As campaign enters final stretch, political parties scramble for votes that could determine control of new government.
Yangon, Myanmar – Theo first began to question his faith in his late teens. But it was not until last year that he told his parents that he had become an atheist.
“Coming out as an atheist is as hard as coming out as gay,” said the 23-year-old, clad in a crisp white shirt and jeans. “I met a kid – he is in his early twenties – he got kicked out of his home because he told his family he was an atheist.”
Luckily for Theo, his father did not evict him, although he was disappointed.
Like many others rejecting religion in Myanmar, Theo has struggled to find an outlet for his questions about faith. Then last year he discovered a new Facebook group dedicated to atheism and quickly became an active member.
A clutch of the keenest administrators – representing different walks of life and religious backgrounds – have since become friends and are driving a campaign to promote secularism in the conservative country that is predominantly Buddhist.
In less than a year, the group had gathered nearly 10,000 members, mostly among urban youths in Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar’s two largest cities.
They are among a new generation of social media users exploiting Myanmar’s internet boom to explore and challenge religious beliefs since the end of military rule in 2011.
This is despite the rise of a Buddhist nationalist movement, locally known as Ma Ba Tha, which is spreading hate speech and anti-Muslim rhetoric online.
Many atheists hope that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which crushed the ruling military-backed party in a landmark election in November, will usher in an era of greater religious freedom and tolerance.
Anarchist atheist punk rocker
“I wanted to organise atheists in Myanmar, to create an online space where they can come together and share their ideas,” said Thiha, a 36-year-old who founded the Facebook group in late 2014. “It is now the most popular atheist group in Myanmar.”
Thiha, a self-styled anarchist and punk rocker, was born to a Muslim father and Buddhist mother. For a time, he studied to become an imam and later briefly converted to Christianity before abandoning his faith completely – a decision he attributes to his practice of Vipassana meditation.
The Facebook group is kept closed under privacy settings so that members can speak freely, without fear of legal repercussions.
Myanmar law carries criminal penalties for defaming religion under a vague provision that has been exploited to muzzle political activists and casual Facebook users alike. In March, a New Zealand bar manager was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for posting an image of the Buddha wearing headphones on Facebook.
The atheist group, which hosts incendiary posts mocking religion, has provoked the anger of some devout Buddhists, who sometimes respond with abusive messages. But the administrators say they just laugh them off or respond with reasoned arguments.
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Atheism and communism
Social hostility towards atheists has a long history in Myanmar, fuelled by decades of Buddhist nationalist and anti-communist propaganda.
In the late 1950s, the democratic government led by U Nu, the first prime minister of independent Myanmar, released a booklet called “Buddhism in Danger”, framing Communism as a lethal threat to religion and morality.
Successive military governments exploited this fear to smear the Communist Party of Burma, which remains banned to this day. The word “communist” in Myanmar is still used as a synonym for atheist, while the official term “batha-may”, meaning lack of religion, carries an overwhelmingly negative connotation associated with immorality or deviance.
“When you speak of atheism, people think of barbarians or communists,” said Theo. “There is a lot of discrimination. Some people have to stay in the closet because their superiors or boss might discriminate against them if they are atheist.”
Win Htut, 31, a sales manager and former Buddhist who posts almost daily with the group, still hasn’t told his family that he is an atheist.
“I don’t want to upset them,” he explained. “My wife knows, my best friend knows. That’s all.”
Religious identity in Myanmar
Thein Htun Linn, 41, a former Muslim working as a taxi driver in Yangon, blames his loss of faith on the “illogical” elements of religion, as well as the cruelty of famine, disease and war. But he still displays a Buddha on the dashboard of his car to blend in with the local culture.
The Myanmar government does not officially recognise atheism as a religious belief, which citizens are required to list on their national identity cards.
Thint Myat, a fresh faced 19-year-old, said he was forced to put Buddhist on his university student card.
“You have to select a religion but they wouldn’t let me say I’m an atheist,” said the student, who describes himself as a leftist.
