State-Backed Monks’ Council Decries Ma Ba Tha as ‘Unlawful’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha & San Yamin Aung 13 July 2016

RANGOON — Burma’s leading state-backed cleric organization, Ma Ha Na, has announced that the ultranationalist group Ma Ba Tha is not a “lawful monks’ association” as “it was not formed in accordance with the country’s monastic rules.”

In a public statement made on Tuesday night, Ma Ha Na—short for the Sangha Maha Nayaka, a government-appointed council of monks which oversees Buddhist monastic discipline in the country—also denied Ma Ba Tha’s claim last week that it was formed as an “offshoot” of a 2013 conference of Buddhist clerics attended by multiple orders within the Sangha.

“We have had five All-Order Sangha meetings so far since 1980. In none of those meetings, was the name ‘Ma Ba Tha’ mentioned, nor was there the recognition and formation of Ma Ba Tha,” the statement said.

Burma has nine major Sangha Orders, and Ma Ha Na is made up of 47 senior monks from within those orders.

Signed by the 14 senior monks, including the chairman of the organization, the announcement added that there should be only one Sangha organization in the country—Ma Ha Na—in accordance with the Sangha charter.

Wirathu, a leading Ma Ba Tha monk known for engaging in anti-Muslim hate speech, responded to Ma Ha Na’s announcement with his own statement on Wednesday portraying Ma Ba Tha as the “last bastion of Theravada Buddhism.”

“I don’t feel anything special regarding their statement, as senior monks within Ma Ha Na are part of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and they were just following the government’s wishes,” he said.

Wirathu also declared that, as a “typical nationalist,” he would continue “protecting race and religion” until his death.

Sopaka, another high-ranking Buddhist monk within Ma Ba Tha, told The Irrawaddy that he had no further comment regarding Ma Ha Na’s announcement, simply admitting that “what Ma Ha Na said was true.”

Founded in 2014, Ma Ba Tha is led by Buddhist monks and is infamous for its hardline anti-Muslim stance. Its name comes from the Burmese acronym for its full title, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion; since its formation, the organization has built a network across the country.

The state Sangha organization’s Tuesday night announcement came one week after Rangoon Division Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein publically described Ma Ba Tha as “not necessary” in Burma. His criticism sparked condemnation from Ma Ba Tha, which demanded that the country’s President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi take action against the minister for his criticism, threatening to stage nationwide protests if their July 14 deadline was not met. Yet Ma Ba Tha’s leaders called off the protest on Tuesday, saying that they no longer took Phyo Min Thein’s comments seriously.

Htin Lin Oo, a former NLD member who was sentenced two years in prison in 2015 for criticizing Ma Ba Tha, told The Irrawaddy that he believed the Ma Ha Na’s denouncement of the group could serve to reduce the religious intolerance that he feels has become more prominent in Burma since Ma Ba Tha’s formation.

“I don’t like Ma Ba Tha. As a Buddhist, I am very sad to see Buddhist monks’ involvement in laymen’s affairs,” Htin Lin Oo said, referring to Ma Ba Tha’s lobbying which led to the passing of four controversial laws placing restrictions on religious conversion, interfaith marriage, polygamy and childbirth. These “Protection of Race and Religion” measures have been condemned by rights groups as discriminating against women and religious minorities.

“Buddhist monks have to be free of any racial bias,” he added, referring to how, in Burma, religious discrimination and persecution is known to cross ethnic lines.