Ban on major Buddhist group fails to quell fears

Activists say Myanmar group will use other guises as attacks on Muslims continue

Myanmar's highest Buddhist authority has banned the country's largest Buddhist nationalist group, but some fear it may simply resurface in other guises.

Amid rising anti-Muslim rhetoric, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka committee on Tuesday issued a letter stating that groups or individuals cannot take any action under name of the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, more commonly known by its Burmese abbreviation Ma Ba Tha.

Signboards bearing its name must be taken down by July 15, and offenders will be punished under both Buddhist and civil law. The same statement urged the Ministry of Home Affairs to enforce the order as soon as possible.

According to another letter signed by leading figures in Ma Ba Tha, the organisation promised to abide by the sangha committee's decision.

The ban comes after Buddhist nationalists forced the closure of two Muslim schools in the city's Thaketa township last month.

Early this month, Buddhist nationalists descended upon the city's Mingalar Taung Nyunt township, claiming that ethnic Rohingya were living there illegally, resulting in scuffles that left at least one man injured. The Muslim Rohingya are accused of being "Bengali" migrants.

In response to the ban, a leading monk of Ma Ba Tha, Ashin Sawbaka, told The Straits Times: "We had already expected this moment."

He added: "We just followed the decision of our head monks who do not want to continue using the name Ma Ba Tha."

The group will have a press conference later this month after an internal meeting.

Last week, Ma Ba Tha threatened to sue its critics for defamation through an affiliate called Dhamma Vansanurakhitta Association, comprising lay supporters, according to local journal Frontier Myanmar.

Mr Aung Win, a 35-year-old interfaith activist, observed that some Facebook pages bearing the name Ma Ba Tha have begun to be replaced with the name of this affiliate. "Banning Ma Ba Tha doesn't mean stopping the actions of its people," he said. "It only means you cannot use the term 'Ma Ba Tha'."

Some of the worst clashes between Buddhists and Muslims occurred in Rakhine state in 2012, killing more than 100 people and driving tens of thousands of Rohingya into heavily regulated camps.

According to the 2014 census, Buddhists make up 89.8 per cent of Myanmar's population and Muslims 2.3 per cent.

As Rohingya were not allowed to identify as such, the actual percentage of Muslims is estimated to be somewhere closer to 4 per cent.

In the lead-up to the delayed release of census figures last July, Buddhist nationalists fanned fears of a Muslim takeover. One of Ma Ba Tha's most prominent monks, U Wirathu, claimed that the growing Muslim population was threatening Myanmar's Buddhist foundations. In March, the sangha committee banned him from preaching for one year.

U Wirathu responded by appearing in public with his mouth taped shut. Locals say the influence of Ma Ba Tha appeared to be on the wane, especially after the sangha committee declared last year that it was not an official Buddhist organisation.

But Dr Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, earlier this month warned that incidents of hate speech and religious intolerance "appear to be drastically escalating". "I believe that the spread of anti-Muslim sentiments and rhetoric is not receiving the serious attention that it requires, and is too often left unchecked by the authorities," she told The Guardian.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2017, with the headline 'Ban on major Buddhist group fails to quell fears'. Print Edition | Subscribe