RANGOON — Nearly a dozen Buddhist nationalists loyal to Ma Ba Tha gathered outside Rangoon International Airport to await the arrival of the Rangoon Division Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein from Singapore on Wednesday evening.
The group was there to protest the chief minister’s recent criticism of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, popularly known by the Burmese language acronym Ma Ba Tha.
At a meeting with the Burmese community in Singapore on Sunday, the chief minister had said the Buddhist ultra-nationalist group was “not necessary, because we’ve already got the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee”—the clerical council that oversees monastic discipline in Burma, whose members are appointed by the government.
The video file of the meeting went viral on Facebook, attracting diverse reactions.
The protesters at the airport held placards condemning the chief minister’s comments.
“We believe Ma Ba Tha should exist because they are the guardians of Buddhism,” said one of the protesters.
“We are not Ma Ba Tha members but we believe in Ma Ba Tha,” she added.
Phyo Min Thein’s convoy was welcomed at the airport by members of the ruling National League for Democracy. As he rolled down the car window to greet them, journalists on the scene asked him to comment on the nationalists’ protest. His response echoed the sentiments he shared in Singapore: “We don’t need Ma Ba Tha.”
Ma Ba Tha, which is led by conservative monks, has an extensive network of branches across the country. Since it was founded in 2014, the group has garnered international notoriety for its hardline anti-Muslim stance, which frequently spills into hate speech.
Last year, the group successfully lobbied for the passing of a set of four “Protection of Race and Religion” laws—imposing restrictions on religious conversion, polygamy, interfaith marriage and childbirth—which rights groups have slammed for discriminating against women and religious minorities.