Asia - Pacific

Myanmar's radical group flexes muscles amid crackdown

Ultra-nationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha to 'keep going' as 'Buddha Dhamma Foundation' after being ordered to break up

Ekip   | 28.05.2017
Myanmar's radical group flexes muscles amid crackdown


By Kyaw Ye Lynn

YANGON, Myanmar

Less than a week after being told to disband by Myanmar's most senior monk association, a monks-led, ultra-nationalist Buddhist group is determined to continue its activities, albeit under a different name.

The announcement was made during a two-day conference which ended Sunday in Yangon, where an an estimated 20,000 members of the Ma Ba Tha including monks and nuns gathered following the order of Myanmar’s most senior monk association.

The government-sponsored State Sangha Committee on Tuesday ordered the group to cease all activities by mid-July or face punishment under both Buddhist and secular laws. The committee also urged the Ministry of Home Affairs to enforce the order as soon as possible.

The move was widely viewed as an important step to curb the group's hate speech and movement against Myanmar’s Muslim minority, but the group's anti-Muslim movement seems to be going nowhere.

"We already had in mind to change the name," chairman monk Bhiwantha told the conference on Saturday, probably the last such gathering under the name "Association for the Protection of Race and Religion" (better known as Ma Ba Tha in its Myanmar acronym).

"Now the ban is helping us rebrand the group," Bhiwantha said.

The senior monks decided to change the group name to Buddha Dhamma Foundation on Sunday.

"We will keep going as a body protecting our race and the religion," Bhiwantha added. 

'We need to enter into politics'

Just days before the ban, Ma Ba Tha's Central Committee members formed a new group called "Dhamma Wantharnu Rakhita Association" which will soon be turned into a political party.

"As government lacks will to protect religion, we need to enter into politics," said Maung Thway Chun, chairman of the Ma Ba Tha-affiliated group.

"We will register the party under the name '135 Patriot Party' within a month," he said, adding 135 represented the number of different ethnic groups in the country. 

Change of name is a 'game'

New York-based Human Rights Watch on Sunday called on the Myanmar government to take action directly rather than divert decisions on this to religious authorities.

"The Ma Ba Tha are blatantly defying both the Buddhist Sangha and the government with this re-name game," HRW’s deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, told Anadolu Agency.

"U Wirathu [one of the founding members of Ma Ba Tha] and his ilk are engaged in spreading hate speech and instigating violence, and they need to be stopped immediately," he said.

"If that means prosecuting the Ma Ba Tha, then so be it."

Robertson said to date, Myanmar's government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) had "ducked taking action against the provocations of the Ma Ba Tha and its Buddhist ultra-nationalist allies".

"All their reticence has done is further encourage these extremists. Aung San Suu Kyi needs to demonstrate some leadership for a change by making it clear that any Ma Ba Tha effort to instigate violence will be met swiftly with the full force of the law, and if that means that U Wirathu see the inside of a prison cell again, then that's the way it goes." 

'Toothless tiger'

Wirathu, the vitriolic monk, who once called himself "the Buddhist Bin Laden", and was described by the Time magazine as "the Face of Buddhist Terror" for his anti-Muslim sentiment, mocked the decision, saying it was a "toothless tiger".

Wirathu also slammed the one-year preaching ban placed against him in March by the Sangha Committee, accusing the minister of religious affairs and culture, Thura Aung Ko, of pressuring the Committee to issue such a ban.

"We have the rights to protect our religion. Don't you know that?” he said, followed by an expletive in apparent reference to the minister.

Ma Ba Tha was established months after a series of communal violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state in mid-2012.

Anti-Muslim tirades by the nationalist Ma Ba Tha have been blamed for a surge in sectarian hatred across the country, occasionally flaring into religious violence.

The group had pressured the previous government to enact four Race and Religious Laws discriminating against Muslims in the predominantly Buddhist country.

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