Faced with ban, Myanmar hardline Ma Ba Tha monks change name

Buddhist monks from the Ma Ba Tha group attend a meeting to celebrate their anniversary with a nationwide conference in Yangon, Myanmar on May 27. PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar's ultra-nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement announced Sunday (May 28) it was rebranding under a new name, days after Buddhist authorities banned the network which has been accused of stoking Islamophobia.

The monk-led movement grew in strength under the country's previous military-backed government, peddling a form of hardline Buddhist nationalism that intensified sectarian tensions with minority Muslims.

But after months of distancing itself from the radical group, Myanmar's top Buddhist clergy on Tuesday ordered the Ma Ba Tha to cease all activities by mid-July or face prosecution.

The threat did little to deter thousands of maroon-robed monks, nuns and lay followers from attending a weekend summit at a Yangon monastery decorated with Ma Ba Tha banners, with many defiantly declaring their intention to keep the movement going.

On Sunday the group released a statement saying they would use a new name: the Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation.

"We urge all members in all regions and states around the country to work for the country, people and religion using the name of the Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation," said the statement, signed by its monk leader Tilawka Biwuntha.

The new name is noticeably less controversial and confrontational than the original.

Ma Ba Tha is the Burmese abbreviation for a phrase that translates as "The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion" - a name the group would also give as its official English title.

With the help of notorious firebrand monk Wirathu, who attended the weekend gathering and has a significant Facebook following, Ma Ba Tha became know for sermons and protests that helped foment the idea that Buddhism in Myanmar is threatened by Islam.

Muslims have lived in Myanmar for centuries but only make up around 5 per cent of the population.

In recent months Buddhist hardliners have shut down religious events across the country and forced two Yangon schools accused of illegally doubling up as mosques to close their doors.

Police arrested several nationalists this month after a fight broke out in a Muslim neighbourhood of Yangon, when dozens of people raided a house believed to be hiding Rohingyas - a Muslim minority maligned by many Buddhists.

Earlier this year the ruling clergy, a body known as Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, banned Wirathu from preaching for a year, though he still spoke at the gathering on Saturday.

The same day Tilawka Biwuntha signalled the group had no intention of disbanding.

"If you write Ma Ba Tha, you can erase the words. But no one can erase Ma Ba Tha from your heart," he told supporters.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.