MABA THA TIMELINE
1937 (February 23): Sithagu Sayadaw (also known by his formal monastic name Ashin Nyanissara) was born.
1939 (February 18): U Tilawka Bhivamsa (also known as Insein Ywama Sayadaw) was born.
1968 (July 10): U Wirathu (also known by his formal monastic name Ashin Vicittasārābhivamsa) was born. (“Wirathu” is a pen name and means hero).
2003: U Wirathu was sentenced to prison on charges, which remain disputed, of instigation of violence against Muslims.
2012 (January 13): U Wirathu was released from prison, along with a number of political prisoners, as part of the political reforms initiated in 2011.
2012 (June and October): Waves of Buddhist-Muslim violence took place in the Rakhine state, mostly affecting the Rohingya communities.
2012 (October 30): The forerunner to the MaBaTha, called 969 at this time, was formed in Mawlamyine (formerly Moulmein) Mon state.
2013 (March 20-22): Severe anti-Muslim violence took place in Meiktila (Central Myanmar), and allegations of 969 involvement were made.
2013 (September 2): The State Sangha Mahanayaka Committee (MaHaNa) issued an order banning the political use of the 969 symbol, as well as the creation of formal organizations associated with the symbol.
2013 (June 26-27): The MaBaTha held its inaugural meeting in Insein, a suburb of Yangon. MaBaTha is the Burmese acronym for Ah-myo Batha Thathana Saun Shaung Ye a-Pwe, often translated into English as the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion.
2013-2014: The MaBaTha initiated a campaign to pass laws that would protect “race and religion” against the alleged “islamization” of Myanmar.
2014 (January 18): The MaBaTha gained national momentum through a convention of 10 000 monks in Mandalay that presented its policy in a “10-point Declaration.”
2014 (May-June): A central concern of 969 and MaBaTha monks was protection of Buddhist economic interests in times of rapid economic liberalization and foreign investments, and they organized a boycott campaign against the Qatar-owned telecom company, Ooredo.
2014 (September 30): A Memorandum of Understanding with the Bodu Bala Sena was signed by U Wirathu at a high-level event in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
2015: (May-August): After intense campaigning and much controversy, a package of four “race and religion laws” were passed in Parliament and signed by President Thein Sein.
2015 (November 8): Myanmar held its first free elections in November 2015, after nearly fifty years of military rule. The MaBaTha expressed support for the ruling semi-civilian Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
2016 (July 12): The National League of Democracy (NLD) assumed government power in February 2016, after winning the 2015 elections. With the shift in government power, the MaHaNa reduced its previous support to the MaBaTha by denying the group formal recognition as a lawful monastic organization.
2017 (March 10): After allegations of anti-Muslim hate speech, the MaHaNa banned U Wirathu from public speaking and preaching for one year. The decision was made a few days after U Wirathu had publicly expressed support to the assassination of Myanmar’s leading constitutional lawyer, U Ko Ni, who was of Muslim background.
2017 (May 23): The MaHaNa again reduced its support for the MaBaTha, ruling that the name “MaBaTha” was not in compliance with the 1990 Law Relating to the, Sangha Organization and that all MaBaTha signs and symbols must be removed by July 15 2017.
2017 (July 7): Due to the May 23 ruling regarding its name, the MaBaTha changed its name to the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, stressing its philanthropic profile.
2017 (October 30): Amidst severe violence against Rohingya civilians in Northern Rakhine, Sithagu Sayadaw gave a sermon to Burmese soldiers where he made reference to a controversial passage in the Mahavamsa, an ancient Lankan Buddhist text, in which the killing of non-Buddhists is justified in order to protect Buddhism.
The MaBaTha, of which 969 [Image at right] is the forerunner and the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation its formal successor as of 2017, is not unique historically. From the colonial era onwards, Buddhist monks have played key roles by partaking in social affairs and presenting themselves and acting as vanguards of tradition, race, and religion. Like Sri Lanka, Burma/Myanmar has a vibrant history of Buddhist pressure groups, whose aim has been to “restore Buddhism” to its “rightful place” in society after the colonial dismantling of the traditional Buddhist polities. Furthermore, the current wave of Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiments can be traced back to resistance to British colonial rule and the rise of nationalist associations, such as the wunthanu athins, or “Loving One’s Race” associations. Buddhism came to play a vital role in Burmese nationalism, and U Ottama, one of Burma’s leading monks and national independence heroes, was closely associated with the wunthanu athins. In addition, hundreds of Buddhist associations were formed in order to protect Buddhism (Turner 2014). This Buddhist revivalism largely overlapped with ethnic majoritarianism, leading to the popular slogan “To be a Burmese is to be Buddhist,” coined by the Young Men’s Buddhist Association in the beginnings of the twentieth century (Schober 2009).
