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Myanmar's Ma Ba Tha fades with barely a whimper

Myanmar's Ma Ba Tha fades with barely a whimper
Published 2 Aug 2016   Follow @Draylien

All it took was Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein saying 'We don’t need Ma Ba Tha' at a meeting in Singapore, and three weeks later 'the face of Buddhist terror' appeared meek and terrified itself.

Ma Ba Tha, the abbreviation of what in English is the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, 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, anti-Muslim 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. [fold]

It unravelled rapidly. Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein arrived back Yangon Airport from Singapore on 6 July and was greeted by a small protest, calling for him to take back what he’d said. 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 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 numbers, 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 NLD is Aung Sang Su Kyi’s party and leads the government.

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, Wirathu, lashed out with insults regarding the government and Aung San Su Kyi, calling her a dictatorial woman, but the protests Ma Ba Tha promised have failed to materialise.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Minister of Culture and Religion, Aung Ko, told reporters that the government plans to ask the Sangha Committee to deal with cases of hate speech. Aung Ko specifically stated 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 towards the sentiments underlying that influence. 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 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  Aung San Su Kyi's capitulation on the Rohingya issue as a major black mark on her record.

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

Probably. The NLD was long-worried 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 last 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. 

Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

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