Ma Ba Tha Changes Name, Still Officially Illegal

By Moe Moe 3 September 2018

NAYPYITAW — The Buddha Dhamma Charity Foundation, formerly called the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, which was better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, will fade away without government intervention, said Union religious affairs minister U Aung Ko, reaffirming its illegitimacy.

“Despite the name change, the illegal organization remains illegal,” the minister told reporters at the Upper House on Friday.

Ma Ba Tha was born in 2012 out of the 969 movement, a nationalist campaign that called for the boycott of Muslim-owned businesses. In 2013, 969 members rebranded the group as the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, which came to be better known as Ma Ba Tha.

The nationalist group was successful in advocating former president U Thein Sein to approve a controversial set of four laws on race and religion that imposed restrictions on interfaith marriage, birth spacing, polygamy and conversion, believed to be targeted at Muslims.

The row between Ma Ba Tha and the National League for Democracy (NLD) government erupted when Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein described the group as “unnecessary” while addressing a gathering of Myanmar residents in Singapore in June 2016.

Later the state-backed cleric organization Ma Ha Na announced that Ma Ba Tha was an unlawful organization and in May 2017, it banned the group from operating under its current name and ordered that its signboards be taken down across the country by July 15 of last year.

Since then, Ma Ba Tha has rebranded itself as the Buddha Dhamma Charity Foundation. However, some Ma Ba Tha chapters in Mandalay and Karen State’s Hpa-an refused to take down their signboards and still operate under the name “Ma Ba Tha.”

U Aung Ko said he has no plan to forcibly take down the Ma Ba Tha signboards in Mandalay and Hpa-an, saying that unlawful organizations that do not win public support will fade away over time.

He also criticized a rally of Buddhist nationalists in Yangon in the second week of August against Ma Ha Na’s order to the Buddha Dhamma Charity Foundation to take down its signs within 45 days.

“They held the rally because there are no supporters or there are only a few supporters,” said U Aung Ko.

Ashin Sopaka, the foundation’s spokesperson, told The Irrawaddy: “Our association will never fade away. We will continue working for our race and religion like we are doing now.”

The association is working in line with the law, and therefore, nothing can be done to it, said the monk.

“I have nothing to say if the foundation is formed with good intentions and it does not incite racial or religious hatred,” said U Thant Zin Tun, NLD lawmaker of Naypyitaw Union Territory’s Dekkhinathiri Township.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.