On occasion, the role as protector of Buddhism has implied the acceptance of the use of violence. For example, in the 1930s Buddhist monks participated in the so-called Indo-Burman riots in Rangoon, indicating both a willingness to engage in societal affairs, as well as to engage with violence. Thus, contrary to popular Western perceptions of Buddhism, the association of Buddhism with violence is not unfamiliar in Buddhist history, although the relationship between the two has been the subject of surprisingly little attention by Buddhist intellectuals themselves, or, until recently, by Western scholars (see e.g. Frydenlund 2013, 2017; Jerryson 2011). It should be noted, however, that in general, Buddhist monks do not carry out violent acts themselves, but that they may lend their religious authority to justify the use of violence if and when Buddhism is perceived to be in peril.
The military regime that ruled Burma/Myanmar between 1962 and 2011 was built on opacity politics, conspiracy theories, surveillance and violence. Ideologically, it based itself on “Burmese socialism,” cultural homogenization, unification and discipline, the unification ideology often referred to as “burmanization” (and later with the country’s name change) as “myanmafication” (Houtmann 1999). These attempts at unification were accompanied by exclusionary policies towards defined “Others” to the extent that one can speak of a state nurtured “Indophobia.” This resentment towards the ethnically and religiously diverse Indian communities is the result of the “colonial trauma” brought about by Indian political and economic dominance during British colonial rule, and one which has been nurtured and exploited by political and military leaders in post-Independent Burma (Egreteau 2011). Over past decades, the anti-Indian rhetoric and anti-Indian policies (in terms of citizenship laws and nationalization programs) have taken a clearer anti-Muslim turn, while other Burmese Indian communities of Sikh, Hindu and Christian background face less discrimination today. Thus, the Buddhist fear of Islam that we see in Myanmar today, has its historical roots within the military regime itself and its quest for national unity and control over the highly complex and unruly Union of Burma. What the anthropologist Michael Gravers (1993) has called the nationalistic paranoia of the Independence era was a politically orchestrated paranoia linking fears of the disintegration of the union and of the state with the takeover by foreigners and the disappearance of Burmese culture. This strategy has equated all foreign influence or presence with colonialism. The defined foreigners were anyone perceived as being of Indian descent, the Rohingyas in particular.
Nonetheless, while it is clear that anti-Muslim sentiments can be traced back to both the colonial era and military xenophobic policies, recent anti-Muslim attitudes are more systematic (Schissler et al. 2017). Since 2012, anti-Muslim sentiment, hate rhetoric and the politics of fear have dominated public discourse in Myanmar (Kyaw 2016; Walton and Hayward 2014). Such sentiments have been explained as the outcome of government and/or military initiatives, but they must also be explained as a reaction to the ontological insecurity experienced as a result of rapid economic and social changes since Myanmar’s reform process began (Walton et al. 2015). As pointed out by Schissler et al. (2017), such anti-Muslim sentiments seem to be widespread in Buddhist Myanmar, and have been articulated in public by Buddhist monks connected to a cluster of interrelated Buddhist protectionist movements, the largest movement being the 969 (a loosely organized network) and the MaBaTha, which is a formally established institution.
The 969, the forerunner to the MaBaTha, was was eclipsed by the MaBaTha by 2014. The latter changed its name in 2017 to the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, but it is still widely referred to by its old name, the MaBaTha. In addition to the 969 and the MaBaTha, various other monastic and lay organizations work to protect Buddhism from the alleged dangers posed by Islam.
