Better understanding needed of Ma Ba Tha, urges think tank

A BETTER understanding of the Buddhist nationalist group known as Ma Ba Tha is essential to address challenges posed by radical nationalism and reduce risks of violence, the International Crisis Group says in a timely report.

“The nature of Ma Ba Tha and the extent of its popularity are widely misunderstood, including by the government,” the Brussels-based think tank says in the report, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, released on September 5.

“However uncomfortable it may be, a more nuanced understanding of the sources of social support for Ma Ba Tha, as opposed to simplistic one-dimensional portrayals, is vital if the government and Myanmar’s international partners are to find effective ways to address the challenges posed by radical nationalism and reduce risks of violence,” the ICG says.

It says that rather than an organisation narrowly focused on political or anti-Muslim goals, Ma Ba Tha sees itself – and is seen by many of its supporters – as “a broad-based social and religious movement dedicated above all else to the protection and promotion of Buddhism at a time of unparalleled change and uncertainty in a country and society where historically Buddhism and the state have been inseparable”.

The report says efforts by the government to crack down on Ma Ba Tha had only amplified the perception that it was a weak protector of the Buddhist faith.

Support more independent journalism like this. Sign up to be a Frontier member.

If the government carries out its threat to declare Ma Ba Tha an unlawful association, it would likely result in a severe and “likely violent” reaction throughout the country, the report warns.

“Ma Ba Tha is led by widely-revered and charismatic monks who have far greater legitimacy on religious issues in the eyes of many Myanmar Buddhists than the government or state religious authorities,” ICG said.

Ma Ba Tha had broad appeal, including to those who opposed its involvement in party politics or hate speech, because of its involvement in a wide range of community activities, from Buddhist Sunday schools to disaster relief.

Rather than “ineffective bans” on broad-based groups such as Ma Ba Tha, the government should address the underlying causes of rising hate speech and religious violence and reframe the debate on Buddhism’s place in society and politics, the ICG says.

“The government should take control of the narrative by reframing, on its terms, the place of Buddhism in a more democratic context and setting out its own positive vision,” it says.

“In parallel, it should address the underlying grievances that lead people to support exclusionary nationalist narratives, which are partly economic.

“A much more visible focus on the economy would give people confidence that the government is prioritising better opportunities and jobs and a more prosperous future for ordinary people.

“The more that people can feel they have a role to play in this, and the more channels they have to do so outside nationalist networks, the greater their sense of control over their destiny.”

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Myanmar enters 2021 with more friends than foes
The early delivery of vaccines is one of the many boons of the country’s geopolitics, but to really take advantage, Myanmar must bury the legacy of its isolationist past.
Will the Kayin BGF go quietly?
The Kayin State Border Guard Force has come under intense pressure from the Tatmadaw over its extensive, controversial business interests and there’s concern the ultimatum could trigger fresh hostilities in one of the country’s most war-torn areas.

Support our independent journalism and get exclusive behind-the-scenes content and analysis

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters.

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar