As far away as Myanmar is from the US—and given the relative dearth of Buddhists here—see if any of this sounds oddly familiar to you.
Ma Ba Tha is a group of hardline, ultranationalist, racist Buddhist monks in Myanmar. The name Ma Ba Tha is an acronym for, roughly, “Association for the Protection of Race and Religion.” They are not the only Buddhist monks in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar (also known as Burma), but they have seized an outsized amount of power and influence in the Southeast Asian country.
Buddhists in Myanmar make up 69% of Myanmar’s population, with the rest comprised of a diverse array of much smaller religious and ethnic minorities. Rohingya Muslims make up less than 3%. Some historians (and the Rohingya themselves), claim they are indigenous to Myanmar’s Rakhine State where most of them live; other scholars say they mainly migrated to the region from Bengal during British rule (1824-1948). Regardless, Rohingyas are denied Myanmar citizenship and considered illegal immigrants, despite many of their families having lived in the country for more than three generations. Long-neglected economic conditions in Rakhine State and deliberate government provocation have led to demonizing and scapegoating the Rohingya as the source of all problems and a cultural threat.
The Rohingya people are routinely described by human rights organizations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. In recent years especially, they have been fleeing Myanmar by the tens of thousands, often on crowed and dangerous boats. Many have died on these journeys after traffickers abandoned them at sea; those that arrive at their destinations are repeatedly turned away. Rohingyas that remain in Myanmar are frequently confined to prison camps and not permitted to leave. They have also had much of their arable farmland confiscated by the military and given over to Buddhist settlers. (Ahem.)
Researchers from the International State Crime Initiative in London conducted an 18-month investigation, obtained leaked government documents and released a report (pdf) in October:
[D]etailed research found ample evidence that the Rohingya have been subjected to systematic and widespread violations of human rights, including killings, torture, rape and arbitrary detention; destruction of their homes and villages; land confiscation; forced labour; denial of citizenship; denial of the right to identify themselves as Rohingya; denial of access to healthcare, education and employment; restrictions on freedom of movement, and State-sanctioned campaigns of religious hatred.
The State’s persistent and intensified ‘othering’ of the Rohingya as outsiders, illegal Bengali immigrants and potential terrorists has given a green light to [local] nationalists and Islamophobic monks to orchestrate invidious campaigns of race and religious hatred reminiscent of those witnessed in Germany in the 1930s and Rwanda in the early 1990s.
Reality notwithstanding, in an interview with a local magazine, Ma Ba Tha monk Ashin Wirathu called them “the Bengalis that call themselves Rohingya, who are trying to seize control.”
Not content to confine the Rohingya to destitution and squalor and drive them to their deaths at sea, Ma Ba Tha has rallied to enact four new laws, all of them designed to roll back women’s rights and harm the Rohingya.
Birth control law. The Ma Ba Tha monks are very concerned that the Rohingyas, who make up 3% of the population, are outbreeding them (presumably at a faster rate than they can imprison, exile or kill them). The Rohingyas were previously required to sign a statement committing to not having more than two kids; now the law permits local authorities to “organize” women to wait 36 months between births. The factors to be taken into account by officials include “a high number of migrants in the area,” and critics say that it will be selectively enforced against the Rohingya.
Even assuming they wanted to comply, it’s difficult to envision how people can limit and space their pregnancies without access to reproductive health information and reliable birth control. Meanwhile, activists in the region teaching women about reproductive health have been subject to death threats, intimidation and public humiliation from the monks, who have declared them “national traitors.” One prominent women’s rights campaigner told The Guardian that she and others have seen their pictures, names and phone numbers on posters displayed at Ma Ba Tha monasteries.
Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill. Buddhist women who desire to marry non-Buddhist men must register with government officials, who can deny them if they have “objections.” Human Rights Watch calls the law “incredibly dangerous” and says it is purposely designed to incite hatred toward the Rohingya.
Religious conversion. The law creates “Religious Conversion Scrutinization and Registration Boards at the township (district) level.” The way it works:
Anyone wishing to change their religion will have to be over 18 and will be required to file an application with a local board, including the reasons for the conversion. The applicant would be interviewed by at least five board members, followed by a 90-day study period for the applicant to examine the “essence of the religion, marriage, divorce, and division of property practices in that religion, and inheritance and parenting practices in that religion.” If the board approves the conversion, the applicant would then get a certificate of conversion.
Punishments for breaching the law would range from six months to two years in prison…
(No mention of deconversion to atheism.)
Monogamy Bill. Every married person in Myanmar (including foreign nationals married to Burmese citizens) are prohibited from “unofficially” living with another person, essentially criminalizing adultery. Violators are subject to seven years in prison and fines. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch writes that “laws criminalizing consensual sex disproportionately impact women. For example, a rape victim may be deterred from filing a criminal complaint if the failure to win a conviction puts her at risk of prosecution for adultery.”
But who cares about women anyway? Certainly not the monks. FYI, there isn’t even a Burmese word for “vagina.”
The good news is that Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party overwhelmingly won Myanmar’s recent elections, despite the Ma Ba Tha monks running around for the past 18 months shrieking that “the NLD is the party of the Muslims,” and that Myanmar’s Buddhists face a grave threat from their 3% population of Rohingya Muslims who are desperately fleeing the country in droves. The NLD will now select the next president. The bad news is that under Myanmar’s constitution, ministers for defense, home affairs and border affairs are appointed by the head of the military, not the president—and the constitution cannot be changed without the military’s consent.
Governments and agencies in the wider world have condemned the four laws:
The international community, including the European Union in a statement in January and another in July criticizing the marriage law, and United Nations Special Rapporteurs, including the present rapporteur on situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, have warned that the bills breach Burma’s commitments to international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The US has officially expressed its disapproval: in Myanmar in May, US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken said about the four laws that he was “deeply concerned” they would “exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions.”
Incidentally, countries that have not ratified or acceded to CEDAW are Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga, the Holy See (Vatican) and the United States—a regressive outlier as usual. 196 countries are party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including every single member of the United Nations except one. Care to guess which country? Go ahead, I’ll wait…
No I won’t. I have things to do, people. SPOILER ALERT: It’s the U. S. of A. Because no one’s gonna tell ‘Murikkkans that they cannot control their women and beat their children as they see fit—to say nothing of who we imprison and under what conditions we imprison them, and how we treat refugees and immigrants.
But sure, let’s have the US ‘splain to Myanmar that its backward ways simply will not stand.
The problem isn’t Buddhism (or Islam or Christianity or…), it’s conservatism. The pathological need to dominate and impose hierarchies, by any means necessary, always harms women and minorities.
Conservatives, why you gotta?