In 2012, a group of young Buddhist monks in Mawlamyine (formerly Moulmein), the capital of the Mon state in south-eastern Myanmar, established a network to “protect Buddhism” called the 969. The name was inspired by a book published in 1997 by U Kyaw Lwin, a former general and subsequent director of Ministry of Religious Affair. The 969 refers to the nine qualities of the Buddha, the six of the Dhamma and the nine of the Sangha. Together these constitute the “three Jewels of Buddhism,” thus drawing upon key Theravada Buddhist symbols. Additionally, “969” stands as the discursive anti-thesis to “786,” which is the numerical representation of the first verse of the Qur’an, and is commonly on display in Muslim shops throughout South and Southeast Asia. The network produces artefacts, such as stickers and flags with the 969 emblem on them. The emblem depicts the Buddhist flag, the number 969 in Burmese script and Emperor Ashoka’s pillar, the latter being one of the oldest symbols of Buddhist political power. Such emblems were soon at display in shops and taxis throughout Buddhist Myanmar, as a sign of Buddhist unity across geographical boundaries and ethnic divisions within the country, but also as a boundary-marker vis-à-vis Muslim shop-keepers who were depicted as an economic threat. The 969 monks showed themselves to be efficient users of traditional means of communication like sermons, print media and videotapes, but, along with the internet revolution (since the 2011 political liberalization), also of new social media like Facebook and YouTube. U Wirathu’s main site had in the beginning of 2017 close to 265 000 followers, a considerable number in the Burmese context.
The 969 monks have become controversial for their strong anti-Muslim stance, the most famous being U Wirathu, the 969 spokesperson, who became an international media figure after being on a Time Magazine cover, titled “The Buddhist Face of Terror” (Time Magazine, Europe, Middle East and Africa edition, July 1, 2013:1). [Image at right] He is accused of hate speech against Muslims in social media and during religious sermons. He was jailed in 2003 by the military for instigating anti-Muslim violence, but was released in 2012, together with political prisoners, as part of former President Thein Sein’s political reforms. The exact motive behind his imprisonment remains disputed. U Wirathu himself denies the charges on which he was convicted. Some of his fellow prison inmates hold that the reason was internal monastic disputes, and that alleged anti-Muslim violence was just a pretext to remove internal opposition (Iselin Frydenlund, interviews, Bangkok and Yangon, 2015). [Image at right]
Out of the 969 movement grew the related, but separate MaBaTha, which is an acronym for Ah-myo Batha Thathana Saun Shaung Ye a-Pwe, or the “Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion.” This organization was formed in June 2013, and compared to the 969, it has a more senior and less militant profile. Prominent MaBaTha monks, such as Sithagu Sayadaw, holds high-ranking positions in the monastic hierarchy in Myanmar and is one of the country’s most popular and respected monks. The MaBaTha has succeeded in building up alliances across monastic divisions and in close relations with the monastic top hierarchy. It has built up a strong lay division and worked closely with leading government figures of the previous semi-civilian regime. The two organizations are separate, but closely interlinked as several leading 969 monks also are active in the MaBaTha.
At the time of its founding, and at several national conferences that followed, the MaBaTha enjoyed support from the MaHaNa (State Sangha Mahanayaka Committee) leadership (although, importantly, not an official institutional endorsement). For example, Bamaw Sayadaw Ashin Kumara Bhivamsa, Chair of MaHaNa, spoke at two MaBaTha chapters’ founding meetings. The 969 and the MaBaTha thrived under the semi-civilian regime of President Thein Sein but lost much of its political patronage when the National League for Democracy (NLD) came into power in February 2016. Since then, the state institution that oversees the Buddhist monastic order (MaHaNa), has reduced its support to the MaBaTha, first in 2016 by calling its formal registration into question, and again in May 2017 by pointing to procedural shortcomings and asking for the group’s withdrawal of signboards throughout the country. To many local and international observers this was taken as a sign of the NLD-government’s crackdown on anti-Muslim sentiments and religious nationalism. However, when one carefully reads the MaHaNa statement, it is clear that it does not imply a ban on the movement. Rather, the signals from the MaHaNa should be read as reduced government support, not as monastic sanction of Buddhist protectionist movements (Walton and Tun 2016).
