Myanmar’s religious affairs minister questions legitimacy of Ma Ba Tha rebranding

The religious minister's comments mark the latest flare-up between Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and Buddhist nationalists. Photo: Phyo Thiha Cho/Myanmar Now

In a sign of mounting tensions between the government and Buddhist hardliners, Myanmar’s Religious Affairs Minister Thura Aung Ko says any attempt to rebrand shunned group Ma Ba Tha using another name may result in “action” being taken against it.

In May, Buddhist authority the State Sangha Maya Nayaka Committee ordered Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Committee to Protect Race and Religion, to dissolve and remove its signboards. It responded by calling for the religious affairs minister to resign and launching anew as the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation.

“The State Sangha committee has already announced the illegality of Ma Ba Tha as a whole group or as an individual member,” Aung Ko told Myanmar Now on July 3 after a meeting of the committee in Yangon. The rebranding is a “trick,” he said, adding that that State Sangha may take action against the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation “at a certain time.”

He did not specify what sort of action they could take.

The minister’s comments mark the latest flare-up between Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and Buddhist nationalists, as the former seeks to reign in hate speech that could trigger religiously-motivated violence.

Ma Ba Tha and its members have not fared well under the new government, which came to power in April 2016 after winning elections the previous November. Some two months before the State Sangha ordered Ma Ba Tha to disband, the organization hit Wirathu, one of the group’s more prominent members, with a one-year preaching ban for anti-Muslim rhetoric. He fought back by broadcasting silent sermons.

Nationalist forces are not giving up easily. In late May Ma Ba Tha members signaled intentions to form a political wing to contest elections in 2020, and a month later, they held protests in Yangon and Mandalay.

Aung Ko, however, dismissed of their attempts, saying they had little support. He said the State Sangha committee is more representative of Buddhists in Myanmar.

“No religious organization has the same status of the State Sangha committee as it is the highest ranking religious body,” he said. “Its decisions also represent the majority of Buddhist people in Myanmar.”

Without going into specifics, he said protesters were “stooges of dictators who are trying to return to military dictatorship.”

“I am not the direct target of these protesters. They are actually disturbing the democratic government.”

Dr Ashin Sopaka, a spokesman for the newly formed Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, was quoted in local media saying the group had little to fear from the threat.

“Our foundation does not oppose the directives of the State Sangha committee. It was formed in line with the rules and principles of this committee. So we disagree with the careless remark of the minister."

Courtesy Myanmar Now

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