“Despite their depleted numbers, hostility towards Muslims bubbled under the surface during Burma’s long years of military rule,” writes Rosalind Russell in her book Burma’s Spring. “Freedom of expression was restrained, but ill feeling had not evaporated.” Anti-Muslim sentiment—occasionally erupting into violence—flared in the 1980s and 1990s, and in 2001 after the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan. Even as the Saffron Revolution was happening, Ashin Wirathu, a monk who would go on to become the face of hardline Buddhist nationalism in Burma, was stewing in jail for inciting anti-Muslim violence back in 2003.
After 2011, things changed amid an uncertain transition. An onerous system of pre-publication censorship was abolished. New freedoms of expression were available as the internet became more widely accessible. Wirathu was released on amnesty. In 2012, intercommunal violence surged in Rakhine, killing hundreds and sending more than 140,000 Rohingya into internal displacement camps. The outbursts were no longer occurring every couple of years, but every year. Buddhist nationalist groups were quick to grab the spotlight, while many non-hardliner monks from the Saffron years never really recovered from the crackdown—if they had survived it at all. They had been forced into exile, or were dealing with psychological problems from their time in prison. Monasteries, which are backed by the state, would not accept them. It wasn’t until five years ago that commemorations of Saffron were allowed to take place openly inside Burma.
It would be too simplistic, however, to suggest that there was no ideological overlap between the Saffron monks and their more nationalistic brethren. While many Saffron monks have spoken out against religious violence and in favor of reconciliation, they may share some views with nationalists, especially when it comes to the Rohingya. Mark Farmaner, the director of the London-based advocacy group Burma U.K., told me in an email that when one of Saffron’s leaders visited the group’s office, he mentioned that the Rohingya should be put into camps until they are deported. The view that Rohingya are outsiders is hardly a rare one, even among pro-democracy activists.
The violence between Buddhists and Muslims after 2011, and the explosion in online hate speech, contributed to the growing influence of Burma’s nationalist monk movements. And the increased deprivation in Rakhine contributed to the formation of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which attacked police posts in October 2016 and August of this year, killing state security forces and unleashing the military in the northern part of the state. Nearly 500,000 Rohingya have now fled to Bangladesh. Anti-Muslim sentiment is once again running rampant.
As the world undertakes a dramatic reexamination of Burma and what had seemed to be its democratic success story, it’s worth remembering that a crisis can provoke deeper understanding of a country’s history and politics. But this critical assessment shouldn’t happen only among curious journalists, academic circles, rights groups, and longtime supporters of Burma’s struggle for democracy. It has to happen within the country, too.