Myanmar: the political rise of Ma ba tha, the committee that protects the race and faith
“They are not even real monks, Buddhist monks are the most tolerant people in the world,” says Mr. Tin, a Muslim social activist, as we sit down in a café in central Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital. He is talking about the Committee to Protect Race and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha. The organization was officially founded in 2014, and since then it has become a political force to be reckoned with, organizing various xenophobic rallies against the Muslim community and releasing incendiary statements.
- Monday, 26 October 2015
Last year, a monk named Wirathu – who has risen to be the movement’s most popular member – called UN Special Rapporteur for Myanmar Yanghee Lee a “bitch” and a “whore” for daring to criticize his organization. In other occasions, he branded Muslims “mad dogs” and accused them of raping Buddhist women.
Ma Ba Tha’s ascent was favored by the tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities. This may seem counterintuitive in a city like Yangon, where different faiths coexist one next to the other: within a mile radius of the city center there are mosques, churches, Hindu temples, Chinese shrines and, naturally, Buddhist pagodas.
But underneath this apparent calm seethes an intolerance rooted in decades of propaganda by former military rulers, says Dr. Maung Zarni, a Burmese activist in exile and researcher with Cambodia’s Sleuk Rith Center.
“Religious and racial prejudices are common across the world, but turning prejudices into a genocidal strain of racism is the result of mobilization by politicians, leaders and demagogues,” he wrote in an email to East, referring to the Rohingyas, a small Muslim minority living in Rakhine State which has been victims of interreligious tensions in recent years.
The Rohingyas were deprived of their right to citizenship in 1982 and have been the target of various violent attacks – like the bloody communal violence that erupted in 2012 – which forced hundreds of thousands to move to internally displaced people’s camps. It is what Dr. Maung Zarni calls a “slow genocide” (a definition that other commentators find excessive).
While claiming they stand for peace, Ma Ba Tha members deal with these issues by posing as the protectors of both the Buddhist faith and the country’s unity. According to Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, a NGO which works with the Rohingya community, “there is a prejudice among the public, it is nothing new. And the Ma Ba Tha has played into this kind of sentiment, especially at a time of change.”
Today the Ma Ba Tha has significant political power and only a few months ago managed to successfully campaign for four laws “for the protection of race and religion” which were widely criticized by human rights groups both for violating women’s rights and for being discriminatory towards religions other than Buddhism.
The fact that the message propagated by the Ma Ba Tha echoes the former military dictatorship’s propaganda - “nationalism” and “unity” are all but new slogans - also fosters doubts about the organizations’ real aims. To put it simply, many believe that the Ma Ba Tha works closely with the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), which is currently in power and has close ties to the military.
“They are being used by the military elite, it is part of their plan to cling on to power,” says Khin Ohmar, the coordinator of Burma Partnership, a human rights NGO, according to whom the army is all too fond of being at the helm of the country, even if hidden behind a democratic façade.
“Before, they did not need anyone. But now it is different, they need some form of public support and the easiest card to play is targeting the Muslim minority. It is easy to orchestrate an Islamophobic campaign,” she told East.
This would explain why eminent members of the Ma Ba Tha have often criticized the National League for Democracy (NLD) - Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and the main adversary of the USDP in the upcoming November elections – by branding it an “Islamic party” and calling on people to vote for the incumbent government.
“We all should forget the bad that they have done in the past,” Bhaddamta Vimala, the movement’s secretary, said last June. “I want this government to have one more term to run this country because I do not want our immature democracy to be damaged.”
These messages have struck a chord with part of the population and have provided Aung San Suu Kyi with a difficult problem to solve. Should she speak up for the Rohingyas and the rest of the Muslim community, she would likely suffer a loss of votes. Not doing so is denting the image of near-sanctity she gained through years under house arrests during the junta era.
Between these two evils, the Lady seems to prefer the latter. In August, when it was time to select candidates for the elections, the NLD rejected plenty of suitable Muslim names. That decision caused a lot of criticism. And will perhaps bring some votes.