution has banned mixing religion and politics. According to its section 364, “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden.” The same military juntas who were enjoying the support of extremist Buddhist clergy during the recent polls totally banned them in getting into politics through tough laws that were designed some six years ago. The monks are not supposed to vote or form political parties, according to the Constitution. This decision was mainly influenced by the popular monks’ uprising called “Saffron Revolution” in 1988.
But the recent elections in Myanmar saw a sudden rise of communal violence mainly between Buddhists and Muslims. According to popular belief, Ma Ba Tha movement instigated these violence with the blessings of the state. The government used them as a tool for their own existence – and show cased themselves as the sole saviours of Buddhism mainly by accommodating requests of Ma Ba Tha. A few months before the polls, the government enacted four controversial laws undermining the rights of minorities, mainly to satisfy Ma Ba Tha, but the polls indicated that the people were against such moves.
The world has begun to realize the fact that religion and politics – mixed together – would become a deadly combination. I think mainly the people at large have understood this fact but the politicians and their ‘goons’ are yet to realize it. The issue of mixing politics with religion and creating a deadly “ideological nuclear bomb” was commenced – at least in Asia in the recent history, by Pakistan’s military dictator Zia Ul Haq, who even went to a stage of changing school text books to infiltrate religious extremist ideologies into the minds of people for his own political survival. Today not only Pakistan, but the entire world is suffering from this deadly ideological bomb, which has converted into a mass killing machine in many parts of the world.
The clash between Muslims and other religions extended to the predominantly Buddhist countries like Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. But when analysed, there exists an extensive political interest rather a religious one. Both Myanmar and Sri Lanka became classic case studies on this aspects, mainly during their recent elections.
In fact both Ma Ba Tha and Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) had a common understanding “in protecting Buddhism” according to their own interpretation in safe guarding the religion. They went onto signing of a memorandum of understanding and adopting a common action plan to fight the ‘cause’. Though Myanmar had constitutional provisions to ban monks engaging in politics, the Burmese government provided the nod to conduct ‘voter education seminars’ country-wide and perhaps ‘educate’ the masses on whom to vote for. Thus, Ma Ba Tha movement travelled all over the country and told voters to take action to ‘protect Buddhism’ at the polls by not voting for The Lady. In contrast, our BBS formed a political party and contested for the same cause ‘to protect Buddhism.’ Though they had some cracks with the regime at a later stage, state sponsorship or blessings were visible for the past few years. BBS through its political arm with the Cobra symbol accused Maithree-Ranil camp as conspirators against Buddhism.
In a nutshell, both Ma Ba Tha and BBS became extensively significant political forces with ultra-nationalistic ideologies. But when faced the people at polls, both were ruthlessly rejected by the masses at large with clear messages – both to the extremist monks and to the politicians who were entertaining them. But would they learn from this bitter lesson is the million rupee worth question.