“The Return of Ma Ba Tha to the Political Scene in Myanmar” By Nyi Nyi Kyaw

2019/53, 20 June 2019

Ma Ba Tha, or the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, has returned to the political scene with an open call to the people of Myanmar not to vote for the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2020 elections.

Ma Ba Tha, which changed its name to the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation in 2017 following the decision of the Ma Ha Na or State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee to ban the organization, held an anniversary event on 17 June 2019 with a 4,000-strong audience of monks, nuns, and laypeople in attendance.  It also released a two-page statement strongly depicting the Rohingya issue as a matter of security. Apart from offering the usual rhetoric, and more importantly, the statement explicitly castigated the NLD for the ongoing prosecution of the controversial monk U Wirathu and portrayed the ruling party’s actions as harmful to Buddhism.

Ma Ba Tha emerged on Myanmar’s political scene in June 2013; its stated aim was to defend Buddhist Myanmar against alleged Islamization. By August 2015, it had successfully promoted the drafting and passage of four anti-Muslim laws on race and religion. In the run-up to the country’s November 2015 national elections, Ma Ba Tha monks positioned themselves against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD and promoted incumbent President U Thein Sein’s public persona as the defender of race and religion, or Buddhism. But Ma Ba Tha’s blatantly political use of religion failed, as the NLD won the elections in a landslide.

During its initial months in office, the NLD tried to engage with Ma Ba Tha and encouraged it to tone down its anti-Muslim rhetoric and activities, but this effort failed. The NLD therefore had Ma Ha Na first warn Ma Ba Tha about the organization’s ‘illegality’ as a monastic association in July 2016 and eventually ban it in May 2017. Defying the Ma Ha Na’s order, Ma Ba Tha rebranded itself as the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation and then largely vanished from the political scene, apart from the movement’s vocal poster monk U Wirathu.

After U Wirathu praised Kyi Linn, the man who gunned down the NLD’s Muslim constitutional law specialist Ko Ni in broad daylight at the Yangon International Airport in January 2017, the Ma Ha Na ordered a one-year ban on U Wirathu giving sermons. After the end of the ban, U Wirathu grew even more provocative. His critical views on Islam, Muslims and the NLD resulted in the permanent cancellation of his Facebook account in January 2018. He then opened an account on the Russian online social media platform VK , where his activity has included releasing videos critical of the NLD.

Most notably, U Wirathu stepped up his diatribes against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party after the NLD-dominated parliament initiated a constitutional review process in January 2019.  Among the matters that this process, whose results are due in July, will address is the political role of the Myanmar military. The monk made lewd references to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in a speech at a rally against constitutional reform in Myeik on 29 April. After he spoke strongly against the NLD in Yangon on 5 May, the Yangon Region government charged him with sedition under Article 124(a) of the Penal Code. As of 18 June, U Wirathu has become a fugitive. He faces in absentia legal proceedings.

The case of U Wirathu seems to have provided Ma Ba Tha with an opportunity to return to the political scene. The NLD is explicitly committed to going after U Wirathu by all means at its disposal. In recent weeks, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture has released several statements that directly call for public censure of and for legal action against U Wirathu.

U Wirathu may not easily be found and arrested soon. But the ongoing sedition case against him is likely to result in a long prison sentence, during which he will not be able tocontinue to engage in contentious politics. Without U Wirathu on the scene, Ma Ba Tha has no option but to come back.

Another important reason for the return of Ma Ba Tha to politics has to do with the NLD’s recent announcement that President U Win Myint and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will themselves contest the November 2020 general elections. The continued popularity of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in urban areas and in Bamar-dominated regions leaves Ma Ba Tha in a poor position to challenge them.

In an effort to improve that position, U Wirathu has been posting videos critical of the NLD on his VK account while in hiding, and he even spoke to the Ma Ba Tha conference on 17 June by means of video conferencing. The mobilizational power of Ma Ba Tha and of hundreds, if not thousands, of likeminded Buddhist associations, along with U Wirathu’s appeal to his followers, serves at least to put Ma Ba Tha in a position to play disruptive politics against the NLD. This approach may signal more Ma Ba Tha protests over Buddhism, monks, Rohingya, democracy, and elections in the months to come.   
Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.