YANGON • Myanmar's minister for religion has warned ultra-nationalist monks to avoid hate speech, in a government rebuke to Buddhist hardliners behind anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The warning came after a firebrand monk from the Ma Ba Tha movement on Wednesday decried Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi as a "dictator" intent on bringing down the Buddhist group.
Anti-Muslim tirades by the monk-led group are blamed for a surge in sectarian hatred across the country, which has seen repeated bouts of religious violence.
The group's rise to power under the former military-backed government went virtually unchecked, with its leaders organising mass rallies and social media vilification of Muslims. But their star has waned recently. Myanmar's ruling council of monks has formally distanced itself from the group for the first time, raising speculation that the network could be disbanded.
New religion minister Aung Ko yesterday added a warning against "people spreading hate speech". Ma Ba Tha's "future may be uncertain if they spread hate speech to create conflicts between religions... and among races," he said, adding that "the government is trying to create stability".
It was the first time a top minister from Ms Suu Kyi's administration publicly tackled the group, whose influence was credited with swaying the Nobel laureate against fielding any Muslim candidates in November's polls.
Ms Suu Kyi had disappointed rights groups during her first few months in power for failing to strongly condemn religious intolerance, including the destruction of two mosques by Buddhist mobs. She has also faced criticism for not throwing her moral weight behind the Rohingya - a Muslim minority denied citizenship and targeted by waves of violence in 2012.
Ma Ba Tha has, in recent weeks, revived its campaign against the persecuted group, who it insists are illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Last month, Ms Suu Kyi sought to placate hardline Buddhists by ordering officials to avoid the term Rohingya and to refer to the group as "Muslims of Rakhine State" instead. But Ma Ba Tha rejected that phrase and organised protests demanding that the group be referred to as "Bengalis".
Myanmar is set to release census data next week and analysts are concerned that Buddhist hardliners may whip up discontent if the figures show the country's Muslim minority is larger than expected.