Since the 1960s, Myanmar’s ruling military elites have espoused a nationalist vision of Burma grounded in the majority culture (Burman), the majority religion (Buddhism) and the majority language (Burmese). These policies have isolated and oppressed Myanmar’s ethnically diverse population. Despite a recent transition to proto-civilian democratic control, Myanmar has adopted an “anything goes” model of populism that supports authoritarian rule. The two core elements of populism are present in Myanmar:
anti-elitism: the political landscape is dominated by the Burman ethnic majority group, which defines itself uncompromisingly as the one “true embodiment” of Myanmar, thereby marginalising minorities as the “other”.
anti-pluralism: Denationalisation rhetoric employs “recent arrival” myths to deny the longstanding presence of minority Muslim communities, especially the Rohingya population, in the country. This has fueled prejudice and violence against the Rohingyas, and common acceptance of this situation. Alarmingly, the military’s harsh treatment of this group has received widespread support from the local population, even though they themselves have been victimised by these forces. Hardline Buddhist monks portray themselves as leading a struggle to save Buddhism from a “rampaging Islam”.
One additional feature of populism in the context of Myanmar is that it is resistant to countervailing facts. Radical Buddhist monks and others have mobilised communities with disinformation and fake news, delivered systematically through social media, to justify and promote ongoing political and ethnic persecution.