YANGON — Hundreds of Buddhist nationalists gathered in Yangon on Saturday to protest against an edict from the state Buddhist clerics authority banning Myanmar’s leading nationalist organization and ordering it to take down its signs by next month.
The clerics authority, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka, or Ma Ha Na, decided last month to ban the country’s largest nationalist group, the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, formerly called the Association to Protect Race and Religion but better known by its Myanmar acronym Ma Ba Tha.
The Ma Ha Na’s five-point proclamation against the group also included a ban on all activities under the foundation’s name, an order to take down its signposts across the country within 45 days and a threat to take legal action against those who failed to comply.
In response to the proclamation, the foundation warned the government and the country’s senior monks that the ban could cause disunity among the Sangha and spark a public outcry. It also sent forms to its chapters across the country asking them if the foundation should continue with its campaign “to protect race and religion” or comply with the proclamation, noting that the organization was founded on the principle of consensus rule.
During Saturday’s rally in Yangon, organized by Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita, an affiliate of the Ma Ba Tha, several hundred supporters of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation expressed their wish that the organization continue to exist.
“Do you agree that the foundation should exist to protect race and religion?” an organizer asked the audience of Buddhist monks and laymen three times in succession.
“Yes we do!” they replied in unison.
U Thein Aung, the chairman of Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita, told the media that his group wanted the foundation to persist so that it could continue to protect race and religion. Formed in April 2017, the group is made up largely of laymen and led by senior Ma Ba Tha monks dedicated to “protecting” race and religion “when it comes to cases in which Buddhist monks can’t be involved.”
“If we are under pressure [from the government], we will consult with our senior leaders for negotiations. The last thing we want is to not take the signposts down,” U Thein Aung said.
Ashin Sopaka, a leading monks of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that several groups including Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita were gathering input from members on whether the foundation should disband. He said the foundation would announce the results before the 45-day deadline expires.
“We will move forward depending on the public consensus,” he said.
Founded in 2014 — two years after religiously motivated riots largely targeting Myanmar’s Muslim minority — and now with chapters across the country, Ma Ba Tha has become virtually synonymous with Buddhist-led nationalism.
Some of its leading members, including U Wirathu, have preached anti-Muslim sermons, claiming that the country’s Buddhist foundations are under assault, that Muslims are threatening to outnumber Buddhists, and that Myanmar needs to be vigilant against fundamentalist influences. The nationalist monk was banned from Facebook early this year due to his fiery posts against Muslims.
Ma Ba Tha was mostly tolerated under the previous administration of President U Thein Sein despite its inflammatory practices. The association approached the then-president to approve a controversial set of four laws on race and religion that imposed restrictions on interfaith marriage, birth spacing, polygamy and conversion. When the laws were passed in 2015, Ma Ba Tha celebrated with a large public rally and praised U Thein Sein.
But the association has faced restrictions since the National League for Democracy came to power in 2016. The new government declared Ma Ba Tha an “unlawful monk association” after only three months in office. Though the announcement drew criticism from nationalists, the association and its laymen supporters have since kept a low profile. Their warnings of public upheaval never eventuated, apart from a few small sit-ins in Yangon and Mandalay that were largely denounced by the public.
In 2017 Ma Ba Tha changed its name to the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation after the Ma Ha Na’s decision to ban the association. Following that decision, its headquarters in Yangon and some of its chapters elsewhere replaced their signs to reflect the change. But some of the chapters in Karen State and Mandalay Region have kept the old name and signs, claiming that they do not violate Sangha laws or procedures and that they conform with the Constitution and the Association Registration Law.