Ultranationalist Buddhist Group in Myanmar Opts for Name Change in Bid to Circumvent Nationwide Ban
Myanmar’s ultranationalist “Ma Ba Tha” Buddhist movement has announced that it will change its name and continue with its controversial activities, following a ban by the country’s top Buddhist authority on the group, which has become notorious for its anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The radical nationalist Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion (Ma Ba Tha), a collective of hardline Buddhist abbots and influential monks founded in 2013, has actively fueled religious divisions in Myanmar, especially towards the Rohingya Muslim minority. Major figures from Myanmar’s mainstream political and religious communities, including the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee of the country’s most senior monks, have previously spoken out against Ma Ba Tha, saying the group’s policies are not representative of the country’s monastic sangha, which has some 250,000 members according to a government estimate, and do not reflect the essence of Buddhism.
Ma Ba Tha grew in power under the military-backed government that ruled the country before 2016, promoting a hardline Buddhist nationalism and increasing social tensions within Myanmar. In recent months, the group has made international headlines for shutting down Muslim religious events, forcing Islamic schools near Yangon to close, and for fomenting violence against Muslim communities. Among the movement’s most prominant leaders is the firebrand monk Ashin Wirathu, whose life was made the subect of a documentary that recently premiered in Cannes.
Earlier this year, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na) prohibited Ashin Wirathu from preaching for a year, and on 23 May, Ma Ha Na ordered Ma Ba Tha to take down all promotional materials, signboards, and posters across the country before 15 July, or face prosecution. The order also decreed that members of the goup were banned from operating under the name “Ma Ba Tha.”
Ma Ba Tha’s leaders were initially defiant of the order. “We are not sure whether we will follow this order or not,” said Maung Thawe Chun, a member of Ma Ba Tha’s central executive committee. “If we wish to, we will. If we don’t, we won’t.” (Bangkok Post)
Last weekend, the group held a two-day conference at a monastery in Yangon to celebrate their fourth anniversary, defying the Ma Ha Na ban. Thousands of members, including monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists, attended the conference. On Sunday, the group released a statement announcing that henceforth they would continue their activities under a new banner: the Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation.
“We urge all members in all regions and states around the country to work for the country, people, and religion using the name of the Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation,” said the statement, signed by Tilawka Biwuntha, monk and leader of the movement. “If you write Ma Ba Tha, you can erase the words. But no one can erase Ma Ba Tha from your heart,” he told supporters, reaffirming that the group would continue its activities to protect race and religion. (Channel News Asia)
Government officials have yet to say whether the renamed group will be allowed to continue its activities. U Tun Nyunt, director of the Sangha Affairs Department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, responded: “A statement was issued already. Action will be followed as mentioned in the statement issued by Ma Ha Na. So I don’t want to say anymore. Regarding the foundation, it is too early to give comment.” (Myanmar Times)
On 24 May, prior to the Ma Ba Tha conference, Religious Affairs minister Thura U Aung Ko told the media, “Ma Ha Na is the only sangha organization recognized by government. Now Ma Ha Na already ordered to stop all activities of Ma Ba Tha. The Ministry of Home Affairs will take action immediately if anyone fails to follow the order.” (Myanmar Times)
Myanmar classifies Rohingya Muslims as stateless foreign migrants although they have lived in Myanmar for generations. The country’s population also includes Muslims from other ethnic groups. According to the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, Buddhists make up about 80 per cent of Myanmar’s population of some 52 million, and Muslims just 4 per cent.
Burma: Ultranationalist Ma Ba Tha group to change name to circumvent ban (Asian Correspondent)
Faced with ban, Myanmar hardline group Ma Ba Tha changes name (Channel NewsAsia)
Faced with ban, Myanmar hardline Ma Ba Tha monks change name (The Straits Times)
Government silent over new name of Ma Ba Tha (Myanmar Times)
Ultranationalist Myanmar monks unrepentant (Bangkok Post)
Barbet Schroeder’s “chilling” documentary on Myanmar’s anti-Islam monk screens at Cannes (Lion’s Roar)
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