Recent public statements by senior politicians and prominent monks in Myanmar suggest that the country’s mainstream monastic sangha appears to be winning its public relations war against the hardline monks of the nationalist umbrella group Ma Ba Tha. So much so, in fact, that some international media outlets already seem to have decided that Ma Ba Tha is on the back foot. In Myanmar itself, Ma Ba Tha has seen much of its political support and positive media coverage wither away.
The radical nationalist Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion (Ma Ba Tha), a collective of hardline Buddhist abbots and influential monks, has, since 2013, exploited anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment to craft a narrative of a Buddhist nation under siege from the growing population of Rohingya, an essentially stateless Muslim people in northwestern Myanmar’s Rakhine State seen by Ma Ba Tha supporters as a threat to Myanmar society.
On 14 July, Time magazine (which, much to the ire of some Buddhists in Myanmar, gave Ashin Wirathu, the figurehead of the radical Ma Ba Tha collective, a June 2013 cover with the headline, “The Face of Buddhist Terror”) reported how senior ministers of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party were openly critical of Ma Ba Tha. One of them was the chief minister of Yangon, Phyo Min Thein, who said on 7 July that the very existence of Ma Ba Tha was unnecessary since the country already had the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee [SSMNC], a 47-strong body of Myanmar’s most senior monastics, to regulate Buddhist practice and institutions. A strongly worded statement from the SSMNC on 12 July also put distance between the mainstream of Buddhist clergy and the Ma Ba Tha outliers. Perhaps the most definitive passage from the statement is this one: “This is to clarify the confusion among the public: Ma Ba Tha is not a Buddhist organization that was formed in accordance with the basic Sangha rules, regulations and directives of the State Sangha authority.” (Myanmar Times)
There were straws in the wind of this shift when the NLD comfortably defeated Ma Ba Tha in 2015’s landslide national election win. In June this year on the ecclesiastic front, U Sandi Marbhivamsa, general secretary of the SSMNC, criticized Ma Ba Tha’s hardline stance, advocating an Indonesia-style approach of political moderation and pluralism for interreligious relations. In any case, whether through overreach, complacency, or recklessness, it’s clear that Ma Ba Tha is quickly finding itself increasingly isolated, with political and religious heavyweights alike publicly voicing their distaste for the movement.
Anyone familiar with Asian history cannot, perhaps, help but feel a twinge of sympathy for politically minded individuals and groups seeking legitimacy by stoking the fires of nationalism. Nationalism and the concept of the sovereign nation state provided the ideological foundations for many Asian countries to seek independence from their European colonial masters in the early 20th century. Nationalism helped them understand what imperialism—including economic and cultural imperialism—means. Some of Asia’s most important nationalist reformers, from Sri Lanka’s Anagarika Dhammapala to China’s Master Taixu and Zhao Puchu, were influential and well-connected Buddhists.
The crisis facing the Rohingya people today can be traced back to decisions made during Myanmar’s colonial past. In 1826 the British Empire annexed what is now Rakhine State, implementing a lax immigration policy that allowed large numbers of Bengali Muslims to move into the region. The Middle East Institute explains that the British welcomed wealthy South Indian chettyars (money lenders) as administrators of the new colonial territory, displacing Burmese Buddhist farmers and leading to the Doh Bama movement in the 1930s that saw a real awakening of Burmese ethno-nationalism. Muslims in post-World War II Burma did not help matters by siding with the British against the Burmese independence movement. The Rohingya Mujahedeen Rebellion (1948–61) exacerbated the situation further, prompting the country’s government to deny them citizenship.
Amid such a messy history and volatile present, it is clear that some kind of balance needs to be reached between Buddhism and nationalism. That said, the Rohingya are so marginalized within Myanmar society that even renowned stateswoman Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, has found it extremely difficult to manage the crisis in a way that satisfies international observers. The fact that it has taken this long for Myanmar’s political and Buddhist grandees to speak out against the philosophy and actions of Ma Ba Tha suggests that there is still political capital to be made by demonizing the Rohingya.
It also seems unlikely that Ma Ba Tha members, who are preoccupied with nationalistic notions of ethnic and religious exclusivity, will feel chastened or reflective following the recent setbacks. Bridging this divide means not only coming to grips with existing tensions between philosophical nationalism and Buddhist thought, but also untangling knots that were tied by colonialism so long ago.
Is it too optimistic to hope that Buddhist truths about interconnectedness, self-lessness, and compassion can serve to balance an empowering sense of patriotism? Perhaps the positive changes taking place in Myanmar’s political landscape can also serve to incubate conditions for moderate Buddhists to fashion a national agenda based on inclusiveness, compassion, and pragmatism so that all sides can benefit, for the betterment of the sangha and the country as a whole.
State Sangha disowns Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion (Myanmar Times)
Ma Ba Tha fades with barely a whimper (Myanmar Times)
A Backlash Against Burma’s Islamophobic Buddhist Monks Has Begun (Time)
What next for Ma Ba Tha? (Frontier Myanmar)
Sectarian Violence Involving Rohingya in Myanmar: Historical Roots and Modern Triggers (Middle East Institute)
Top Buddhist Authority in Myanmar Begins Moving Against Extremist Buddhist Organizations (Buddhistdoor Global)
Aung San Suu Kyi Urges Tolerance and Unity in Myanmar’s Troubled Rakhine State (Buddhistdoor Global)