Ma Ba Tha fades with barely a whim­per

The Myanmar Times - - News - ANDRAY ABRAHAMIAN news­room@mm­times.com

MA Ba Tha, the ab­bre­vi­a­tion of what in English is the Com­mit­tee for the Pro­tec­tion of Na­tion­al­ity and Re­li­gion, is a Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion that thrust it­self into po­lit­i­cal promi­nence two years ago.

At the time, Myan­mar’s more open at­mos­phere al­lowed Ma Ba Tha to gain trac­tion with a di­vi­sive, an­tiMus­lim plat­form that once would have been stamped out by cen­sors and po­lice per­son­nel. It held sta­dium-sized ral­lies with the bless­ing of the gov­ern­ment of the day, or­gan­ised protests, and pushed laws de­fend­ing “race and re­li­gion” through par­lia­ment.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion has con­trib­uted to a cli­mate of fear for Myan­mar’s Mus­lims, who have seen vi­o­lence and prop­erty dam­age di­rected against them in re­cent years. Ma Ba Tha’s seem­ingly un­stop­pable mo­men­tum had Myan­mar’s politi­cians cow­er­ing be­fore them. Un­til it didn’t.

It un­rav­elled rapidly. Chief Min­is­ter U Phyo Min Thein ar­rived back at Yangon Air­port from Sin­ga­pore on July 6 and was greeted by a small protest, call­ing for him to take back com­ments he had made dur­ing his trip that “we don’t need Ma Ba Tha”. In­stead, he dou­bled down. His com­ments went vi­ral on so­cial me­dia, with users chang­ing their pro­file pho­tos and shar­ing quotes in op­po­si­tion to Ma Ba Tha.

Ma Ba Tha lead­ers called for the gov­ern­ment to pun­ish U Phyo Min Thein and threat­ened a na­tion­wide cam­paign against him. An es­ca­la­tion of the con­flict seemed likely: In the past Ma Ba Tha’s lead­ers have shown a great ca­pac­ity for mo­bil­is­ing sup­port­ers, usu­ally small in num­ber but vo­cif­er­ous and some­times vi­o­lent.

This time, though, the au­thor­i­ties also moved quickly. A spokesper­son for the Na­tional League for Democ­racy (NLD) said the party would not take Ma Ba Tha’s de­mands on the mat­ter se­ri­ously.

The chief min­is­ter’s re­marks were in the con­text of the state al­ready hav­ing an over­sight com­mit­tee for the state re­li­gion. The Sangha Maha Nayaka Com­mit­tee is a cler­i­cal coun­cil ap­pointed by the gov­ern­ment to over­see Bud­dhist re­li­gious life.

Within a week, and likely in co­or­di­na­tion with the NLD, the Sangha de­clared that it did not recog­nise Ma Ba Tha in the of­fi­cial Bud­dhist or­der, greatly dele­git­imis­ing it. The com­mit­tee’s state­ment was strong: “Ma Ba Tha is not a Bud­dhist or­gan­i­sa­tion that was formed in ac­cor­dance with the ba­sic Sangha rules, reg­u­la­tions and di­rec­tives of the State Sangha author­ity.” The Sangha did not call for Ma Ba Tha’s dis­so­lu­tion, how­ever.

Ma Ba Tha’s most prom­i­nent monk, U Wi­rathu, lashed out with in­sults re­gard­ing the gov­ern­ment and State Coun­sel­lor Daw Aung San Su Kyi, call­ing her a dic­ta­to­rial woman, but the protests Ma Ba Tha promised have failed to ma­te­ri­alise.

Mean­while, Min­is­ter for Cul­ture and Re­li­gion U Aung Ko told re­porters that the gov­ern­ment plans to ask the Sangha Com­mit­tee to deal with cases of hate speech. U Aung Ko specif­i­cally stated U Wi­rathu could be charged if some­one were to com­plain about hate speech to the coun­cil, in what ap­peared to be an ap­peal for civil so­ci­ety groups to join a widen­ing coali­tion against the na­tion­al­ist move­ment. The same week a char­ity group filed a defamation law­suit.

The NLD-led gov­ern­ment has been wary of pro­vok­ing Ma Ba Tha, given its ties to pow­er­ful peo­ple in the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment and its ca­pac­ity for stir­ring up trou­ble. The gov­ern­ment wanted Ma Ba Tha’s in­flu­ence di­min­ished, but also felt it could not be too hos­tile to­ward the sen­ti­ments un­der­ly­ing that in­flu­ence. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and gov­ern­ment have been par­tic­u­larly un­will­ing to chal­lenge na­tion­al­ists on the is­sue of the Ro­hingya, Mus­lim Indo-Aryans from the Rakhine State recog­nised by the UN as one of the most per­se­cuted mi­nori­ties in the world. The Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs re­quested that the US em­bassy in Yangon re­frain from us­ing the term “Ro­hingya” on the heels of protests in Yangon over the em­bassy’s use of the term. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity views Daw Aung San Su Kyi’s ca­pit­u­la­tion on the Ro­hingya is­sue as a ma­jor black mark on her record.

But now the gov­ern­ment has found an aligned po­si­tion with the Sangha Maha Nayaka Com­mit­tee and been em­pow­ered by the so­cial me­dia re­sponse to U Phyo Min Thein’s stand. Is this the end of Ma Ba Tha as a po­lit­i­cal force?

Prob­a­bly. The NLD was long wor­ried that its con­flict with Ma Ba Tha might es­ca­late be­yond its con­trol. The time for Ma Ba Tha to push back hard against the gov­ern­ment seems to have passed, how­ever. In fail­ing to es­ca­late im­me­di­ately, it has al­lowed the gov­ern­ment to co­or­di­nate le­gal and po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges with the Sangha’s moral and re­li­gious re­pu­di­a­tion.

Fur­ther­more, cen­sus re­sults on re­li­gion were re­leased late last month. This was af­ter two years of de­lay due to the sen­si­tiv­ity of the in­for­ma­tion. They showed that the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion has not risen sig­nif­i­cantly over the past 30 years, di­min­ish­ing a pil­lar of Ma Ba Tha’s fear­mon­ger­ing on the Is­lamic pen­e­tra­tion of Myan­mar.

Of course, facts and fig­ures are rarely the most mo­ti­vat­ing in­flu­ences on a demo­cratic polity. The un­der­ly­ing is­sues and sen­ti­ments that made Ma Ba Tha rel­e­vant re­main.

These will be far more difficult for the gov­ern­ment to stamp out and a suc­ces­sor move­ment may yet arise. Hope­fully the gov­ern­ment has bought it­self some time to demon­strate suc­cesses in the peace process and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment be­fore it does. A strat­egy for em­pow­er­ing more in­clu­sive civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions will also be needed.

– The In­ter­preter

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