Burmese Citizens Show Support for Rangoon Chief Minister

By San Yamin Aung 8 July 2016

RANGOON — Burmese citizens abroad and at home flocked to social media in support of the Rangoon chief minister’s remark that the ultra-nationalist Buddhist group known by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha was “not necessary.”

At a meeting with the Burmese community in Singapore on Sunday, Rangoon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein said that Ma Ba Tha—the self-appointed guardian of race and religion—was not necessary in Burma, because the country already had the state Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee—a clerical council appointed by the government to oversee monastic discipline.

Upon arrival in Rangoon on Wednesday, the chief minister was confronted by a small group of Ma Ba Tha supporters protesting outside of Rangoon International Airport, where he repeated, “We don’t need Ma Ba Tha.”

His comment went viral on Facebook with many users changing their profile photos and sharing pictures that said, “[U] Phyo Min Thein, We stand with You” as well as “Down with Ma Ba Tha Extremists.”

Ko Ko Htin Htin, an engineer working in Singapore, said that Burmese expatriates in Singapore would conduct an online poll to show support for the disintegration of Ma Ba Tha.

“We don’t want Ma Ba Tha and we don’t want their activities,” he said.

Ko Ko Htin Htin said that to prove the votes were credible, the poll would ask that each voter provide their name, national registration card number and birthdate.

“According to recent data from the Burmese Embassy in Singapore, over 200,000 Burmese nationals live here. We will find out how many Burmese people here stand together,” he said.

Founded in 2014, Ma Ba Tha has garnered international notoriety for its hardline anti-Muslim stance, which frequently spills into hate speech. The group has been heavily involved in anti-Rohingya protests around the country, and frequently denounces the persecuted Muslim minority who are denied citizenship in Burma. The country experienced widespread religious violence under the quasi-civilian government of former President Thein Sein, who ruled from 2011-16, and human rights activists have accused members of Ma Ba Tha of inciting the unrest.

Ma Ba Tha has also long opposed State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. During the 2015 general election campaign period, the group actively campaigned against them.

“What did they do for race and religion? All they did was lash out and defame Suu Kyi and her counterparts, which is really coarse. Calling yourself the protectors of race and religion, but doing the opposite—no one accepts this,” Ko Ko Htin Htin said.

“Buddhism is about following the teachings of Buddha, not following the teachings of Ma Ba Tha,” he added.

Ma Ba Tha leaders condemned the Rangoon chief minister’s comments and threatened to hold a nationwide campaign against him.

“We will send a request to President U Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to take action against Rangoon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, who said that Ma Ba Tha is not necessary,” the group said in a public statement released after an urgent meeting called on Thursday at the group’s Rangoon headquarters.

The organization identified July 14 as a deadline for the government reprimand. It also insisted that Ma Ba Tha is a lawful association, claiming that it could be classified as a “non-governmental missionary group,” while describing the Sangha Maha Nayaka as an authoritative clerical organization.

Sayadaw Ashin Issariya, a Mandalay-based monk and former political prisoner, described Ma Ba Tha’s activities as contrary to the institution’s policies and that members have often committed acts of violence for which the group has never taken responsibility.

“What they did does not protect race and religion but tears it down,” the monk said.

“I completely agree with the Rangoon chief minister—but not just because he said it. I would agree if anyone who practiced any religion said, ‘We don’t need Ma Ba Tha,’ because that’s the truth.”