In an excellent summary of current political and religious issues in Burma, Extremist Buddhists out to kill Suu Kyi’s election hopes (The Nation, 13 March 2014) Htun Aung Kyaw gives a thorough summary of issues to do with the constitution, the upcoming elections, identity and the role of the Sangha in this process.
His basic idea is that the ‘National Religious Protection Group’ (NRPG) headed by U Wirathu is being used by the ruling ‘Union Solidarity and Development Party’ (USDP) to foster a sense of national identity being based upon Buddhist identity. The rhetoric used by the NRPG is one on which Buddhism is under threat from Islam. The preservation and survival of Buddhism is dependent upon laws being passed which protects Buddhism, such as those banning women from marrying a man from another religion if the man does not convert to Buddhism.
These arguments are in turn used to attach Aung San Suu Kyi and her ‘National League for Democracy’ (NLD) party. This attack takes the form of a personal attack on Aung San Suu Kyi for having been married to a foreigner and for having two sons who are British citizens. The now infamous clause 59F prohibits Aung San Suu Kyi from leading the country as it is not possible for the parent of foreign citizens to become president.
As Htun Aung Kyaw argues, under the guise of protecting Buddhism these groups, extremist monks and the USDP, are in no way defending Buddhism, for Aung san Suu Kyi, her late husband and children, are or were Buddhist. Htun Aung Kyaw’s thesis is that these nationalistic and religious ideas are being used and manipulated. That Aung San Suu Kyi was married to a British academic is being used as a stick to hit not only her, but the democratic process in Burma. And this stick is being wielded by members of the Sangha, monks, who symbolically and through deeply ingrained cultural norms, it is difficult if not impossible to critisise. As Htun Aung Kyaw argues:
‘Suu Kyi has devoted her life to Buddhism. Her late husband was also a Buddhist, and she followed tradition by having her sons ordained as novices. So why is the NRPG still attacking her and campaigning to convince people not to vote for her? The NRPG is ignoring the fact that her entire family is Buddhist, and carrying out a smear campaign centred on the fact she was married to a British citizen. The NRPG was founded with the aim of protecting Buddhism, not promoting racial discrimination or xenophobia. Yet its leader, Wirathu, has stated that the reason he will not vote for Suu Kyi is that she married a foreigner. In other words, he is against all foreigners, even if they are Buddhists. So a contradiction exists between the NRPG’s stated aim and its actions.
This raises a further question: Does the NRPG really want to preserve the Buddhist faith, or simply manipulate devoted Buddhists to act against the NLD party and its leader who married a foreigner? If the latter is so, the NRPG is not trying to protect Buddhism but simply attacking Buddhists who are foreigners. Unfortunately, it’s likely that many monks and Myanmar citizens fail to understand the NRPG’s true aim.’
Htun Aung Kyaw finishes with the following warning:
‘Though unlikely, there is still hope that key constitutional clauses like 59(f) may be amended. Without such changes, it’s possible that Myanmar will see a repeat of the popular uprisings of 1988 and 2007. Such an uprising would likely lead to one of two scenarios: the end of military rule, or the resurrection of another military dictatorship.’
One might add that movements such as ‘The Organisation for the Protection of National Race and Religion’ and the ‘National Religious Protection Group’ that are taking shape in recent months are nothing new in Burmese politics. For example in 1958 Ne Win launched the ‘Buddhism in Danger’ campaign intended to divert communist influence in the Buddhist Sangha (See The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, p. 119.