Buddhist Nationalists Warn Latest Ban Could Cause Public Discontent

By The Irrawaddy 23 July 2018

YANGON—Myanmar’s biggest nationalist association warned the government and the country’s senior monks that their decision to outlaw the group may cause disunity among the Sangha and lead to a public outcry.

The Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation, formerly known as Ma Ba Tha, declared over the weekend that if such instability were to happen, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture and Ma Ha Na (the State Sangha Council that oversees Buddhist monks in the country) must take responsibility.

The statement follows Ma Ha Na’s five-point proclamation against the group on Friday that included a ban on the use of the association’s name, an order to take down its signposts across the country within a 45-day period and a threat to take legal action against those who fail to abide by the decision.

Friday’s announcement was the third such crackdown on the nationalist group by the National League for Democracy administration in three years, as the government tightens its grip over the nationalist movement. In 2017, the government and the Buddhist clerical authority imposed restrictions on the group’s predecessor, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, banning it from operating under that name and ordering that Ma Ba Tha signboards be taken down across the country. Prior to that, the association was denounced both by the government and the Buddhist clerical authority in 2016 in a ruling that declared Ma Ba Tha was not a “lawful monks’ association” as “it was not formed in accordance with the country’s monastic rules.”

Following last year’s curbs, the association changed its name to the current one, Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation, which the government has just banned again.

Founded in 2014—two years after Myanmar experienced religiously motivated riots largely targeting the Muslim minority—and now with sub-chapters across the country, Ma Ba Tha has become virtually synonymous with Buddhist-led nationalism.

Some of its leading members, including U Wirathu, have preached anti-Muslim sermons, claiming that the country’s Buddhist foundations are under assault, that the Muslim population is outgrowing the Buddhist one, and that Myanmar needs to be vigilant against fundamentalist influences. The nationalist monk was banned from Facebook early this year due to his fiery posts against Muslims.

Established under the previous U Thein Sein administration, Ma Ba Tha was barely touched by the government during that time despite its incitement based on Buddhist nationalism. The association approached the then president to approve the controversial four-part race and religion protection laws. When the laws, which impose restrictions on interfaith marriage, birth spacing, polygamy and conversion, were passed in 2015, Ma Ba Tha celebrated in a grand scale and praised U Thein Sein.

But the association has faced restrictions on its activities since the NLD came to power in 2016. The new government declared Ma Ba Tha an ‘unlawful monk association’ three months after it took the power. Despite the announcement attracting criticism from nationalists, the association and its laymen followers have since kept a low profile apart from some small sit-ins in Yangon and Mandalay. Their warnings about public upheaval never eventuated apart from some small sit-ins in Yangon and Mandalay that were largely denounced by the public. When the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked security outposts in northern Rakhine State last year, the association organized pro-military rallies across the country, claiming that the army was the last institution that could save the country.

In response to the clerical authority’s announcement on Friday, the Ma Ba Tha turned Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation said it is not a separate sangha association but an NGO made up of monks and laymen that sought to support the state, race and religion.

“We haven’t committed any offences as accused so we should not be asked to take down our signposts, and we don’t want to as well,” said the announcement.

Currently, the foundation is sending forms to its sub-chapters across the country asking them if the association should continue with its campaign “to protect the race and religion” as well as to see if the members agree to follow the ban as the association was formed based on “consensus rule.”