Recent anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar cannot be understood primarily as a spontaneous outburst of religious feeling among the general population. Rather it was a shocking repertoire deployed by a semi-organised social movement with clear political goals, which overlapped with those of Myanmar’s military elite. In this article we trace the history of contention that saw key collective actors emerge who staged violent events and then framed them for the public. Elite competitive strategies leading to the 2015 election shaped its rhythm. A new regional player, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, initiated the violence. When the ruling elite failed to condemn it, a monk-led, apparently popular, chauvinistic movement expanded rapidly throughout Myanmar. Asserting the Rakhine violence as an existential threat to the Burmese nation, a moral panic effectively created a crisis where none existed. The movement then routinised itself into a de facto pro-regime, anti-National League for Democracy, theocratic political party favouring President Thein Sein’s re-election. While maintaining broad ties (but not chains of command) to military elites, it enjoyed a degree of autonomy not seen before under military rule. It ultimately failed to influence voter behaviour significantly, but the new salience of anti-Muslim chauvinism portends future conflict in the fledgling democracy.