Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks seek to avoid Myanmar ban

Hard-line nationalist group Ma Ba Tha rebrands itself as a philanthropy foundation
Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks seek to avoid Myanmar ban

Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks from Ma Ba Tha attend a meeting following the decision of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee to abolish their group, in Yangon on May 27. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)  

Myanmar's hard-line Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha has rebranded itself after the country's top body, banned it for fueling anti-Muslim violence.

Known for its anti-Islamic rhetoric, the nationalist monk organization has renamed itself as the Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation.

Father Maurice Nyunt Wai, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar, said the name change is an attempt by the group to avoid confrontation with the government-appointed State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee that regulates the country's Buddhist clergy.

In its May 23 statement, the State Sangha ordered the group to disband or face punishment under both Buddhist and secular law. It additionally directed Ma Ba Tha (the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion) to take down its posters and signboards around the country by July 15.

The statement added that any breach would lead to punishment under Buddhist law and be referred to the Ministry of Home Affairs for immediate prosecution.

Despite the ban, more than 2,000 monks, nuns and lay supporters of the group gathered in Yangon on May 27-28 where they decided to keep pursuing their agenda.

"We urge all members to work for the country, people and religion under the name of the Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation," said a statement signed by the group's chairman Ashin Tilawka Biwuntha on May 28.

Kyaw Nyein, secretary of the Ulama Islamic Organization, said the name change was cosmetic only. "In terms of rules, regulations and justice, the government must act against people who fuel religious violence," Kyaw Nyein, who is also a lawyer, told ucanews.com.


Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks, nuns, and members from Ma Ba Tha attend a meeting May 27.  (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)  


Ashin Pyin Nyar Thiha, a Buddhist monk from Yangon actively involved in interfaith programs, said Ma Ba Tha has no clear goals.

"We will have to wait to see what they do under their new name," Pyin Nyar Thiha told ucanews.com.

He said ignoring the group may not be the best approach.

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Pyin Nyar Thiha said the group's strength should be used for "works of education or healthcare instead of nationalism … so that they may be involved in nation building." said

Father Nyunt Wai said the extremist group used fear and hate tactics to whip up uneducated people.  

"The State Sangha needs to carry out awareness on love and kindness to counter hate speech so the image of Buddhism, which has been tarnished by the hard-line group, may be regained in the international community," said Father Nyunt Wai.

Ma Ba Tha successfully pushed for the legislation of four race and religion laws under former president Thein Sein. The group has also been associated with Myanmar's frequent outbreaks of religious violence in recent years.

U Wirathu, a Ma Ba Tha leader, was dubbed the "Burmese Bin Laden" and preached a brand of extreme Buddhist nationalism. His anti-Muslim rhetoric is a growing force in Myanmar society where people hold monks in high regard.

In predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, Christians represent 6.3 percent of the population while Muslims comprise 2.3 percent according to the 2014 census.

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