A shift in Myanmar’s nationalist rhetoric offers a glimpse of what’s to come in 2020

Downtown Myanmar Yangon Lake Photo Credit: Max Pixel

Myanmar’s nationalists are employing increasingly political rhetoric. It is no accident.


Burmese nationalism has played a central role in many of the darker chapters of Myanmar’s recent history. The roots of the latest conflict in Rakhine State that has left hundreds dead and displaced more than 700,000 are earthed in Buddhist nationalism. Anti-Muslim protests in 2012 and 2013 were also borne from nationalist beliefs and fear of the “other”.

However, in recent months, there has been a clear shift in nationalist rhetoric. Speeches from leading nationalist figures are becoming increasingly political and contain rhetoric deliberately attacking the National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

Nationalist rhetoric has traditionally been anti-Muslim and anti-Hindu

Myanmar’s nationalist movement can be traced back to the anti-colonial movements of the 1930s and 1940s. A founding theme of Burmese nationalism was the protection of the faith and culture of the Burmese population that lived in Myanmar before colonial rule began in 1823.

Nationalists accused Muslims and Hindus of being unwanted foreign immigrants, invited into the country at the behest of the British for use as cheap labour (despite evidence that a Muslim population has been present in Arakan for hundreds of years).

This core belief that Muslim and Hindu populations are aliens and threaten the survival of Burmese Buddhist traditions has driven nationalism in the post-colonial era. Nationalists cast their mission as a pursuit to protect Burmese Buddhism from outside, often fundamentalist, influences. Nationalists have accused Muslims of failing to respect the flag, aggression to other religions, and sexual violence. This was most visible in 2012 when the rape of a young Buddhist woman in Rakhine State triggered religious and communal violence and anti-Muslim riots.

The NLD tried to control nationalism

June 2012: Aung San Suu Kyi visits the Department for International Development in London. Source: DFID – UK Department for International Development, Creative Commons

Following the NLD’s victory in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government attempted to limit the power and spread of nationalist groups. In 2016, the government outlawed the nationalist group Ma Ba Tha and prohibited U Wirathu, an ultra-nationalist monk, from giving sermons due to his explicitly anti-Muslim rhetoric.

However, nationalist groups remained active. Some, like Nationalist Forces, adopted new names and continued operations. U Wirathu is also back behind the microphone delivering sermons. But there has been a marked shift in his rhetoric.

Buddhist nationalism has become explicitly political

U Wirathu’s more recent sermons have been focused on opposing the NLD’s constitutional amendments designed to reduce the military’s grip over Myanmar’s politics. At a sermon outside Yangon City Hall earlier this month, he called for the military in government to be “worshipped” and praised them for protecting the country despite their modest “soldiers salaries.”

The reasoning for the shift from anti-Muslim to anti-NLD rhetoric likely stems from Myanmar’s upcoming elections in 2020. Nationalist groups would prefer a government that took a less combative approach to their hate-filled sermons, as the previous government under U Thien Sein did.

The NLD’s opposition, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has already recognised a potential ally in Buddhist nationalist groups. In late 2018 the party suggested that “safeguarding race” was a key responsibility of the country’s women. The shift in rhetoric and early indication that USDP would adopt a more nationalist stance is a preview of what the 2020 campaign trail will bring.

In nationalist speeches, Aung San Suu Kyi is often attacked as being incapable of protecting Myanmar’s majority faith and race due to her marriage to a foreigner.

Nationalism threatens more than the incumbent government

Burmese nationalism poses more than a threat to the NLD’s election chances. In a fledgeling democracy like Myanmar, it undermines the democratic process and civil rights progress.

A return to government-sanctioned nationalism would further inflame religious tensions and communal violence. The Rohingya crisis demonstrated how nationalist elements can stir up religious fervour and spark violence. It also demonstrated how nationalist misinformation, when disseminated over social media sites, can add fuel to an already destructive fire.

Should nationalist elements resort to misinformation tactics to further their objectives in 2020, Myanmar’s fragile democracy could be hijacked, stifling democratic progress and wiping out the progress made in recent years.

Finally, nationalism also poses a threat to civil rights. The interfaith marriage law prohibited Buddhist women from marrying non-Buddhist men. It required the groom to convert to Buddhism before the marriage could take place. While sold as a bill to safeguard “women’s rights according to tradition and culture”, the bill is a clear violation of gender equality principles. It places nationalism ahead of women’s civil rights.

Myanmar’s nationalism is an underlying current in the tides of national politics. Its ebb away from anti-Muslim rhetoric and into political discourse should be a cause for concern for every pro-democracy and civil rights campaigner in the region. Myanmar has made significant democratic progress; a nationalist tide cannot be left unchecked to wash it away.