MAUNGDAW, Myanmar—In overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar, hard-line nationalist monks who championed the military’s 2017 crusade against the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority were crucial to legitimizing and galvanizing support for the scorched-earth campaign.
Now, the resurgence of a centuries-old conflict between rival Buddhist ethnicities is dividing the Buddhist clergy, and with it Myanmar society—threatening efforts to end one of the bloodiest of the many ethnic conflicts that plague the country.
The rupture among the monks reflects hardening divisions between Buddhists from Myanmar’s ethnic-majority Bamar and Buddhists in Rakhine state, in the country’s west. Armed conflict has exploded in recent weeks between government forces and a powerful rebel group of Rakhine Buddhists who are fighting to revive an autonomous state. The area they claim as their homeland was once a sovereign entity known as the Arakan kingdom, until its conquest by the Bamar in the 1700s.
The bloodshed comes at what had been expected to be a hopeful time in ethnic relations. In December, Myanmar’s military announced a unilateral cease-fire with ethnic groups elsewhere in the country. The military says it is determined to end the nation’s conflicts by 2020, and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said ethnic peace is her top priority.
Bay of Bengal
With the Rakhine conflict escalating, the Ma Ba Tha, an order of nationalist monks that gained a following for its hate-filled campaigns against Muslims during the past few years, finds itself unable to unify its hard-line Buddhists. Instead, the order is tearing apart along ethnic lines.
When the Arakan Army, an ethnic Buddhist insurgent group fighting for Rakhine autonomy, ambushed four police stations in early January, a prominent leader in the Ma Ba Tha movement, the Venerable Wirathu, condemned the attacks as terrorism.
This infuriated the order’s Rakhine branch, which says the Arakan Army has legitimate concerns. “I used to think Wirathu was like the son of the Buddha,” said the Ven. Nanda Bartha, leader of the Ma Ba Tha’s Rakhine branch. “Now I don’t think he’s a respectable person at all.” Ven. Bartha’s branch released a letter condemning a Ma Ba Tha branch that had issued a letter against the Arakan Army.
Ven. Wirathu, who was kicked off Facebook last year after posting hate speech, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The standoff shows the high degree of ethnic strain in a place where Buddhism is central to public life and monks are frequently called on to play a mediating role in conflict. Previously the Ma Ba Tha was well-suited to this role because of the monks’ close ties to the military and good relations with Rakhine nationalist politicians.
“They manage to maintain channels of communication with a lot of entities that otherwise would find it very difficult to talk to each other,” said Melyn McKay, a Myanmar-based anthropologist focused on the Ma Ba Tha, whose name translates as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. “If the Ma Ba Tha is alienated from groups it was otherwise bringing to the table, that means a further breakdown between the various sides of the conflict.”
As social cleavages widen, the government says it is preparing for all-out war. In January, Ms. Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, threatened to crush the Arakan Army. At a news conference later in the month Myanmar’s military said it would annihilate the group. The Organization for Discipline and Control, the largest Buddhist organization in Rakhine, condemned the military’s operations against the Arakan Army in Rakhine state, and called on the military to allow aid organizations access to villagers caught up in the conflict.
Skirmishes continue on a regular basis, and a large portion of the Arakan Army has dug in near the mountains of northeastern Rakhine, where it’s easier to fend off the military’s assaults. Maj. Gen. Tun Tun Nyi says the Arakan Army undermines national security, with the group’s attacks on Myanmar police stations providing ARSA, a Rohingya militant group, greater opportunity to launch its own attacks.
“This is the moment when the Rakhine thinking has shifted to: ‘The political route is dead,’ ” said Richard Horsey, an independent analyst based in Yangon. He said the fighting is significant because the Rakhine were previously one of Myanmar’s best-integrated ethnic minorities.
On a recent tour of Rakhine state, The Wall Street Journal found surging popular support for the Arakan Army, driven by a sense that Myanmar’s central government loots the region’s natural gas and other resources but fails to provide jobs and development.
Another source of frustration is that Aye Maung, a prominent Rakhine political leader, has been charged with treason for allegedly instigating a pro-autonomy protest last year. Myanmar’s military fired on the protesters, killing seven. “Many people feel there is no political solution, that Rakhine must fight,” said Tun Aung Kyaw, general secretary of the Arakan National Party, the state’s dominant political party.
Mr. Aye Maung is contesting the charges. Ms. Suu Kyi’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In Rakhine, evidence of dissension is everywhere. At dawn one recent day, just before government soldiers began patrolling the streets of Maungdaw, locals gathered at a small noodle shop and played phone videos made by a Myanmar dissident in Finland who says the Rakhine people are being colonized.
In another instance, a Rakhine student leader said that many of his fellow students are connected online with Arakan Army soldiers and are considering joining up, feeling that politics is a dead end.
Monks say they don’t know how to tamp down tensions. “I don’t know who is right and who is wrong,” said the Ven. Manei Tharya, a monk in Maungdaw, of the fighting between the Arakan Army and Myanmar military. “No one comes to meditate because there is too much conflict.”
—Myo Myo contributed to this article.
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