RANGOON — Aung Ko, Burma’s new religious affairs minister, has twice in less than a week stirred controversy, with the latest involving his visit to nationalist Buddhist monks from the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion on Monday in Rangoon, including the firebrand U Wirathu.
Ashin Nya Neinda, a spokesperson from the organization better known by its acronym Ma Ba Tha, told The Irrawaddy that Aung Ko met eight senior monks from the Buddhist nationalist group on Monday before later meeting Wirathu. The spokesman did not provide details on what was discussed at the meetings.
“Our country’s majority are Buddhists. Eighty-five percent of the population in the country is Buddhist. Therefore, he came to visit our senior monks,” said Ashin Nya Neinda.
“Our senior monks told him to work for justice, and better treatment of other religions as our country has other religions,” he said.
A Facebook account linked to Ma Ba Tha posted photos from Aung Ko’s visit to a monastery in Rangoon’s Insein Township, where he appeared to offer a cash donation to the monks. One photo posted to the Ma Ba Tha Facebook shows Aung Ko bowing before the monk Wirathu in a traditional gesture of deference.
Some Facebook users criticized the minister’s visit to members of Ma Ba Tha, a group that was blacklisted in a 2015 US budget bill. The spending legislation states that US funding to Burma “may not be made available to any organization or individual the Secretary of State determines and reports to the appropriate congressional committees advocates violence against ethnic or religious groups and individuals in Burma, including such organizations as Ma Ba Tha.”
Tun Nyunt, who is a director of the Religious Affairs and Culture Ministry and joined the minister on his trip, said the visit was routine.
“[It was] just to pay a visit to them, and there was nothing special about the visit. He became a new minister, and he went for introductions,” said Tun Nyunt.
Aung Ko was a member of Burma’s junta regime and later served as a senior member of the formerly ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). He was one of two USDP members appointed to the National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s cabinet.
Aung Ko’s visit to the Ma Ba Tha monks came just two days after he suggested that Muslims in the country were not full Burmese citizens, drawing criticism from Islamic organizations both overseas and within Burma.
The former USDP government was accused by local rights groups and the international community of suppressing non-Buddhist religions including Christians and Muslims, the latter group also being a target of Ma Ba Tha.
Wirathu has been at the fore of anti-Islamic rhetoric in Burma in recent years and the Buddhist nationalist group last year all but endorsed the incumbent USDP over the NLD, viewing the latter as “weak” on the matter of protecting Burma’s majority Buddhist character.
Ma Ba Tha was a leading sponsor of legislation passed last year that was widely viewed as discriminating against Burma’s Muslims, including legislative measures to reduce the reproductive rights of the religious minority and restrict interfaith marriage.
Ma Ba Tha members have also been vocal critics of the international media’s coverage of the Rohingya crisis in western Arakan State, rallying demonstrators to protest against the United Nations and international news networks, which they accused of mischaracterizing inter-communal violence and discrimination. Ma Ba Tha, like the former USDP government, denies that Rohingya Muslims constitute a legitimate ethnic group.
Asked if the new minister on Monday discussed interreligious dynamics in Burma, Ashin Nya Neinda said they had not, but might bring up the issue at a later date.