An Unholy Alliance: Monks and the Military in Myanmar
Is the joining of forces between radical Buddhist monks and generals threatening Myanmar’s young and fragile democracy?
A film by Fatima Lianes
With almost 90 percent of Myanmar’s population being devoted Buddhists, the religion has been at the heart of the nation’s very identity for centuries.
You can use monks for your own purpose, for very negative aims and objectives ... The monks and the military entered into this kind of unholy alliance ... Many activists believe that the military is using religion to keep power.
The monks there are connected to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, the systematic persecution and genocide of the Rohingya in Rakhine state.
“The Rohingya Muslim people … are discriminated against and treated like animals by the Buddhist people,” says a Rohingya who asked to disclose his identity.
Formed in 2012, ultra-nationalist monks organisation Ma Ba Tha – which translates to ‘the protection of race and religion’ – spearheaded most of the rhetoric that fueled anti-Muslim hatred in recent years.
“If one is not loyal to the nation, our country and race will disappear … You have to follow the culture and the rules of this country,” says Ma Ba Tha chairman Ashin Tilawaka. “Because I was their inspiration and because Buddhism is now facing some problems – we face threats and attacks – I was asked to be in charge of Ma Ba Tha to protect our race and religion.”
Many in Myanmar believe that after the transition from military rule to civilian government in 2011, the military intentionally fueled divisions among Buddhist groups. They aligned with the most nationalistic Buddhist leaders – enhancing the army’s popularity and influence.
“Military leaders approached our fellow monks with offers of financial support and gifts … This emboldened the monks to rise up and speak up in public to spread the pro-military propaganda, spreading hatred between religions,” says U Gambira, a former monk who fled to Thailand in 2016.
Activists like Khin Zaw Win, who is also a communal religious analyst, are concerned about the rise of nationalism and anti-Muslim rhetoric as well as the monks’ close relationship with the military.
While “Muslims have been in Myanmar for centuries,” he explains that today, “even educated people in Myanmar say that … ‘very soon Rakhine state will be full of Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhists will be swallowed.’ So it’s like ‘we are defending our country, our society and our religion.’ It’s a very strong message but totally wrong. It’s quite frightening. And that is the real danger of these extremist monks.”
“You can use monks for your own purpose, for very negative aims and objectives … The NLD government doesn’t view the Ma Ba Tha very favourably, so the monks and the military entered into this kind of unholy alliance … Many activists believe that the military is using religion to keep power,” he says. “There is a lot of evidence, not made public, that the military is supporting the Ma Ba Tha. The Ma Ba Tha is flushed with cash. They’ve got lots of money.”
Al Jazeera’s unprecedented access to the Ma Ba Tha monastery and its leaders offers a glimpse into how their ultra-nationalist agenda is becoming the blueprint for the political structure of the country. Is the joining of forces between monks and generals threatening Myanmar’s young and fragile democracy?