NLD Government Needs to Shut Down Ma Ba Tha Affiliates

By The Irrawaddy 19 January 2017

It was a delight for many Burmese to see the fall of Ma Ba Tha, arguably the country’s most infamous ultranationalist group, after it was denounced by the state-backed leading Buddhist cleric council in July last year. The group is made up of Buddhist monks and thug-like followers, its sub-chapters spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric across the country since 2014. After the virtual demise of the group that tarnished Buddhism’s reputation internationally, Burma saw a wane in the expression of such religious nationalism by and large for nearly six months.

But the delight was short-lived. Last week, a Muslim religious ceremony in Pyay, Bago Division, which was commemorating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, was forced by nationalist protesters to cancel. The same thing also occurred in Rangoon.

This time the government, in contrast to former President U Thein Sein’s administration, was quick to take action in Pyay. Police are now preparing to file a lawsuit against 12 members of the Rangoon division of the Nationalist Coalition Group—an association believed to be one of Ma Ba Tha’s sub-chapters—after Union Minister for Religious Affairs U Aung Ko instructed them to take legal measures against those involved in the disturbance.

It could be said that fighting against rising nationalism, and particularly against anti-Muslim sentiment, is more important today than other times in modern Burmese history, particularly in the aftermath of attacks by Muslim militants on police outposts in Arakan State in October. A report published by the International Crisis Group about the incidents alleged that the perpetrators had international ties. It described the emergence of the insurgent group as a “game changer” in the Burmese government’s “effort to address Rakhine State’s complex challenges, including longstanding discrimination against the Muslim population.”

The recent actions carried out by nationalist groups intended to halt Muslim religious ceremonies is, quite simply, discrimination against Muslims’ rights. Such actions could be exploited by jihadist groups outside the country, leading to potential threats to stability and development in Burma.

With the ongoing volatility of the situation in Arakan State, we reject any actions that could provoke intercommunal violence throughout in the country. After nearly six months of relative silence, perhaps the Buddhist nationalist groups were testing the waters in order to make a comeback. With no obligation to tolerate anyone trying to instigate interreligious violence, the government should not hesitate to quell them.

Burma suffered enough of such tragedies in 2012, when, in Arakan State alone, Buddhist and Muslim communities experienced 100 deaths and around 140,000 people were displaced—a disproportionate number of whom were Muslim.

The Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government deserves praise for reining in nationalists by disowning Ma Ba Tha, which was founded before her administration came to office. But the NLD government needs to do more to shut down Ma Ba Tha affiliates across the country, making sure that there will be no resurrection of the organization in the future. The demise of these nationalists will not only bode well for more harmonious interfaith relations throughout Burma, but also for the continued survival of a compassionate Buddhism, in which much of the country believes.