Top Myanmar Buddhist body bans hardline group Ma Ba Tha

Myanmar's highest Buddhist authority,  the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, have outlawed  nationalist group Ma Ba Tha amid rising religious tensions in the country.
Myanmar's highest Buddhist authority, the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, have outlawed nationalist group Ma Ba Tha amid rising religious tensions in the country.PHOTO: EPA

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar's top Buddhist body has banned hardline group Ma Ba Tha, according to a document sent out on Tuesday (May 23), a move aimed at curbing the movement's influence amid rising Islamophobia.

Myanmar has been gripped by deepening religious tensions that have repeatedly spilled into violence, partially attributed to anti-Muslim rhetoric spread by nationalist groups like Ma Ba Tha.

The Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, Myanmar's highest Buddhist authority, sent a letter to government ministries on Tuesday.

"People, either as individuals or as a group, cannot take any actions under the name of Ma Ba Tha," said the letter, which was seen by AFP and carried the signature of several monks, including senior figures from Ma Ba Tha.

"Ma Ba Tha signboards across the country are to be taken down completely by July 15 at the latest," the Sangha committee added, warning any infractions would be punished under both Buddhist and civil law.

But Ottama, a Ma Ba Tha monk in Yangon, said the group still planned to hold its annual meeting this weekend despite the ban.

"The most certain thing is that we will hold the Ma Ba Tha conference on the 27 and 28 of this month," he told AFP.

The Sangha's sanction comes just weeks after the same committee, which represents the upper echelons of the clergy, banned the country's most notorious monk Wirathu from preaching for a year.

Once dubbed "the face of Buddhist terror", the Mandalay-based monk has led calls for restrictions on the country's Muslim minority and frequently spews vitriol online warning of an Islamic takeover.

Religious tensions have soared since a group of Rohingya Muslims attacked police posts in the north of Rakhine state last October, sparking a bloody military crackdown that has drawn widespread international condemnation.

Since then nationalists in Yangon have held protests, stopped Islamic religious ceremonies and most recently forced two schools to shut their doors over accusations they were illegally doubling as mosques.

Police have arrested five people this month after a fight broke out in a Muslim neighbourhood of Yangon when dozens of hardliners raided a house believed to be hiding Rohingyas.