Burma

Ma Ba Tha is a Necessity: Military

By Htet Naing Zaw 19 June 2019

NAYPYITAW—The spokesperson for the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw), Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, explained the military’s recent cash donation to Myanmar’s leading Buddhist nationalist group by saying the group is necessary and should be supported in the name of Buddhism.

At a meeting Monday, the Yangon Region military commander personally donated 30 million kyats (US$19,600) to the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation—formerly known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha—as nearly 1,000 Buddhist monks and their followers from across the country gathered at the group’s headquarters, in Yangon’s Insein Township, for their annual meeting.

The donation came just after the group denounced  the Union government’s sedition lawsuit against their leader, the firebrand and ultranationalist monk U Wirathu, who has been in hiding since an arrest warrant was issued against him late last month.

Ma Ba Tha was born in 2012 out of the 969 movement, a nationalist campaign that called for the boycott of Muslim-owned businesses. In 2013, 969 members rebranded the group as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, which came to be better known as Ma Ba Tha.

The row between Ma Ba Tha and the current National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government erupted when Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, addressing a gathering in Singapore of Myanmar citizens living in the Asian city-state in June 2016, described the group as “unnecessary.”

Later, the State-backed Buddhist cleric organization Ma Ha Na declared Ma Ba Tha an unlawful organization and, in May 2017, banned the group from operating under its current name.

The group has since rebranded itself as the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation. “This foundation is a Sangha [Buddhist clergy] organization, and we made the donation for the Sangha. The Tatmadaw will make donations to organizations which it thinks are necessary for our religion,” Brig-Gen. Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy. “We will make donations and support the organizations which we think we should.”

Quoting Article 34 of the 2008 Constitution, he said the group’s religious freedom is legally protected so long as they do not break the law or harm public order, morality or health.

“Does our donation harm the public order, morality or health?” Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun asked.

“We have no other intentions. We will make donations and offer support if we think we should.” Some of the group’s leading members, including U Wirathu, have sermonized against Muslims, claiming the country’s Buddhist foundations are under assault from Islam. In May, a crowd of around 200 Buddhist nationalists surrounded and forcibly shut down temporary sites of worship that Muslims had gathered at for Ramadan in Yangon’s South Dagon Township.

When The Irrawaddy asked if it appeared at all awkward to the Tatmadaw to be making a donation to an organization that, especially recently, openly opposes the current, civilian-led government, Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun replied that the timing was purely coincidental.

“All citizens know who made what donations with what intentions. I don’t want to give a remark,” NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt said when asked for the citizen government’s views on the Donation.

“The Tatmadaw donating to such a [group] amounts to adding fuel to the fire” of public concern over the nationalist group’s incendiary rhetoric, said U Kyee Myint, a lawyer in Yangon. “Even though they said that they donated to the Sangha, they in fact donated money to an anti- government rally. No matter how they described it, it added fuel to the fire.”

Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun said that, despite the widely-held perception of Ma Ba Tha as an anti-Muslim organization, the organization’s only intention is to protect race and religion.

Leading Ma Ba Tha figures have given sermons claiming that Muslims are threatening to outnumber Buddhists in Myanmar, and U Wirathu was banned from Facebook last year for his fiery posts against Muslims.

“Sayadaw U Wirathu previously supported [the NLD]. He was a dissident in the time of the Tatmadaw government,” he said. “It is not that he has changed sides only now. He has worked for the cause of race and religion from the very beginning.”

Religion is deeply embedded in the history of Myanmar, he said, citing the example of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association—one of the first organizations founded by lay Buddhist groups to preserve the Buddhism-based culture of Myanmar during British colonialism. Their mission centered on race and religion, which sounds radical today, he said.

“I am not speaking for the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation, but may I ask: does any objective or activity of theirs go against public order, morality or health?” he said.

Tatmadaw chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing has donated to U Wirathu, among other monks, in the past. When a picture of them and other monks attending a donation ceremony for the Mandalay monastery where U Wirathu lives in 2016 went viral online, Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was publicly criticized.

Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun said the military chief was donating to the clergy, not just to U Wirathu.

In a statement released after Monday’s meeting, the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation denounced State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for entering a pagoda precinct in Magwe where women are traditionally prohibited.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.

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