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Myanmar's nationalist Buddhist monks are the wild card in upcoming elections

Monks attending the Buddhist nationalist Ma Ba Tha celebration on Oct 4, 2015 in Yangon.
Monks attending the Buddhist nationalist Ma Ba Tha celebration on Oct 4, 2015 in Yangon.ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Ma Ba Tha supporters on Oct 4, 2015 in Yangon.
Ma Ba Tha supporters on Oct 4, 2015 in Yangon.ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

It was part pop concert, part cultural show, but a wholly Buddhist nationalist gathering.

Supporters came in the thousands, filling the 30,000-seat Thuwunna Stadium in Yangon and spilling out into the grounds outside, where monks snapped selfies and people milled about helping themselves to free food and water given out by smiling volunteers.

The Oct 4 gathering was the culmination of nationwide celebrations to mark the passage of new laws that the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion - widely known by its Myanmar acronym Ma Ba Tha - had been instrumental in promoting.

 These include a Buddhist Women's Special Marriage Law and a Population Control Law, as well as laws mandating monogamy and restricting religious conversion.

The Ma Ba Tha spent 70 million kyat (S$75,700) on the celebrations.  

 Myanmar has a population of about 51 million. While its commercial capital Yangon has always been cosmopolitan - the city once had a Jewish mayor - the country is overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhist. The proportion of Christians, Muslims and Hindus in the population is not clear but it is small.

 The Ma Ba Tha has some 20 million supporters, claims U Pa Mauk Kha, a senior Yangon-based monk and Ma Ba Tha organiser.

 Politically, the organisation supports any party that has protection of race and religion as its agenda, he adds.

 Political pundits - and some Ma Ba Tha figures themselves, like the monk U Wirathu - say the organisation favours the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).  

That the USDP has tacitly supported the organisation is "very clear", says former monk Ko Chanda, a candidate for the small New Democracy Party in the country's Nov 8 General Election. "Everyone knows," he adds.

Ko Chanda had been   arrested twice by the military under the former regime  for acts of defiance and spent a total of eight years in prison.

The monkhood is part of the fabric of everyday life and a strong influence across Myanmar's Buddhist heartlands. 

 Take 23-year-old Ms Ma Thandar, who is from a village near Yangon.

The monk in her village, she says, has opened the people's eyes to Ma Ba Tha's message that the practice of Buddhism should be strengthened in order to "protect" it against the perceived predatory spread of Islam even in a country where Muslims are thought to make up roughly 10 per cent of the population.  

"He is very influential," she says. "He has been advising us for years, and whatever he says has been good for us."

Ma Ba Tha insists that Muslims are an existential threat.

"Buddhists are the majority but while other religions like Islam and Hinduism and Christianity have laws to protect themselves, Buddhists had none," says Ma Ba Tha's U Pa Mauk Kha.

"Look at Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan. They were once Buddhist. We need to start (protecting) Buddhism now," he adds. 

On Oct 4, supporters marched into the Thuwunna indoor stadium bearing the multicoloured Ma Ba Tha flag and shouted in unison: "We succeeded! We succeeded!"

Inside, a female singer was belting out rousing nationalist songs, her image flashed periodically on a  giant digital screen behind her. In a show of inclusiveness, troupes from several of Myanmar's diverse ethnic groups performed traditional dances before the speeches began.

Among the stalls outside was one selling books on Buddhism, one of which was on the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taleban in 2001. The cover of another shows a young woman looking apprehensive as she faces a huge snarling tiger. The perception of Muslims preying on and bullying Buddhist women is a key element of the Ma Ba Tha's narrative.  

 But the movement is not just about the mercurial, media-savvy U Wirathu or the fiery U Wimala, leader of the 969 movement, which is widely known to have been involved in attacks against Muslims. It has an 80-member committee.

"The Ma Ba Tha includes a spectrum of views, from extremist to moderate," says Mr David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

 In his speech at the Oct 4 rally, Ma Ba Tha's chair, U Tilawkar Biwuntha, said the organisation has been misunderstood.

"We are not extremists," said the 77-year-old, who is mostly referred to as Ywama Sayardaw, his Sangha name. "Sooner or later, the people will realise the benefits of these laws," he added.

The Ma Ba Tha has begun reaching out to the media to explain and get its message across.

Its headquarters is a sprawling and somewhat unkempt monastery in Yangon's Insein district. Novice monks hurry out of the monastery school. Older monks potter around doing chores, mostly in silence. A family of cats wanders around.

There are several buildings in the compound, one of which is the basic but functional office of the Ma Ba Tha.

"We want to be transparent," declares Ms Khine Khine Tun, a young woman who acts as a liaison. She has been receiving a stream of inquisitive foreigners and diplomats including US ambassador Derek Mitchell. 

After asking for my permission, she places a Sony digital recorder in front of me. I do the same with mine and we exchange grins.

Sitting with her is U Kyaw Sein Win, who I am told is in charge of Ma Ba Tha's activities.

"There was violence in the past and Ma Ba Tha was formed to prevent such violence," he says.

"We looked into the causes of the violence; it was due to the weakness in established laws. So we needed to come out with new laws to prevent future violence,'' he adds.

"Many say that Ma Ba Tha is extremist, but what we are doing is just to protect all our ethnics within the law. In our country, there are other religions too - Christianity, Hinduism and others we do not have problems with. We only have (a problem) with Islam, but I don't mean with all Muslims."

Noting the situation in other countries, he continues: "Indonesia was a big Buddhist country, so was Afghanistan.  Now they are Islamic countries. So to prevent this from happening to our country, we have to educate our people about the true value of Buddha's teachings to ensure they have strong faith."

The Ma Ba Tha may be having a charmed run, but it is not without critics, among them also other monks.

Mr Mathieson, who maintains that the new laws are not in line with international standards, says the Ma Ba Tha has appeared in a "perfect storm" of greater connectivity among monks through social media like the ubiquitous Facebook, often the first source of news - or rumours - in Myanmar, and an explosion of smart phone usage.

"Facebook is the battleground for those for and against the Ma Ba Tha," he says.

 For millions of Myanmars, it may be quite natural to support the Ma Ba Tha.

"If people were well informed and knowledgeable, they would not accept the Ma Ba Tha," says Ko Chanda.

"But their understanding is quite shallow. They feel that if they support the Ma Ba Tha, they will be safe."

nirmal@sph.com.sg