The Rise and Rise of the Ma Ba Tha Lobby

By Lawi Weng 10 July 2015

Ma Ba Tha is proving to be one of the most effective groups in Burma at extracting concessions from the quasi-civilian government.

Their ability to exert political pressure on the government stands in stark contrast to the plight of rights groups and lawmakers who, despite formidable efforts, have met with little success at pushing for political reforms, including constitutional change.

On June 7, the government of President Thein Sein ordered the cancellation of five controversial construction projects slated to be built near the revered Shwedagon Pagoda. The announcement came only weeks after Ma Ba Tha threatened nationwide protests against the developments and formed an advocacy group to help foment public opposition.

Although the influential monks of Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, were not solely responsible for the demise of the project—which had attracted broader public concern—they no doubt helped ramp up pressure on Thein Sein’s administration.

The Buddhist nationalist organization, which has been accused of spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric, was formed in mid-2013 amid a period when sporadic outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence were reported around the country.

Mandalay-based monk U Wirathu, a leading Ma Ba Tha member known for his particularly virulent attacks on Muslims, describes the organization in hallowed terms.

“We are a two-year-old boy, but we came down from the sky, not like a normal person. We are brilliant people,” he said.

Shortly after their formation, the group proposed a controversial legislative package, commonly referred to as the Race and Religion Protection Laws, comprised of four bills that would regulate birthing, interfaith marriage, religious conversion and monogamy.

Despite widespread criticism from rights groups that the bills would undermine religious freedom, the rights of women and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, two bills—on population control and interfaith marriage—have already been passed by Parliament.

Yet again, another successful achievement chalked up by Ma Ba Tha.

The group contends that no one within government is backing them and that they are free and independent. However, it seems that at least some dialogue has taken place between key leaders and certain influential monks behind the scenes.

Army officers in Rangoon Division reached out to Ma Ba Tha following a meeting between senior monks of the group on the development projects near Shwedagon.

On June 19, two military members, including the commander of Rangoon Division Command, met with Ma Ba Tha members at the group’s second anniversary conference in Insein Township.

It was at this conference that the senior monk Bhaddamta Vimala, who serves as secretary of Ma Ba Tha, urged his fellow clergyman to rally support for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in Burma’s upcoming general election.

The outspoken monk criticized the political opposition as too inexperienced to lead the country, claiming that the incumbent government “should have one more term… because I do not want our immature democracy to be damaged.”

Was it just coincidence that such vocal support for the establishment party was made just days after the tete-a-tete between monks and the military?

Monks in Burma cannot vote but they are nonetheless a potentially powerful political force who could guide voters towards supporting a particular party.

The government is aware of this, although an Election Law will likely prohibit using religion in an attempt to sway voters. Article 364 of the Constitution also prohibits the “abuse of religion for political purposes.”

Nonetheless, the government’s apparent responsiveness to the wishes of nationalist monks is no doubt part of a carefully considered approach firmly tied to maximizing its electoral popularity come November.