He said that the university authorities have since prevented him and other students from organising study groups to talk about religion and left-wing politics.
There are no official statistics on the number of atheists in Myanmar, although the 2014 census offered people the chance to identify as having “no religion” for the first time. The full results are expected to be released in the coming months, detailing a breakdown of Myanmar’s religious and ethnic groups.
Publicly criticising Buddhism in Myanmar has become even harder since 2012, when clashes in Rakhine State sparked waves of ethno-religious violence mostly targeting the country’s Muslim minority.
Now Ma Ba Tha is leading a xenophobic campaign to “protect” Buddhism in Myanmar, using social media and sermons to preach about the perceived threat of Islam.
Aung San Suu Kyi opposition and religious conflict
“When I told my parents [I was an atheist], they said I was being controlled by the Muslims,” Thint Myat said, holding back a smile.
Many people believe the ruling Union Solidary and Development Party has intentionally stirred religious conflict to discredit Suu Kyi’s opposition party.
Ma Ba Tha recently worked with the government to push through a package of four discriminatory laws restricting the rights of women and religious minorities in Myanmar and is spearheading efforts to penalise those who slight Buddhism.
“We see them as a Burmese Taliban. Only they don’t have guns,” said Bo Bo, 25, an office worker, showing off a freshly inked tattoo with the words “blasphemy law” etched on his lower arm. “They are not a far cry from Muslim extremists.”
Theo says the radical group deserves partial credit for encouraging a new generation of social media users to explore atheism.
“I’ve been doing research about atheism in Burma and the number of atheists has been rising since a year ago,” said Theo, who has been monitoring their supporters on Facebook. He said that many teenagers were now contacting the group with questions about atheism, citing disillusionment with Myanmar’s increasingly radical interpretation of Buddhism.
“We have an inside joke that Ma Ba Tha has created more atheists than Charles Darwin,” Theo added.
But there is one community that is widely underrepresented in the Facebook group: women. They make up only a tiny fraction of members and none of the administrators is female.
Min, an 18-year-old woman who was once a Muslim, blames the multiple layers of discrimination that women face in Myanmar.
“Women are oppressed far more than men,” she said, sporting a mini skirt and cropped hair. “My parents prohibited many things, such as wearing a short skirt or painting my nails. They used to control every aspect of my life.”
When she told her parents she had become an atheist, they stopped speaking to her for a year.
Eventually she decided to leave home and moved in with her boyfriend. It was Thiha, her friend from the punk community in Yangon, who introduced her to the group.
A number of administrators and members now meet regularly in gritty teashops in downtown Yangon to discuss philosophy and religion over beer and cigarettes.
“We argue a lot. They are anarchists, we are capitalists,” joked Theo, gesturing first to Thiha and Thint Myat – dressed in black anarcho-punk shirts – and then himself and Win Htut, dapperly attired in a traditional Myanmar longyi.
The team is working to set up Myanmar’s first charity promoting secularism, provisionally called the Young Men’s Atheist Association. But they are worried that their efforts could be stymied by the authorities or Ma Ba Tha.
The Myanmar army remains a powerful political force, guaranteed a quarter of all parliamentary seats and control over key government agencies.
Democracy and religious minorities
Myanmar is currently preparing for its first democratic transfer of power in more than half a century, but analysts doubt that the NLD will dare to publicly challenge Ma Ba Tha or its laws.
“They seem to have indicated that religious issues are not their priority, and that they won’t prioritise repealing the four laws [to protect race and religion],” said Matthew Walton, a senior research fellow in modern Burmese studies at St Anthony’s College, Oxford.
“I think that the overall tone of the discussion in Myanmar society is going to have to change before it will be more productive and less contentious for any government to approach legislation related to religious practice or identity,” he said.
Theo says that while Muslims are Ma Ba Tha’s main target, the future for all Myanmar’s religious minorities is under threat.
“Buddhism used to be free, but now it’s changing. Now they have strict rules about converting religion or even becoming atheist,” he said. “Ma Ba Tha has been targeting Muslims. [Their] next target could be atheists.”