Ma Ba Tha Calls Off Anti-Govt Protests

By Kyaw Phyo Tha & Lawi Weng 12 July 2016

RANGOON — Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha has urged its followers not to stage planned nationwide protests in response to criticism of the organization from the Rangoon Division chief minister, saying that they no longer take his comments seriously.

The request came two days before the association’s deadline to Burmese President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to take action against Rangoon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein after he described the ultranationalist association as “unnecessary” to the country.

Wirathu, a leading Buddhist monk within Ma Ba Tha—which is the Burmese acronym for its full name, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion—told the media after a press conference on July 7 that if the government did not respond before Thursday, July 14, Ma Ba Tha members across the nation would organize demonstrations.

On Tuesday, Sopaka, another Ma Ba Tha senior monk, cryptically echoed this claim to The Irrawaddy, stating that if Phyo Min Thein’s comments did, in fact, represent government policy, then Ma Ba Tha “would do what it had to do.”

However, in a directive also released on Tuesday, Ma Ba Tha said that they had learned that Phyo Min Thein’s comments had been made independently and did not necessarily reflect a government stance concerning the organization.

“Thura Aung Ko, Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture, told the media on July 9 that ‘we don’t have any particular comments [regarding what Phyo Min Thein said], as he was expressing his opinion. In a democracy, everyone has a right to a different opinion,’” the statement said.

“We have learned that [the sentiment that] ‘Ma Ba Tha is not necessary’ is just [held] by Phyo Min Thein and is not state policy. So we see it as Phyo Min Thein’s freedom of expression and we no longer take what he said seriously,” the group added, concluding that Ma Ba Tha branches across Burma need not organize anti-government demonstrations.

Phyo Min Thein recently met with the leading monks of the Sangha Maha Nayaka, a committee appointed by the government to oversee Buddhist monastic discipline, in which the chief minister reportedly further explained his criticism of Ma Ba Tha.

Documents which appeared to have been created in preparation for an upcoming two-day meeting of senior Sangha Maha Nayaka members recently went viral online, revealing that they too had denounced the existence of Ma Ba Tha. Yet The Irrawaddy could not independently verify the authenticity of these documents and Tun Nyunt, the director for Rangoon Division’s department of religion, was not available for comment.

Phyo Min Thein’s criticism has widened a division between those who agreed with his stance against Ma Ba Tha and those loyal to the nationalist organization. His supporters see Ma Ba Tha as a group trying to derail the new government’s plans by instigating conflict between Buddhist and Muslim communities, while the group’s loyalists see it as the guardian of the Buddhism.

Since it was founded in 2014, Ma Ba Tha has garnered international notoriety for its hardline anti-Muslim stance, and has been condemned by rights groups as having propagated hate speech. In 2015, Ma Ba Tha successfully lobbied for the passing of four laws imposing restrictions on religious conversion, polygamy, interfaith marriage and childbirth. Critics have described these “Protection of Race and Religion” measures as discriminating against both women and religious minorities.