Is the Tatmadaw supporting an anti-government organisation?

At a recent congress of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, the Buddhist nationalist group that succeeded Ma Ba Tha, a lavish donation from the military was accompanied by a statement calling on the people to unseat the elected government.

By SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER

THE BUDDHIST nationalist organisation popularly known as Ma Ba Tha rose to prominence under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party government, which ruled from 2011-2016. Communal rioting that erupted in Rakhine State in 2012, and elsewhere in Myanmar over the following two years, was fuelled by, and perpetuated, a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment that aided Ma Ba Tha’s rise.

Some of the monks who supported Ma Ba Tha, properly called the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, believed that Buddhism needed robust protection. Others in the group, however, had extremist views and publicly vilified other religions, particularly Islam. During the campaign for the general election in 2015 that the National League for Democracy won in a landslide, Ma Ba Tha frequently declared the party unpatriotic.

In March 2017, Myanmar’s supreme clerical body, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, known as Ma Ha Na, banned the firebrand Ma Ba Tha monk U Wirathu from delivering sermons for a year for having “repeatedly delivered hate speech to cause communal strife …” Two months later, Ma Ha Na banned Ma Ba Tha from operating under that name and ordered them to take down their signboards. Ma Ba Tha responded by rebranding itself as the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation and has continued its ultranationalist activities. Wirathu, meanwhile, resumed giving inflammatory sermons after his speaking ban expired.

During its annual meeting on June 16 and 17 this year at its headquarters at a monastery in Insein Township, Major General Thet Pone, chief of the Tatmadaw’s Yangon Command, presented the BDPF with a donation of K30 million. During the meeting the BDPF issued a seven-point statement that included criticism of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, defended Wirathu – who went into hiding in May after being charged with sedition – and called on the public to unseat the ruling party. At a subsequent news conference, a Tatmadaw spokesperson defended Thet Pone’s donation.

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The statement accused Aung San Suu Kyi of failing to respect Buddhist tradition by entering a site prohibited to women during a visit to the Shwesettaw Pagoda at Minbu Township in Magway Region. Women are prohibited from entering some sites at pagodas throughout Myanmar, but such bans have nothing to do with the Buddha’s teachings; they are rather imposed arbitrarily by pagoda trustees or monks. Aung San Suu Kyi entered the site with the permission of venerable sayadaws and she did not violate any tradition.

The statement also said Wirathu was being truthful in a speech he gave in May, during which he was reported to have said that the government was funded by foreigners and that one of its members was “sleeping with a foreigner”. This may have been a reference to Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late British husband, Mr Michael Aris, died of cancer in 1999 when she was under house arrest. Soon after that speech, the government brought charges of sedition against Wirathu under section 124a of the Penal Code.

The last point in the statement called on the people to remove those whom the BDPF accused of damaging the country and Buddhism, including by not voting for the NLD in future elections. The statement issued by the BDPF reads more like an announcement from a political party than a religious organisation, and it contains many untruths and false accusations. In an interview on Voice of America, U Thein Than Oo, a lawyer, said any organisation that called for the removal of a government elected by the people in line with the constitution was liable to be charged with sedition as well as high treason.

The challenge that the government faces in taking action against the BDPF is that it enjoys the open support of the Tatmadaw; going after it could exacerbate tensions between the civilian and military wings of the government at a particularly sensitive time. When the Union Hluttaw reconvenes later this month it will consider recommendations made by a committee to amend the 2008 Constitution and a heated debate is expected between NLD and Tatmadaw-aligned MPs.

Ultimately, resolving the country’s multiple crises depends on good relations between the government and the Tatmadaw. However, the country is facing a situation in which the Tatmadaw, which has pledged to defend the military-drafted constitution at all costs, is openly supporting an organisation that has called for the removal of a democratically elected government by any means possible. In such circumstances, the prospects for national reconciliation and the rule of law are dim.

By Sithu Aung Myint

By Sithu Aung Myint

Sithu Aung Myint became a reporter in 1997. Prior to Myanmar gaining its press freedom in 2012, he worked for various exile media outlets, and is now one of Myanmar's most respected political commentators.
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