Burma

Religion Ministry Denounces Military Donation to Illegal Buddhist Nationalist Group

By San Yamin Aung 1 July 2019

YANGON—The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture denounced the military’s recent cash donation to the illegal Buddhist nationalist group the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation (formerly known as Ma Ba Tha), calling it an act in direct opposition to decisions made by the clerical governing body the State Sangha Maha Nayaka committee.

The statement, dated June 27, said the 30-million-kyat donation (about US$19, 600) to the group—declared an unlawful organization by the Sangha committee—has been widely seen “as an action against the decision of the committee.”

Yangon Region military commander Major-General Thet Pone donated 30 million kyats to the the group while attending their annual meeting, held on June 17 at their Insein Township headquarters.

Military spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun defended the donation last week, saying that the group is necessary and should be supported in the name of Buddhism.

“We have no other intentions. We will make donations and offer support if we think we should,” he said.

Formerly known as Ma Ba Tha (the Burmese-language acronym for the Association to Protect Race and Religion), the foundation adopted the new name in May 2017 after the state Sangha committee banned the use of the former title and deemed Ma Ba Tha an unlawful association over its promulgation and wide dissemination of religious hate speech, targeted primarily at Muslims; the Sangha said their rhetoric could harm the stability and tranquility of society.

In July 2018 clerical authorities deemed the renamed foundation illegal as well and banned all activities done under its name.

After the annual meeting the foundation released a statement in which it denounced the government for its prosecution of firebrand monk U Wirathu, who has been in hiding since an arrest warrant was issued against him in late May, and also called for a rejection of the civilian  government.

The religious affairs ministry’s statement said the foundation’s call for “the rejection of the current administration by any means necessary sounds like a threat to destroy a democratic government,” and called for the public’s support in preventing the group from carrying out such demands.

The ministry also said that U Wirathu, who played a prominent role in Ma Ba Tha, attempted to incite disaffection with the government and the State Counselor and made the “outrageous claim” that military-appointed parliamentarians should be “worshipped as gods” for safeguarding the nation at an anti-constitutional amendment rally in Yangon on May 5. They cited the fugitive monk’s hate speech in several additional previous sermons as well.

U Wirathu has been charged with sedition under the Penal Code’s Article 124(a).

“If we can’t eliminate the illegal organizations that are exacerbating political, racial, religious and social issues under the so-called protection of race and religion in a timely way, it will irretrievably damage the image of race and religion,” the ministry said.

“Thus, we would like to call the public to support the cleaning up of the Sangha [Sangha reform].”

In response to the ministry’s announcement, the military’s spokesperson told The Irrawaddy on Monday that its stance on the group won’t change.

In recent interviews with The Irrawaddy, veteran lawyer and co-founder of the Myanmar Lawyers Network U Kyee Myint and legal expert U Khin Maung Myint have said the military’s support of the group is illegal.

Irrawaddy senior reporter Htet Naing Zaw contributed to this report.

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