The main concern of the 969 and the MaBaTha is protection of a–myo (race/ethnicity/nation) and thathana (Pali: sasana), the latter pointing to Buddhism as a social, cultural and institutional practice in this world. According to the minutes from the MaBaTha inaugural meeting in 2013, the missions of the MaBaTha are threefold: (a) to raise public awareness about the need for racial protection and the dangers of religious conflicts, (b) to establish peaceful co-existence among different religions in Myanmar through “unity and maintenance of discipline,” and (c) to safeguard “race and religion within a legal framework.” To achieve these goals, the MaBaTha envisions engagement first, in public propagation of the dhamma (the Teachings of the Buddha) and education (particularly through so-called dhamma schools for children), and second, through promulgation of laws to protect “race and religion,” covering conversion, marriage, monogamy and population control (MaBaTha Minutes 2013).
Since 2012, anti-Muslim sentiment, hate rhetoric and the politics of fear have dominated public discourse in Myanmar (Kyaw 2016; Walton and Hayward 2014). While it is clear that anti-Muslim sentiments can be traced back to the colonial era, recent anti-Muslim attitudes are more systematic (Schissler et al. 2017). Such sentiments have been explained as the outcome of government and/or military initiatives, but they must also be explained as a reaction to the ontological insecurity experienced as a result of rapid economic and social changes since Myanmar’s reform process began (Walton et al. 2015). As pointed out by Schissler et al. (2017), such anti-Muslim sentiments seem to be widespread in Buddhist Myanmar, and have been articulated in public by Buddhist monks connected to a cluster of interrelated Buddhist protectionist movements, the most prolific being the 969, and the MaBaTha.
Protection of Buddhism against imminent external or internal threats is a recurrent theme in Buddhist history, but the nature of such perceived threats has obviously changed over time. The current collective fears are tied to larger concerns about open borders, “islamisation” of Myanmar and the possible eradication of Buddhism, in what the Burmese scholar Nyi Nyi Kyaw (2016) calls a “myth of deracination.” To the MaBaTha, threats to Buddhism are posed by Islam in general and “non-nationals,” referring to the Rohingyas in particular, who they consider to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The concern of “non-nationals” is clearly articulated in various MaBaTha documents, for example in their “10-point-declaration” made public in Mandalay at a mass gathering of monks in 2014, identifying ten points of particular concern. Several of these relate directly to the 1982 Citizenship Law and the legal status of the Rohingya minority. Two out of ten demands in the document concern the Rohingyas: point four asks for investigation of “non-national” parliamentarians (ostensibly to exclude Rohingya parliamentarians), while point five asks for withdrawal of voting rights of those holding “white cards.”
Over the last couple of years, U Wirathu has made his way into global news. The most recent instance was the documentary film The Venerable W, which was showed at the Cannes film festival in May 2017 as the prime example of so-called “Buddhist extremism.” While not in any way defending U Wirathu or MaBaTha’s hardline anti-Muslim position, there is a need to understand the larger and structural issues behind U Wirathu (and other activist monks) and not reduce this to a tabloid and sensational fascination with one single example of “Buddhist extremism.” Rather, while U Wirathu might be controversial, it is important to recognize that leading monks of the MaBaTha, such as Insein Ywama Sayadaw, or the associated Sithagu Sayadaw, enjoy enormous respect and popularity in Buddhist Myanmar. Furthermore, it is important to recognize the importance of their concerns for a wide section of the Buddhist community in Myanmar, and that their focus on Buddhist education and Buddhist moral values finds wide resonance. Also, it is important to note that MaBaTha members represent a diversity of beliefs and concerns, and that the political ambitions of certain monks (or even their anti-Muslim sentiments) are not shared by all MaBaTha activists.
Buddhist protectionist ideology is closely linked to Bamar ethnic identity, which is captured in the slogan “to be Burmese is to be Buddhist.” However, numerous of the country’s 135 officially recognized “national races” also identify as Buddhist. Ethnic minority groups such as the Arakanese (the majority population in the Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh, but also home of the Rohingya population), the Mon, the Shan or the majority of the Karen identify as Buddhist. The term “Buddhist nationalism,” then, only partly explains the ideology of the MaBaTha as the relationship between Buddhism and “nation,” or ethnicity is highly complex. Therefore, one misses an important dimension of the new form of Buddhist “nationalism” if one overlooks Buddhist concerns which (at important points) transcend ethnic boundaries as well as local and regional concerns.
