Ma Ba Tha Embraces Political Fray, Risking Election Year Sanction

By Moe Myint 9 June 2015

RANGOON — An increasingly assertive Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, the prominent Buddhist nationalist group better known as Ma Ba Tha, risks running afoul of the law as elections approach later this year, according to a law expert, with some politicians questioning the group’s mixing of religion and politics.

Local media last week reported that the spokesperson for Ma Ba Tha’s Rangoon chapter said if any political party “didn’t support Buddhism,” the organization would urge voters to boycott the party in Burma’s general election, which is expected in November.

In a phone interview with The Irrawaddy on Friday, the spokesman Ashin ParMoukKha reiterated the position, saying Ma Ba Tha would subject the ruling party, its allies and opposition parties to the same scrutiny. The monk added that Ma Ba Tha had organized members in more than half of Burma’s cities, and could quickly mobilize a campaign against any political party deemed unsupportive of Buddhism.

An article in the May issue of the monthly MawKun magazine, headlined “Analyzing Ma Ba Tha,” further quoted the firebrand Mandalay Ma Ba Tha leader U Wirathu as saying the group would not hesitate to speak out against the government if it didn’t support Buddhism.

U Wirathu and his fellow Ma Ba Tha members have been accused of stoking anti-Muslim sentiment among Buddhists in Burma, where violence between the two faith communities has marred the country’s democratic transition.

Ma Ba Tha’s politicization of Buddhism is not a new development. The group has been instrumental in pushing for the passage of a set of four “Race and Religion Protection” bills, which are ostensibly aimed at preserving the religious fabric of majority-Buddhist Burma but have been decried by some as an affront to women’s rights.

As Burma’s general election nears, however, Ma Ba Tha may need to dial back its rhetoric, with an Election Law coming into effect that will likely prohibit using religion in an attempt to sway voters.

Aung Thein, a lawyer with more than 35 years of professional experience, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that he did not believe Ma Ba Tha would face imminent sanction because the Union Election Commission (UEC) has not yet announced a date for Election Day, when the Election Law will officially be enforced. He said, nonetheless, that Ma Ba Tha’s recent statements, if made during the period that the Election Law covers, would likely violate an article of its chapter on election offences.

The legislation’s 2015 iteration is yet to be finalized, but will likely be modeled after its 2010 forerunner.

An unofficial translation of the 2010 Election Law makes illegal “uttering, making speeches, making declarations and instigating to vote or not to vote on grounds of race and religion or by abetment of such acts,” with a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine not exceeding 100,000 kyats (US$83)

Asked on Tuesday if Ma Ba Tha might be in violation the Election Law, Ko Ko, chairman of the Rangoon divisional election subcommission, did not specifically address the organization’s statements, telling The Irrawaddy only that every citizen must obey the law.

Ko Ko did, however, indicate that such activities would also contravene Burma’s Constitution.

The Constitution’s Article 364 states: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”

Aung Thein, who is also a spokesman for the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network, described Ma Ba Tha’s forays into Burma’s political arena as “inappropriate.”

“The monks don’t even have the right to vote, why should they take action in that way? [It is] inappropriate for a monk.”

The lawyer said he did not have a sense of whether Ma Ba Tha had a political party preference, but added that it would likely be easier to infer this as election campaigning kicked off.

Aung Thein warned that the organization risked triggering political stability—and potentially delaying the election—if it followed through on its boycott campaign pledge.

That concern, being voiced not for the first time, was dismissed on Monday by UEC chairman Tin Aye, who called timely elections a “must-do.”

Saw Than Myint, the deputy chairman of the Federal Union Party (FUP), echoed Aung Thein’s disapproval of Ma Ba Tha’s merging of religion and politics, saying it was a particularly toxic brew in Burma’s racially charged environment. Calling the nationalist group’s activities “extremist,” he urged the UEC to sanction any violator of the Election Law during the official election period.

“Nobody should be above the law,” said Saw Than Myint, who is also spokesman for the National Brotherhood Federation, an alliance of ethnic political parties that includes the FUP.

Offering his own view and not on behalf of his party, National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker Phyo Min Thein said he considered Ma Ba Tha’s statement, first reported by local media in Pathein, to be unlawful.

“Self-defensiveness is good but should not be used for targeted abuse of others,” he told The Irrawaddy. “People should be self-aware that some activities reflect on ourselves negatively.”

The Irrawaddy was unable to contact Burma’s highest religious authority, the government-appointed State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee.

Asked whether he was concerned about violating the Constitution or Election Law, Ashin ParMoukKha said he was not familiar with the Election Law, but added that “we monks also dislike the 2008 Constitution.”

“We didn’t clash with Article 364, because we didn’t say any party name,” he claimed.