Yangon Military Chief Donates Nearly $20,000 to Buddhist Nationalist Group

By The Irrawaddy 17 June 2019

YANGON—The military commander of Yangon Region on Monday personally donated 30 million kyats (about US$19,600) to Myanmar’s leading Buddhist nationalist group, which has denounced the government for its prosecution of ultranationalist monk U Wirathu.

Nearly 1,000 Buddhist monks and their followers from across the country gathered at the headquarters of the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation in Insein Township in Yangon on Monday for their annual meeting. 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 government banned the use of the former title.

Major General Thet Pone of the Myanmar military’s Yangon Command attended the gathering, and personally made a donation to the foundation’s senior monks.

According to the gathering’s agenda and an announcement by the foundation, the donation was made by the major general and family members of Yangon Command officers.

Founded in 2014 and led by senior Buddhist monks, Ma Ba Tha and its successor organization have been the most prominent nationalist groups in Myanmar, setting up subchapters across the country to spread their primarily anti-Muslim message. They claim that the foundations of Buddhism, Myanmar’s majority religion, are under assault and urge Buddhists to be vigilant against the influence of other “fundamentalist” religions.

The gathering and donation come at a time of heightened tension between nationalists and the government following the latter’s sedition lawsuit against firebrand monk U Wirathu for his attempts to incite disaffection with the current administration. If he is prosecuted under Article 124(a) of the Penal Code, he faces seven to 20 years in prison, or a fine. The monk has been on the run since the arrest warrant against him was issued late last month. Buddhist monks and laypeople havestaged ralliesin Yangon and other areas to show support for U Wirathu and denounce the prosecution.

In a statement released after the meeting, the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation said, among other things, that it “seriously condemned” the prosecution on behalf of the Buddhist clergy, describing the lawsuit as “a lawless action by the democratic government.”

Prior to the prosecution, nationalists staged pro-military rallies across the country to show their solidarity with the military when international pressure against Myanmar’s armed forces was mounting for its excessive use of force against Rohingya in Rakhine. When the military complained about the ruling National League for Democracy’s efforts to initiate the constitutional amendment process in Parliament this year, the nationalists took to the streets to show their support for the military. U Wirathu took part in a series of rallies condemning the government and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

In the past, military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made a donation to U Wirathu along with other monks. When a picture of him with U Wirathu and other monks at a donation ceremony in 2016 went viral online, the armed forces chief came under public criticism.

Referring to the controversial picture, military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said recently that the military chief was donating to the clergy, not just to U Wirathu.

“He would do the same with any Buddhist monk,” he said.

Apart from Yangon Region Command, another well-wisher at Monday’s gathering was fugitive U Soe Tun Shein, the chairman of National Prosperity Co., a gold mining company, who paid for lunch for the 1,000 assembled monks, according to an announcement made at the gathering. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation filed a lawsuit against U Soe Tun Shein last year for allegedly violating a mining law.

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