Tasnim — a 13-years-old Rohingya Muslim — was at home with her father when a group of men broke into it. She was brutally raped by fifteen men as her father was forced to watch. He begged them to stop but was beaten until he succumbed to his injuries. Months later, Tasnim realised she was pregnant — and now lives in a refugee camp where she cares for her child and her sick mother. Stories like these aren’t new, according to Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN’s top human rights official, the situation in Myanmar is a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Over the last two weeks, a thousand Rohingya Muslims have been killed, and close to 350,000 have fled to Bangladesh in the latest military campaign against the Muslim minority group. This does not include the 400,000 Rohingya Muslims who have been already been living in squalid refugee camps along the Bangladesh-Burmese border. The Patriotic Association of Myanmar simply referred to as ‘Ma Ba Tha’ acts as the catalyst behind the violence. Its spiritual leader and founder, the saffron-robed, baby-faced Ashwin Wirathu looks like someone who preaches peace, compassion and tolerance. Yet the charismatic, 49years old is quick to quash such perceptions with his fiery rhetoric describing Muslims as “mad dogs”, “cannibals” and “trouble-makers. “You can’t underestimate a snake just because there’s only one,” he says. “It’s dangerous whatever it is. Muslims are just like that.” A recent report by the Belgium-based International Crisis Group issued a dire warning on the current political situation in Myanmar; continued hate speech combined with nationalistic rhetoric could deteriorate a delicate political situation even further. The report recommends that the ruling government address the underlying economic and social factors that contribute to widespread support for the Ma Ba Tha. “When the [military] junta receded and with democracy around, more voices could be heard again and people were freed from jail again and Wirathu, who’s very prominent and high-ranking in the echelon, was able to voice things again,” says Dr. Michael Jerryson, associate professor of religious studies at Youngstown State University. “Ma Ba Tha is a very organised, erudite group of monks that draw upon a sizeable amount of the population that feels the same way.” But not all Burmese find common ground with the Ma Ba Tha’s anti-Muslim views. Its vast network of support also comes from those that see the organisation as a provider of welfare, social services and education. Others see the Ma Ba Tha simply as a means to keeping Buddhist traditions alive in a country governed by a secular party. “The movement may well have a virulent nationalist, anti-Muslim element, but it also serves as a provider of welfare and social support, and thus fills a huge gap”, says Francis Wade, journalist and author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence And The Making Of A Muslim Other. “There would also be a large cross-section of its support base that may not hold these deep prejudices towards Islam, but is anxious about the health of Buddhism in a modernising country.” Nobel laureate and Myanmar’s democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi knows this all too well. Her refusal to run Muslim candidates in the last election was an early indication of how she would abdicate to the monks in efforts to gain power. After her landslide election victory in 2016, she kept in place the discriminatory Race and Religion Protection Laws passed by the last military government — these laws aimed to constrain religious conversion, regulate child birth and restrict Buddhist women from marrying non-Buddhist men. Most recently, her refusal to condemn the violence and tepid acknowledgement of it has exposed her own complicity and revealed the power of Myanmar’s religious class. Not all Burmese find common ground with the Ma Ba Tha’s anti-Muslim views. Its vast network of support also comes from those that see the organisation as a provider of welfare, social services and education. Others see the Ma Ba Tha simply as a means to keeping Buddhist traditions alive in a country governed by a secular party Although her approach may have been justifiable in the past, Jerryson believes she has gone too far. “She’s done some actions are more direct and hard to defend than previously,” he says. “She’s prevented aid in the form of distributing food. She’s accused aid workers of helping terrorists. She’s not allowing people to use the word “Rohingya”there are things under her purview I think we have to hold her accountable for.” “The difficulty in controlling Ma Ba Tha is that monks have always held a position of reverence in Myanmar’s society and so it’s very difficult to criticise them — doing so carries both material and otherworldly consequences — hence they function with little recrimination”, says Wade. “There should be more substantial action from the government in tackling hate speech in general, and this would hopefully begin to affect how freely these ultra-nationalist groups can agitate against Muslims.” At the same time, the military dimension cannot be ignored. It was only a decade ago, a conflict between the military and the monks coined as the “Saffron Revolution,” led to the imprisonment of Myanmar’s clergy including Wirathu. Ten years later, an unlikely partnership between the clergy and military has emerged — while the Ma Ba Tha whips up the populace into an existential frenzy, the military is able to execute its atrocities with religious cover. Jamila Hanan, a UK-based human rights activist, says that there is a mutual interest at play. “Buddhist extremism is used as a weapon by the Myanmar military to carry out their political and economic agendas,” she says. “By whipping up the racial hatred between ethnicities they are able to follow a divide and conquer strategy, whereby the people of Rakhine in the strategically important area of Myanmar will side with the military, as their protectors from the Rohingya people, who they have been taught to fear and hate.”The Canada-based Burma Watch International, a society for Burmese human rights, refused to comment on the story. The writer is a freelance journalist/writer and political analyst. His writing focuses primarily on civil rights, minority rights and the impact of energy on foreign affairs Published in Daily Times, September 14th 2017.