The monks and nuns of the 969, MaBaTha/ Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation follow mainstream Theravada Buddhism as practiced in Myanmar and do not in any way present alternative religious ideas or practices. Rather, it can be regarded as a neo-conservative movement, where the monks regard themselves as guardians of Buddhism and national culture, resisting secularization as well as foreign cultural influences. One of the most important MaBaTha activities is its educational program for children, so-called Sunday Dhamma schools. Dhamma schools, it should be noted, are run by several monastic organizations, including the MaBaTha. In these schools, monks teach children Buddhist values, as well as Burmese Buddhist history and traditions, and many schools have become an important platform for Buddhist protectionist ideology.
The most important MaBaTha initiative (in addition to the Dhamma schools) was the promotion of four laws, which were passed by the President and the Parliament in 2015 in order “to protect race and religion.” The laws seek to regulate marriages between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men, to prevent forced conversions, to abolish polygamy and extra-marital affairs, and to promote birth control and family planning in certain regions of the country (Frydenlund 2018, 2017; Crouch 2016). The 969 and the MaBaTha monks initiated (and partly drafted the laws), and they specifically targeted the President and government ministers to make sure that the Attorney General’s office prepared draft laws. Later (in the beginning of 2015) when the drafts were discussed in various parliamentary sub-committees, MaBaTha activists participated at numerous hearings and committee meetings to argue their case. In addition to this specific case of Buddhist legal activism, the MaBaTha organized a signature campaign, collecting (according to its own estimates) more than 5,000,000 signatures by February 2014. Even though the MaBaTha at this point in 2013 and early2014 had not caught the public’s attention, the monks had managed to exercise their religious authority and mobilize monks and lay people alike through their monastic networks.
Crucial to the monks’ success as a pressure group was their ability to exercise their religious authority in the deeply Buddhist Myanmar. Through preaching, rituals in sacred sites, signature campaigns, and communication through both print and social media, the monks managed to convince broad sections of the public about their agenda.
In this regard it is important to remember that under military rule monastic activities had been under close restriction and surveillance. With the 2011 political liberalization, new spaces and opportunities opened up for Buddhist activist groups to operate and communicate in new and forceful ways. The MaBaTha has been highly active in such activities. These include a wide range of activities usually associated with civil society activist groups, such as various campaigns and public protests, charity work or legal assistance to rural women. Of its more activist modes of operandi, three are worth discussing in some detail as they show the new space for monastic activism provided by the Thein Sein regime, which was unthinkable prior to 2011, and which was denied to other monastic groups. The government acceptance of such activities clearly indicates the Thein Sein government’s acceptance of both the MaBaTha agenda, as well as their modes of operandi, although, it should be noted, these campaigns were directed against the government itself in order to push it in the direction the MaBaTha wished.
As previously mentioned, the 969 was closely connected to business competition between Muslim and Buddhist shopkeepers, and the 969 sticker became a visual marker of Buddhist economic interests. Along similar lines, 969 and MaBaTha monks called for boycott of the Qatar-owned Telecom company Ooredoo, seeing it as a transnational Muslim actor posing a threat to Myanmar (N Htwe 2014). By contrast the Norwegian Telenor was heartily welcome.
The 969 is a loosely organized network (now eclipsed by the MaBaTha) and has been analyzed as a social movement engaged in “transgressive action” (Klinken 2017). Prominent 969 monks are U Wirathu and U Biwuntha, who are active in the MaBaTha as well. By comparison, the former MaBaTha (now Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation) is highly organized with a fifty-two member steering committee, national conventions and branches and sub-chapters all over Myanmar. Prominent MaBaTha monks are Organization chair U Tilawka Bhivamsa (also known as Insein Ywama Sayadaw), Sithagu Sayadaw and U Wirathu. It is equally important to note that the MaBaTha includes lay women and men, making it a strong monastic-lay alliance across the country, including in the seven so-called “ethnic states,” such as Shan and Karen. Furthermore, the combination of monks and lay people in formal positions created ambiguity about the MaHaNas’s legal jurisdiction over the group.
MaBaTha has faced a number of challenges through its brief history: anti-Muslim sentiments, promotion of race and religion laws, involvement in political controversies, and control over the Sangha by the state.
