Buddhism is an intrinsic part of Burmese society. Source: Asean Economist
The Burmese nationalist Buddhist organisation, called the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion or Ma Ba Tha, is losing government and online support, creating an unexpected twist in Myanmar’s complex relationship between politics and faith.
Recently, Yangon Region’s Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein, during a visit to Singapore, said the lobby group was “unnecessary and redundant” because of the government agency that oversaw Buddhist affairs. Politicians had until that point been supine when handling the radical group, which campaigned against Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) during last November’s election and is responsible for much of the country’s aggressive language towards the Muslim minority.
Activists gathered at Yangon International Airport to protest at the chief minister’s arrival and an open letter demanded the government disowned the remarks and punish Phyo Min Thein was sent to NLD chiefs. Further protests were threatened if no action was taken.
However, the state-run Buddhist body Sangha Maha Nayaka, pulled the rug from beneath its vocal offspring by announcing that Ma Ba Tha was not a recognised Buddhist group.
The 47-member committee appears unanimous in its decision but before the announcement it was widely understood that Ma Ba Tha was operating with state authorisation.
Ariya Bhivamsa, an abbot at Myawaddi Mingyi Monastery in Mandalay, said some monks at first viewed Ma Ba Tha as a protector of Buddhism but most had since decided it was overly radical and too close to the previous, military-backed government of Thein Sein. The junta long promoted the nationalist brand of Theravada Buddhism, in an attempt to steer public attention away from politics.
“The majority of the Sangha community does not support Ma Ba Tha. But while the good and disciplined monks keep silent to avoid disputes, Ma Ba Tha monks are being boastful,” Ariya Bhivamsa was quoted saying by Myanmar Now.
Since its founding in 2014, Ma Ba Tha’s anti-Muslim activities have inflamed Myanmar’s already explosive religious tensions with its leader, U Wirathu, becoming known as the Buddhist bin Laden. The group is accused of posting lies about Muslims on Facebook, a medium that has hooked so many Burmese citizens. It was also accused of saying during last year’s election campaign that Suu Kyi would pick a Muslim as president.
NLD spokesperson Win Htein ignored Wirathu’s demands for an apology. “Religion and politics must be divided. We will not stand for using religion for political benefit, or mixing religion and politics in any way. So we will not follow whatever they demand,” the party executive committee member said.
And Twitter was quickly swamped with by the hashtag #NoMaBaTha reflecting popular rejection of the radical Buddhist group.
Sandar Siri, an abbott at Shwe Thein Monastery in Yangon who took part in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, said the radical group had a negative influence and caused disagreements among monks.
“Myanmar’s Sangha [Buddhist order] never experienced any rift since Theravada Buddhism started to flourish here. But Ma Ba Tha has now caused a rift,” the abbot told the Myanmar Times. “They must stop their works as they are going against the will of the majority of the monks.”
Ma Ba Tha soon scrapped a protest and appeared to be in retreat.
A charity, Thet Daw Saunt, has announced it is suing Wirathu for calling the UN special rapporteur on human rights Yanghee Lee a “bitch” and “whore” last year for highlighting the plight of the oppressed Rohingya minority in Rakhine State.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, last year said the language used by Wirathu during Lee’s visit was “utterly unacceptable”.
“I call on religious and political leaders in Myanmar to unequivocally condemn all forms of incitement to hatred including this abhorrent public personal attack,” Zeid said. “It’s intolerable for UN special rapporteurs to be treated in this way,” he said, calling the language “sexist” and “insulting”.
Ma Ba Tha successfully pushed for the creation of several laws that discriminated against the Muslim minority, which makes up around 4.3 per cent of the population, according to the 2014 census.
Wirathu has been accused of inciting violence with hate-filled, anti-Islamic rhetoric that has left hundreds of people dead since 2012 and which has forced hundreds of thousands more to flee their homes, mostly Rohingya Muslims.
The group recently organised a protest in front of the US Embassy in Yangon after it issued a statement expressing sympathy for the families of Rohingya who had drowned while approaching Sittwe. The Rohingya were reportedly forced to use a boat during a storm because the apartheid-like Rakhine laws prevent them from using the roads to buy supplies. Ma Ba Tha objected to the use of the word Rohingya, preferring the controversial term “Bengali”, implying all Muslims in the state are illegal immigrants from across the border in Bangladesh.
Visitors to Yangon are often impressed by the way the multicultural, pluralist city rubs along with a high degree of tolerance. Maybe with more mature leadership, Myanmar can return to its traditions of acceptance and its era of religious persecution will appear a mere aberration.