New Ma Ba Tha School Teaches Children to ‘Protect Race and Religion’

By Htet Khaung Lynn 3 June 2016

RANGOON — Buddhist monks of the ultra-nationalist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) opened a private high school on the outskirts of Rangoon this week, where they said they would provide free education for children and teach them to “protect race and religion.”

Mahaw Thadar High School in Rangoon’s Hlegu Township has enrolled around 150 children for Grade 9 and will accept more students for Grades 10 and 11 next year, said Ashin Panya Vara, the monk who founded the school.

“I expect these school children will become decent citizens of our country and will protect and safeguard our race and religion,” he told Myanmar Now in an interview at the new facility.

Ashin Panya Vara said the teaching would follow the standard high school curriculum, but also include religious and literary programs taught by monks that would build children’s morals and Buddhist devotion.

At the school’s opening on Wednesday, the monk gave a one-hour speech to children and staff on “morality and code of conduct as citizens.”

The influential Ma Ba Tha movement and several associated nationalist organizations have been accused of spreading hate speech and fanning communal violence against Burma’s Muslim minority in recent years, with claims that Islam is threatening Buddhism.

The group recently held protests to demand that the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government implement harsh government policies towards the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority in Arakan State and that foreign embassies refrain from using the term Rohingya.

Asked whether these views would be impressed upon the young minds of the students, Ashin Panya Vara, one of the Ma Ba Tha leaders, said, “We will not make any comment on other religions, but will talk about the knowledge of our own religion.”

Headmaster Hla Tun, who oversees eight teachers, was also evasive when asked about the teaching of Ma Ba Tha’s divisive message. “I just consider the development of talented children, rather than political or nationalist inspirations,” he said.

“Although the monks from Ma Ba Tha set up the school, we are responsible for both teaching and administrative roles. The school is not intended only for religious motivation,” the headmaster said.

Cho Thar Khaing, a 25-year-old primary school teacher from Thanbyuzayat Township in Mon State, added, “The monks are better at fostering nationalist inspiration. Children need this mindset from childhood.”

The new school bears the name of the young Buddha-to-be, Mahaw Thadar, and was built on 5 acres of land. It features a brand new, five-floor building and two extensions where students receive free meals and lodging. It is registered as a private high school without enrollment fees and outstanding students will be supported as they continue to higher education.

“We had a dream to contribute to the education sector of the country long before, but we could only establish it this school year,” said Ashin Panya Vara.

An agricultural resources company named Maha Myaing donated the land, and the buildings were paid for by the gold mining company Amyotha Kyipwa Toetat Yay, or National Prosperity Company, which has financed many of Ma Ba Tha’s activities.

Khin Htay Kyi, 46, a mother from Mandalay Division’s Yamethin Township, said she had enrolled her son because the monks could give him a good foundation for his future. “I want my child to have a successful life through religious practices and nationalist inspiration,” she said.

Her son Thu Htet Oo, 13, said he was happy to be at the school and rolled off its mantra: “I want to become a citizen who can protect and safeguard his race and religion.”

Ma Ba Tha has risen to prominence in recent years, amid an opening of the Burmese public sphere brought about by political reforms, and received support from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) for a controversial package of four “Race and Religion” laws last year, which are seen as discriminatory against Muslims.

In turn, the monks called on voters to support the USDP in the November elections, which failed to resonate with the public.

This story originally appeared on Myanmar Now.