The 969, MaBaTha, as well as a plethora of Buddhist and nationalist groups, have been accused of anti-Muslim hate speech. Leading monks such as U Wirathu, U Rarzar, U Pamauka and U Wimala Biwuntha have on numerous occasions expressed strong anti-Muslim sentiments, holding that local Muslims constitute a threat to Buddhist Myanmar. In spite of a long tradition of peacefulinteraction and co-existence (particularly prior to European colonialism), Buddhist fears of Islam are built on a narrative of an inherent Buddhist-Muslim conflict, which excludes narratives of co-existence, tolerance, and inclusion. [Image at right] At the heart of such sentiments is the idea that Muslims do not belong to the national community, thus representing something “foreign,” although the majority of the various Muslim populations in Myanmar have been living in these Buddhist majority societies for centuries. Several observers have noted that rumors about Muslim men raping Buddhist women have been circulated on Facebook prior to anti-Muslim violence, but any causal links between Buddhist anti-Muslim hate speech and physical violence are yet to be proven. During the massive military campaign against the Rohingyas beginning on August 25, 2017 that forced nearly 700,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh, leading MaBaTha monks did not condemn the violence against civilians. Rather, leading monks such as Sithagu Sayadaw gave their support to the military efforts. In a sermon given on October 30, 2017 to Burmese soldiers (amidst the atrocities in Rakhine), Sithagu Sayadaw made reference to the Lankan fifth century chronicle, Mahavamsa, and a specific passage where the killings of non-Buddhists are justified (Sithagu Sayadaw, October 30, 2017). This caused controversy in Myanmar and horrified many Buddhists (and obviously Christian and Muslim communities) in Myanmar (see Radio Free Asia November 13, 2017).
MaBaTha’s legal activism and their promotion of the four race and religion laws received massive popular support. [Image at right] Not surprisingly, however, laws to control conversion and mixed marriages, and to enforce family planning and the criminalization of extra-marital affairs were met with fierce opposition from local and international human rights organizations for not being in accordance with international human rights standards. For example, five United Nations special rapporteurs jointly sent a letter to President Thein Sein asking him to withdraw the laws. The letter states that “any draft bill regulating religious conversion would not be in conformity with international human rights law, as it would fundamentally violate the right to change one’s religion freely,” and moreover, that “It is not within the State’s purview to regulate matters that are part of the internal dimension, or ‘forum internum,’ of an individual’s right to freedom of religion or belief” (OHCHR 2014:2). Strong criticism was also voiced by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists, all of which emphasized the laws’ severe implications for inter-communal relations, and to non-compliance with international human rights standards. In addition, local human rights groups argued that the conversion law would imply a violation of Article 34 (on religious freedom) of the Constitution itself (Frydenlund 2018).
During the 2015 election campaign MaBaTha monks came to be associated with the military-allied Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Back in 2014 the MaBaTha had declared its neutrality vis-à-vis party politics, which is a matter of great significance as Myanmar’s electoral laws prohibit religious officials running for elections. But later, in 2015, leading MaBaTha monks urged people not to vote NLD on the grounds that it was too Muslim-friendly, as the NLD had voted against the race and religion laws in parliament. In fact, the “race and religion” laws came to play an important role in the 2015 elections, as the USDP presented itself as the protector of the laws in contrast to the NLD. Moreover, USDP campaign posters explicitly mentioned the laws, and the MaBaTha issued flyers urging the people to vote for parties that supported the laws. On the ground, MaBaTha monks sometimes directly supported the USDP. For example, it has been observed that two MaBaTha monks accompanied the USDP candidate on a campaign in his Rakhine State (van Klinken and Aung 2017). Scared to risk alienating the Buddhist majority, the NLD decided not to run a single Muslim candidate in that election. By promoting the laws (and subsequently the MaBaTha) during the election campaign, the USDP stood a chance against the NLD. Arguably, the USDP saw the necessity of a “rallying cause” and subsequently chose the MaBaTha and their laws as a means for electoral mobilization. In 2017, the political aspirations of certain sections of the MaBaTha crystallized into the formation of a new political party, namely the “135 Nationalities United” led by the lay Buddhist writer Maung Chun. The party is controversial as MaBaTha activists disagree on the extent to which formal politics is compatible with monastic activities (International Crisis Group 2017).
