USDP-led government used extremist Buddhist nationalism to profit military and crony owners of Mytel
Since the start of Myanmar’s democratic transition in 2011, Myanmar’s extremist Buddhist nationalist movement has played a key role in instigating anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim hatred. The extremist movement has spread fear, hate and division and mobilised support for the Myanmar military and its campaign of genocide against the Rohingya. The movement’s numerical symbol “969”, said to represent attributes of Buddha, dharma (Buddhist teachings) and sangha (monk-hood), has been used as a rallying call for mass mobilisation and the incitement of racial and religious violence. The “969” movement evolved into “Ma Ba Tha”, the Burmese acronym for the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. To evade a ban, it was rebranded as the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation in 2017, which was later also banned. The extremist Buddhist nationalist movement is still popularly referred to as Ma Ba Tha.
Mytel, Myanmar’s fourth telecommunications operator, co-owned by the Myanmar military, was allocated the “969” number for its national roll-out in 2018, a decision within Myanmar’s numbering plan managed by the communications ministry. The “969” numbering allocation to Mytel, at a time when “969” was commonly used to denote anti-Muslim hate, was a dog-whistle to extremist nationalist supporters, widely perceived as Mytel showing support for Ma Ba Tha’s racist and Islamophobic rhetoric.
Ma Ba Tha submitted and campaigned for the 2015 passage of four so-called “protection of race and religion” laws through the parliament, controlled at the time by the military and their proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The laws authorised state agencies to regulate religious conversion, birth control and marriage between Buddhists and religious minorities. The laws violate freedom of religion or belief and are in breach of Myanmar’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The current government, formed by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2016, has so far failed to repeal the “protection of race and religion” laws.
The military has openly supported the extremist nationalist movement. Ma Ba Tha monks have given sermons to soldiers, the military has organised donations for Ma Ba Tha and its successor organisation and, in a 2019 statement, the Myanmar military spokesperson described the extremist movement as “necessary”.
Government and Mytel collusion with Ma Ba Tha
Mytel is a joint venture between Star High, a subsidiary of military conglomerate Myanmar Economic Corporation, Vietnam-owned Viettel and Myanmar National Telecom Holding. It was established under the former USDP-led government. While supposedly civilian, USDP is a proxy of the Myanmar military and consists of former military officials who personally profit from the military’s business conglomerates.
In Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC) announcement 24.IV.2017, the national numbering plan was updated with the allocation of “969” to Mytel, when other numbers could have been made available. Justice For Myanmar revisited the awarding of the number “969” to Mytel and found concerning evidence that suggests government officials abused their power to inflame extremist Buddhist nationalism for the benefit of the military and crony owners of Mytel.
In 2016, UK-based Antelope Consulting produced a Myanmar Numbering Plan “consultation” document for the Posts and Telecommunications Department, working with department staff. While the document is titled “Public Consultation”, Justice For Myanmar could not find evidence of consultations with the public or of a Myanmar language version of the document. According to the document, stakeholder input was requested via email, which suggests a discreet process that lacked meaningful, democratic public consultation. In the document, recommendation 5.2.1 states that ‘block “969 xxx xxxx” should be saved for the fourth mobile operator, with “968 xxx xxxx” and “967 xxx xxxx” earmarked for its expansion when necessary.’ The document states that a forth operator has ‘recently been licenced’, although the licence was not granted until January 2017, when the NLD was in government. In another section of the document, it states that ‘an initial allocation cannot wait for blocks to be cleared’ and repeats that the fourth mobile operator ‘has recently been licenced’.
According to Myanmar’s 2013 Numbering Rules, number allocations are to be made to licensees on a first-come, first-served basis. It is the responsibility of licensees to request numbers. In the case of the “969” allocation, Mytel was unable to make a formal request at the time of the 2016 consultation, as they were not yet a licensee. Yet the consultant received advice to recommend the allocation of “969” for Mytel, despite their lack of legal status at the time.
As stated in Myanmar’s Numbering Rules, reservations of allocations may only be made for three months, after which a licensee may request renewal of the reservation. In Mytel’s case, the number “969” was reserved for more than one year before launch, raising questions of the circumstances around the Ministry’s multiple extensions.
Mytel has benefited from the “969” number, a dog-whistle to extremist Buddhist nationalists, as Ma Ba Tha supporters promoted the new network on social media. Mytel was launched on the 9/6/18, a date that adds up to “969”: nine from the day, six from the month of June and nine from the year “18” as 1+8=9. This was a clear signal to citizens of Myanmar, many of who are versed in numerology, showing that Mytel was aligned with Ma Ba Tha.
After launch, extremist nationalists mobilised to support Mytel’s roll-out and celebrate that numbers began with “969”, profiting Mytel.
On the birthday of extremist nationalist leader Wirathu in 2018, more than 200 Mytel sim cards that started and ended in 969 were distributed for free, according to extremist nationalist Facebook posts. Mytel’s issuance of those numbers is a potential case of branding, associating Mytel with extremist nationalists. It may have breached section 9(d) of the Numbering Rules, which state that licensees ‘shall not brand numbers, nor associate a given number range with a given licensee’. Promoting the numbers “969” in association with Mytel appears to be a form of branding.
Ending the era of corruption and violence from the Myanmar military
At the time of Mytel’s launch, extremist Buddhist nationalists were highly organised and had a national reach which they used to mobilise communities, disseminate propaganda and preach messages of hate. Ma Ba Tha activities included the calling of boycotts of Muslim businesses, opposition to the rental and sale of property to Muslims, and the barring of Muslims from entering villages. This was sometimes enforced through physical violence and the destruction of property. In a 2016 report to the UN Human Rights Council (A/HRC/32/18), the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights wrote how extremist Buddhist nationalist groups ‘spread messages based on fear and hatred, compare Muslims to animals, use derogatory language and present Muslims as a threat to the “Buddhist State.”’
The “969” allocation is further evidence of the military’s disregard for human life in their search for profits. Through MEC and Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), the military has built an immense revenue stream to enrich top generals and support the military’s ongoing crimes. The military uses business to reinforce their political power, to protect their economic privilege and to maintain immunity from legal accountability. Throughout Myanmar, the military are profiting from civil war, land grabs and a wide array of human rights violations against ethnic and rural communities. Recent examples include MEHL and MEC mining operations that destroy communities and the environment, an MEC cement factory that is poisoning local water sources and military land grabs for agriculture that uproot farmers and wreck livelihoods.
In establishing Mytel, there is evidence of government collusion with extremist Buddhist nationalists, primarily under the USDP-led government. At a minimum, the NLD-led government failed to act after the transition of power. Mytel was launched through appeals to extremist Buddhist nationalism, fanning anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya hatred for military profits. On November 2, 2020, Wirathu turned himself into the police after over one year in hiding, following charges of sedition. Wirathu’s reappearance risks a rise in extremist Buddhist nationalist activities as Myanmar goes to the polls on November 8.
Justice For Myanmar is dedicated to improving the lives of all the people of Myanmar and is opposed to the politics of hate. The Myanmar military must be placed fully under civilian control and removed from the economy. The military cartel must be dismantled. Perpetrators of international human rights crimes must be held to account through international criminal accountability mechanisms.
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