“We aren’t saying that violence is necessarily required. What we are saying is that we need to defend ourselves by building a fence with our bones, if it’s necessary to do so.”
Lunchtime in the teashops of Yangon always provided an orchestra of sounds – the call and response of the cooks and the busboys, the clattering of plates and the traffic grinding noisily past outside – that made conversation difficult, and I had to lean in close. The young man I sat with was articulate, educated to university level, and warm, if somewhat direct. Rarely did he pause between question and answer; instead, he spoke in rapid fire: rat-a-tat, rat-a-rat, never missing a beat. It seemed that he had been party to this line of conversation many times before.
“It’s a misunderstanding that we are extremists. It’s like that. The main thing is that we would defend our race and religion by building a fence with our bones. It’s for the safety of our homes; we are not burning down those of others.”
I had been introduced to him through an old colleague who had grown up in Yangon but who, a decade or so back, moved with his family to Thailand. In his day, the traffic in the old capital hadn’t been nearly so loud, and my taxi ride to this teashop in the sprawling northern suburbs would have taken half the time it did that morning. But that was a long time ago. Much had since changed, and was still changing. Myanmar was opening to the world and all it offered and, so it seemed from afar, the military that ruled it for so long was haltingly, cautiously, making way for a new civilian order. I wanted to know what that change felt like – the full spectrum of fears, anxieties and anticipations that were being stirred as the country moved into the light. Transitions like this one don’t manifest only at the political level, among the people at the top who engineer them. The whole building shakes, right down to its foundations, and in Myanmar, in the years after the transfer of power began in 2011, the entire structure was shifting.
The colleague had introduced me to this man for a particular reason. Amid the flowering of this new era, violence, often ferocious in nature, had broken out between Buddhists and Muslims, and it had taken many by surprise. It felt new. Civilians were attacking civilians en masse, in fits of bloody rage that often seemed unbridled by forces either internal or external to the participants. And the military, for once, appeared to have suspended its monopoly on violence.
The dynamics of the violence didn’t fit the usual narrative ascribed to Myanmar by the international press, in which there was a seeming unity, whether spoken or not, forged in opposition to the junta by the vast mass of peoples who had all, with varying degrees, experienced the pains of life under it. Seemingly new fissures were opening and tensions rising between communities that had lived alongside one another for generations. A new anger was being directed away from the men in their greens and their jackboots, and towards one another.
These communal fissures weren’t entirely new, but to many outside observers, they were unknowns. And before a deeper analysis of their causes began to arrive, they had caught many off guard. Certain aspects of what unfolded after the first wave of violence in the middle of 2012 didn’t seem to add up: the bulk of attacks were coming from Buddhists, but it was surely impossible that they, and particularly the venerated monks with their gospel of peace, could support or even perpetrate such acts of violence; or that the passage from authoritarian rule to democracy could emerge as the site of efforts to exclude an entire religious community from the country. And what about democracy itself, a term so synonymous with the movements for change that had come and gone throughout the decades of military rule in Myanmar? Perhaps it wasn’t a step in the direction of equality, but instead the pursuit of an ideal nation, arbitrarily defined but so delicate a conception that any obstacles in the way of it needed removing.
The young man I met that day was a member of a movement known as the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion, led by Buddhist monks and known better by its local acronym, Ma Ba Tha. Not far from the teashop where we hunkered down amid the crowds lay its headquarters, in a monastery set back from a busy road in the north of Yangon. It was founded in 2013, and it had quickly become a well-oiled machine, present in townships across the country and boasting a support base that stretched into the millions. I took the man’s fluency with the subject matter to be reflective of the conviction that underpinned the movement’s ambitions. It cast itself as chief protector of Buddhism in one of the few countries in the region in which the faith had, in the eyes of many, remained largely intact against the corrosive influence of foreign ideas – modernism, Islam, or whatever other forces had brought about its demise elsewhere in the world. But as the transition advanced many of the country’s devoted Buddhists feared that this was beginning to change, and unravel. Society had been thrown into a state of flux, and the Buddhist values that for so many centuries had provided a strong moral and intellectual foundation were under threat.
I’d kept him at the table for two hours already, in the heat of high summer. There was a bit of tea left in the pot and I poured another round, hoping it might sate him for long enough to ask one last round of questions. But he had begun to tire. I often found during exchanges like this that I was interrogating feelings that were difficult for others to express in words, particularly to a foreigner. The story of what unfolded in Myanmar upon its transition is, perhaps more than anything else, one about identity and belonging, yet I was a visitor to Myanmar, an outsider with no pretensions otherwise. Whatever sense of group belonging I myself felt adhered much more to my family and friends than the land within the borders of the country where I grew up. Those nationalist loyalties were largely abstract to me, especially when they fused with religion – another point of reference I didn’t share with the young man. How could he explain something so subjective and intimate to someone like me?
Still, important questions remained, and I pressed him one last time. As much as the violence had shocked, it also compelled a deeper look, for in many ways this wasn’t unique to Myanmar. There were echoes from ethno-religious conflicts elsewhere in the world, where fears about the resilience of identities and belief systems had been whipped up into bloody fury, with profound consequences. And there were lessons to be learned for other diverse societies undergoing rapid change. But what was unfolding in Myanmar felt particularly perplexing because the violence seemed to go so heavily against the grain of the country and its majority faith.
Why, in the changing landscape of Myanmar, had there emerged actors so fierce in their fervour that they would build a fence with their bones, or that they would, contrary to his words, seek to kill off whatever threat to their religion lurked amidst them? The violence that had erupted in towns across Myanmar after 2012 had been vicious and terrifying – heads were severed by machete in broad daylight, on corners of streets in busy towns; young Muslim students were massacred. I’d wanted to understand how that turn to violence could occur. But to get into the mind of radical nationalists like him, who functioned with such singularity of vision, perhaps it would be better to explore what he feared might be lost if Buddhism hadn’t been defended, with the fence of bones or with the machete.
“Buddhism stands for the truth and peace,” he replied. “Therefore, if the Buddhist cultures vanish, truth and the peace would vanish steadily as well. If there’s no Buddhism in Yangon ….”
For once he drifted off, pausing for a moment. But then he quickly came back in. I hadn’t asked him specifically about Islam, yet still …
“Even now, you can see kufi caps everywhere. It can’t be good at all. This country was founded with the Buddhist ideology. And if the Buddhist cultures vanish, Yangon will become like Saudi and Mecca. Then, there wouldn’t be the influence of peace and truth. There will be more discrimination and violence.”
What would happen then, to him, his home – everything?
“It can be the fall of Yangon. It can also be the fall of Buddhism. And our race will be eliminated.”