The Irrawaddy

Ma Ba Tha Denies Involvement in Recent Anti-Muslim Violence

Buddhist monks from the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, also known as Ma Ba Tha, gather at Thuwunna Stadium in Rangoon on Oct. 4 to commemorate the enactment of protection of Race and Religion Laws. (Photo: Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON— Burma’s leading nationalist group denied involvement in a recent midnight confrontation between Buddhist nationalists and Muslim residents near downtown Rangoon that prompted authorities to issue arrest warrants for the alleged perpetrators.

The Association for Protection Race and Religion—commonly known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha—released a statement on Thursday after it attracted accusations that it was behind a nationalist mob in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township on Tuesday night claiming ethnic Muslim Rohingya were in Rangoon “illegally.”

The statement argued “people who don’t like Ma Ba Tha just blame us whenever something bad happens.”

Ashin U Sopaka, a leading member of Ma Ba Tha, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the group behind the Tuesday night confrontation—the Patriotic Monks Union— was not connected to his association.

“We have nothing to do with them. As both are run by Buddhist monks, people confuse Ma Ba Tha and the Patriotic Monks Union as the same group,” he said.

The Patriotic Monks Union attracted attention in the last few years for their attacks on Muslim vendors doing business near Buddhist pagodas. They were also involved in staging demonstrations in collaboration with other nationalist groups against ethnic Muslim Rohingya.

Their most recent actions—and probably the biggest yet—were to organize the shutdown of two madrasas in Rangoon’s Thaketa Township last month and Tuesday’s violence.

The union’s leader and following is unknown, but monk U Thuseitta, who has had a warrant issued for his arrest, is known to be secretary of the group.

“[The union] only work for nationalism,” said U Sopaka. “They have their own approaches and we have our own,” he added.

During a press conference held by the union on Thursday, U Thuseitta said the Patriotic Monks Union and other nationalist forces were behind Tuesday’s actions. “It was not by Ma Ba Tha. We did it,” he admitted.

Founded in 2014—two years after Burma had been plunged into religious conflict between Buddhists and Muslims, and with sub-chapters across the country—Ma Ba Tha has become virtually synonymous with nationalism.

Some of its leading members, including U Wirathu, preached anti-Muslim sermons, claiming that the country’s Buddhist foundations are under assault, the Muslim population is outpacing the Buddhist one and that Burma needs to be vigilant against fundamentalist influences.

The association was criticized at home and abroad for lobbying for the controversial race and religion laws. Despite their anti-Muslim preaching and activities, Ma Ba Tha outlived the previous Thein Sein government, which was criticized for turning a blind eye on the association’s actions.

The association was outlawed last year a few months after the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led government came to power as “it was not formed in accordance with the country’s monastic rules.”

Since then, Ma Ba Tha has been low key, focusing more on charity work.

In late April, however, they reorganized one of their subchapters “Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita” as a vigilance society—led by senior Ma Ba Tha monks— mostly with laymen to protect race and religion “when it comes to cases in which Buddhist monks can’t be involved.”