The Sangha in Myanmar is under strict state control, through Constitutional provisions (e.g. the exclusion of religious officials from politics), the 1990 Law Relating to the Sangha Organization, in addition to bodies such as the State Sangha Mahanayaka Committee (MaHaNa). Furthermore, through a particular Buddhist court system (the Vinacchaya system) Buddhist orthodoxy and orthopraxis are defined, sanctioning “deviant” doctrines and practices. The MaHaNa’s main concern is to “protect Buddhism,” and it can be argued that the MaHaNa’s ban on the use of the 969 symbol had less to do with formal sanctions of anti-Muslim hate speech than with keeping legal distinctions between the monastic and the political spheres. Furthermore, according to the 1990 Sangha Law, the establishment of new monastic fraternities or sects is prohibited in Myanmar. As previously mentioned, the MaHaNa provided support to the MaBaTha, but this was withdrawn after the NDL came to power in February 2016. In a statement in July 2016, the MaHaNa claimed that the MaBaTha did not comply with the formal requirements of the Sangha Law, but, importantly, it did not condemn the organization and its activities themselves (Walton and Tun 2016). Most MaBaTha groups accepted the enforced re-brand and simply continued their activities. However, the Mandalay (Upper Myanmar) chapter and the Karen State chapter refused, arguing that MaBaTha was not an official Sangha organization. They argued that because it was not breaching the Law Relating to the Sangha Organization, there were no grounds for disciplining the organization.
In many regards, the MaBaTha (as well as numerous other Buddhist activist groups) fit the classic pattern of neo-traditionalism, here defined as the wish to work against the institutional differentiation brought about by colonial rule, modernity, and secularization. They fit a classic pattern of Buddhist protectionist movements, which thrive in times of rapid social, political change and subsequent ontological insecurity. With the 2016 NLD government and Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, MaBaTha’s position is more vulnerable. However, Buddhist protectionist groups form an integral part of social and political life in Myanmar, and as political and economic liberalization is transforming Burmese society in radical ways, calls for cultural and religious protectionism can be expected to increase. Finally, calls to “protect Buddhism” are easily drawn upon in electoral politics, and it is an open question how the USDP, the NDL and other political parties will play this out in the 2020 elections.
Image #1:The 969 Movement logo.
Image #2: Time Magazine cover in 2013 with an image of U Wirathu, titled “The Buddhist Face of Terror.”
Image #3: Photograph of Sithagu Sayadaw visiting U Wirathyu in prison.
Image #4: Photograph of monks holding an anti-Muslim protest sign.
Image #5: Photograph of MaBaTha monks assembled in support of Myanmar’s passage of four race and religion laws.
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MaBaTha Minutes. 2013. Included in the Draft Bill Called “Myanmar Women’s Special Marriage Law (Bill).” Translated from the Burmese. On file with author.
N Htwe. 2014. “Nationalists Call for Ooredoo Boycott.” Myanmar Times, June 6. Accessed from http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/10588-nationalists-call-for-ooredoo-boycott.html on 15 March 2018.
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Radio Free Asia. 2017. “Controversy over Sitagu Sayadaw’s Sermon to Military Servicemen,” November 13. Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_XWdH7dVA0 on 15 March 2018.
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Sithagu Sayadaw. 2017. Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAukEq-GzMs on 30 October 2017.
Turner, Alicia. 2014. Saving Buddhism. The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma. Honululu: University of Hawai’i Press.
van Klinken, Gerry, and Su Mon Thazin Aung. 2017. “The Contentious Politics of Anti-Muslim Scapegoating in Myanmar.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 47:353-75.
Walton, Matthew J. 2017. “Misunderstanding Myanmar’s Ma Ba Tha.” Asian Times, June 9.
Walton, Matthew J. and Aung Tun. 2016. “What the State Sangha Committee Actually Said about Ma Ba Tha.” Tea Circle, 29 July.
Walton, Matthew J., M. McKay, and Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi. 2015. “Women and Myanmar’s ‘Religious Protection Laws’.” Review of Faith and International Affairs 13:36–49.
Walton, Matthew J. and Susan Hayward. 2014. Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar. Policy Studies, 71. Honolulu, HI: East-West Center.
20 March 2018