The ultranationalist Buddhist organization, the Ma Ba Tha also known as the Association of the Protection of Race and Religion, has received considerable pressure during the past two weeks. Criticism of the group likely stems from its role in promoting hate speech and inciting violence against Burma’s Muslim minorities, which it had not experienced under the previous government of Thein Sein. While on a trip to Singapore the Chief Minister of Rangoon, U Phyo Min Thein, stated that the Ma Ba Tha was “not necessary, because we’ve already got the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee,” referring to Burma’s national, government-appointed authority on Buddhist practice. The Ma Ba Tha soon responded to the comments made by the Chief Minister, demanding action from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Htin Kyaw before 14 July, 2016. The group later backed off plans for staged protests against the government, expressing that they believed the Chief Minister’s comments were made independently, and not reflective of government policy.
Meanwhile, on 12 July, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka – shortened to Ma Ha Na – issued a statement declaring that the Ma Ba Tha was “not a lawful monk’s association,” adding that “it was not formed in accordance with the country’s monastic rules.” This was supported by Burma’s Minister of Religious Affairs and Culture, Thura U Aung Ko, who called upon the Ma Ha Na to take action against members of the Ma Ba Tha who are found to have engaged in hate speech. In a interview with Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar Service, Minister Aung Ko stated, “I requested [Ma Ha Na’s] head monks to stop or take action against monks or others who make hate speeches that can incite bad blood between people or conflicts, because it is very important that we have stability and development in the country.”
Finally, a charity group known as Thet Daw Saunt, has also recently issued a formal defamation complaint against the Ma Ba Tha to authorities in Rangoon’s Tamwe Township. The suit relates to a 2015 protest led by the Ma Ba Tha leader Wirathu, who had called the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Ms. Yangee Lee, a “whore” after she had leveled criticism against the passing of the discriminatory Protection of Race and Religion legislation.
The anti-Muslim and hateful speech of the Ma Ba Tha, and in particular Wirathu, has been used to incite communal tensions against Muslim minorities. Along with the 969 movement – the predecessor to the Ma Ba Tha – the Ma Ba Tha has been accused of operating as a political tool of the previous government of Thein Sein, fueling communal clashes such as the 2012 Arakan State riots that left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands internally displaced. Further, the political influence of the Ma Ba Tha has also been used to promote the passing of last year’s controversial Protection of Race and Religion Laws. These laws have been widely condemned by women’s rights groups, civil society organizations and human rights defenders as discriminatory against religious minorities and women, in particular.
The extremest beliefs of the Ma Ba Tha have no place in Burma’s society, where interreligious friction remains consistently high. Just recently, two separate attacks on Muslim-owned property demonstrate the underlying tension present across the country. Fortunately, the new NLD-led Government has taken a positive first-step in condemning the culture of hate speech surrounding religious minorities. Still, an official policy addressing the promotion of hateful ideas and the enforcement of that policy is required. If Burma is to move forward in building a democratic country in which its highly diverse ethnic and religious communities co-exist peacefully and side by side in harmony, the Burma Government cannot afford to remain silent on the factors that exacerbate societal tensions. The rule of law must be established to protect against hate speech, in any form.Tags: Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, Freedom of Religion, Ma Ba Tha, Muslim Rohingya
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