The Irrawaddy

Wirathu Urges Followers to Persevere After Govt Moves To Curb Ultra-nationalism

Hardline Buddhist monk U Wirathu at a Ma Ba Tha meeting in July 2016. (Photo: Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON— Burma’s infamous firebrand Buddhist monk U Wirathu urged his followers to find a solution to the struggles of the nationalist movement in a video published on his Facebook Tuesday night.

His move came hours after the State Buddhist Sangha authority ordered Burma’s biggest religious ultra-nationalist group the Association for Protection of Race and Religion—better known as Ma Ba Tha, of which U Wirathu is a figurehead—to cease its activities.

Ma Ba Tha was preparing for celebrations in Rangoon to mark the fourth anniversary of the organization’s founding but released a statement after Tuesday’s announcement that it would no longer hold the event on May 27 and 28 as planned.

The organization instead urged members to attend Rangoon headquarters to be briefed on Ma Ha Na’s decision. In his Tuesday video, U Wirathu called on all Ma Ba Tha members across the country to congregate in Rangoon to plan the association’s future.

“In either politics or warfare, there is no such thing as an impasse,” he said. “There’s always a solution.”

The State Sangha Maha Nayaka, known as Ma Ha Na, also ordered Ma Ba Tha on Tuesday to remove its banners and signage across the country by mid-July. Two leading Ma Ba Tha monks signed the notice by Ma Ha Na, agreeing to comply with the order.

It was the second action taken by the state Buddhist authority after its announcement last year that Ma Ba Tha was not a “lawful monks’ association” as “it was not formed in accordance with the country’s monastic rules.”

Founded in 2014—two years after Burma experienced religiously motivated riots largely targeting the Muslim minority—and now with sub-chapters across the country, Ma Ba Tha has become virtually synonymous with Buddhist ultra-nationalism.

Some of its well-known figures, including U Wirathu, have preached anti-Muslim sermons to claim the country’s Buddhist foundations are under threat, that the Muslim population is outpacing the Buddhists, and that Burma needs to be vigilant against the influence.

Muslims make up about 4.3 percent of Burma’s population according to the 2014 census.

Ma Ba Tha has been criticized at home and abroad for lobbying for the country’s controversial race and religion laws enacted in 2015. Despite their public anti-Muslim preaching, Ma Ba Tha outlived the previous Thein Sein government, which was criticized for turning a blind eye to the association’s actions.

Regarding Ma Ha Na’s move, U Aung Ko, the minister of religious affairs and culture, told media on Wednesday it was a “sufficient” move for the current situation.

“Various extremist [nationalist] groups under the label of religion have been involved in a number of activities which threaten stability and law enforcement in the community,” U Aung Ko said.

However, Ma Ba Tha denied any involvement in a midnight confrontation between Buddhist nationalists and Muslim residents near downtown Rangoon earlier this month.

Leading monks of Ma Ba Tha are relatively reasonable while the association’s monks and laypersons on the ground, in many subchapters with many different names, often practice religious extremism, he added.

He mentioned nationalist groups including the Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita, which was recently formed by Ma Ba Tha members in late April, as well as the Nationalist Buddhist Monks Organization and the Patriotic Buddhist Monks Union.

U Aung Ko also alleged that “a group of people” or “organization” that wants to reverse the political process back towards dictatorship is supporting and masterminding these nationalist groups, though he acknowledged this was speculation he could not confirm independently.

Additional reporting by Kyaw Phyo Tha in Rangoon and Htet Naing Zaw in Naypyidaw.