Is U Wirathu Poking a ‘Paper Tiger’?

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 25 July 2017

For more than a week, Myanmar ultranationalist monk U Wirathu has been defying government orders to take down Ma Ba Tha signposts in Mandalay, where he remains a leading member of the ultranationalist group.

On July 15, the government’s deadline for removal of any Ma Ba Tha billboards, he said in a video post: “We can’t take them down even for a while, as the dignity, power and integrity of the Ma Ba Tha monks and patriots is behind those signposts. We will protect them with our lives.”

It came across as an open challenge to the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, after the administration delivered its last warning on the eve of the deadline, saying, “if the order is not followed, the government will take action,” and that a refusal to comply “could affect the country’s stability.”

The authorities should not turn a blind eye to the issue as that could potentially create an even worse image of the state of rule of law in the country, making the current government appear as a “paper tiger” in the eyes of the public.

It is perhaps strange that out of hundreds of Ma Ba Tha subchapters across the country, only followers in Mandalay and Karen State have dared to challenge the signpost order. Even the chairman at Ma Ba Tha (Central) in Yangon agreed in writing to adhere to the rule, and removed the signs in question. It rebranded itself “Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation” before the deadline.

Senior monks from the Ma Ba Tha headquarters said the decisions made by those in Mandalay and Karen states were “individual” and did not reflect the beliefs of the movement’s leadership.

They could be correct, as U Wirathu declared he had officially resigned from Ma Ba Tha (Central) on May 28, after the rebranding. He stated that his activities and speeches have nothing to do with the Yangon-based foundation.

Zwekabin Sayadaw, the chairman of Karen State’s Ma Ba Tha, asked on June 11 that Ma Ba Tha be left alone. “We have four armed groups [that have to strike a peace deal with the government] here. If needed, we will use them,” he said. Contrary to U Wirathu, the Sayadaw is not infamous for hate speech against other faiths.

It remains to be seen how the government will take action against U Wirathu this time. Since last year, the NLD government has begun to crack down Ma Ba Tha and U Wirathu systematically.

When the state monks’ authority—Ma Ha Na—announced that Ma Ba Tha was not a lawful association in July 2016, it was a significant blow. Since their establishment in 2013, the association and its members, including U Wirathu, had never been questioned by police, let alone arrested for hate speech against Muslims. The previous U Thein Sein government arguably ignored them, despite a series of incidents of deadly communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims. It is believed that U Wirathu and other firebrand monks from Ma Ba Tha are partly responsible for the tension and violence, and they are the one who give a bad name to the compassionate Buddhism that much of the country believes in.

Since the government’s denouncement, Ma Ba Tha has been keeping a lower profile, dedicating more time to humanitarian relief for Buddhists and their education efforts.

But U Wirathu is yet defiant in the face of government orders. In March, he was banned from preaching for one year due to his criticism of the current government, religious hate speech put forward at a Dhamma talk, and praise on Facebook of suspects involved in the assassination of NLD legal adviser U Ko Ni.

Despite the ban, he appeared onstage with a recording of a past speech playing in the background, and his mouth sealed shut with tape in what he called a “silent sermon.”

The latest rebellion is his refusal to take down Ma Ba Tha signposts in Mandalay.

It is very evident that the government has been taking calculated measures to punish U Wirathu. At the moment, they appear to be weighing the consequences of further action, including division among the Sangha, or widespread criticism from his supporters nationwide.

Despite all the obstacles, the government should not hesitate to proceed if the nationalist monk fails to follow the existing order. They have warned that he will be charged under the monastic association law, which dictates a term of imprisonment from six months to three years. This course of action would send a shock wave amongst nationalists across the country.

On the other hand, the move will be welcomed heartily among the Buddhist community who have despised him for spouting hate, instigating unrest and damaging the religion. It will also serve as a serious warning to those who defy such orders, and might even prod nationalists to learn a bit more about how to be good Buddhists.