Myanmar The role of social media in fomenting violence
The political context: an emerging and fragile democracy
A country fresh out of a military dictatorship
Myanmar, previously known as Burma, was under a military dictatorship for nearly five decades. The country embarked on a democratic transition process in 2011. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, boycotted the 2010 election which brought to the presidency a former military general. In November 2015, the NLD won a landslide victory, taking effective control of the government in 2016.
Complex power sharing arrangement
Although the election of the NLD was a move away from military rule, the military continues to exert significant influence over Myanmar politics to this day. In line with the 2008 constitution, (Constitution of Myanmar 2008, section 109) the military retains 25% of parliamentary seats as well as control of three key ministries (Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs) (Constitution of Myanmar 2008, section 232 (b) (ii)) giving it direct authority over Myanmar’s armed forces, police and border guards. Former military officers also continue to occupy positions of authority across all levels of government, the judiciary and many state-owned enterprises.
Myanmar has a population of over 53 million. Its population is ethnically diverse, accounting for the country’s geographic location at the intersection of South, Southeast and East Asia. Though predominantly Buddhist, Myanmar is also religiously diverse, with Christian, Muslim, Hindu and animist communities found across the country.
The military regime split Myanmar’s identity into eight major ethnic races, themselves broken down into 135 “national races”. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority from northern Rakhine State, are notably excluded from this list.
Rising intercommunal tensions
Although not new, the controversy around the citizenship rights of the Rohingya gained renewed focus as Myanmar engaged in its political transition. It was further intensified as tensions between ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya flared up following the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman in May 2012, and as attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in 2016 and 2017 triggered military clearance operations in the region, sending nearly a million Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
As the Rohingya issue merged into a broader anti-Muslim narrative, tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities have also escalated countrywide, including in communities where Buddhists and Muslims used to live in harmony. Deadly altercations took place in Mciktila (2013), West Bago Region (2013), Mandalay (2014) and Lashio (2014), and the country has been affected more broadly by violent mobs targeting individuals and property, as well as limitations on the religious freedom and freedom of movement of Muslim minorities.
Formalisation of an organised Buddhist Nationalist movement
The rise in inter-communal tensions was fuelled by, and fed into, the formalisation of an organised Buddhist nationalist movement, with some high-profile monks leading their following into political debates. The 969 movement emerged as a response to what was seen as a rising and existential Muslim threat to Buddhism— driven by an internal threat linked to inter-religious marriage and high birth rates, and an external threat linked to immigration and terrorism. Banned in 2013 by the Buddhist clergy, 969 paved the way for Ma Ba Tha (the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion), a more organised network with a significant local presence at the township level and a member base reportedly exceeding 100,000. Ma Ba Tha achieved political prominence by advocating for a set of Race and Religion Laws, which were passed in 2015 following an intense campaign that built on a stigmatising and occasionally dehumanising anti-Muslim narrative. Though formally banned in 2017, Ma Ba Tha has continued to reinvent itself under different branding and their ideology continues to exert influence in many circles across Myanmar.