BANNED - Faced with ban, Myanmar’s Ma Ba Tha changes name
Faced with ban, Myanmar’s Ma Ba Tha changes name
The message was loud and clear. Myanmar’s ultra-nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement announced on May 28 at a public meeting that it was rebranding under a new name, days after Buddhist authorities banned the network which has been accused of stoking Islamophobia.
Myanmar’s Buddhist Sangha has a problem – a group not listening to the hierarchy. After months of distancing itself from the radical group, Myanmar’s top Buddhist clergy on May 23 ordered the Ma Ba Tha to cease all activities by mid-July or face prosecution.
The Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, Myanmar’s highest Buddhist authority, sent a letter to government ministries ordering the group to cease all activities by mid-July or face prosecution.
“People, either as individuals or as a group, cannot take any actions under the name of Ma Ba Tha,” said the letter, 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 the threat did little to deter thousands of 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.
The monk-led movement grew in strength under the country’s previous military-backed Thein Sein government, peddling a form of hardline Buddhist nationalism that intensified sectarian tensions with minority Muslims.
With the help of notorious firebrand monk Ashin Wirathu, who attended and spoke at the weekend gathering and has a significant Facebook following, Ma Ba Tha became known 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 five 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.
The group is changing its name. Photo: Mizzima