YANGON — Over a thousand hardline Buddhists gathered at a monastery in Yangon’s Insein Township for the annual summit of their ultra-nationalist group on Saturday, as the anti-Muslim network looks to stay relevant under Myanmar’s new civilian leadership.
Maroon-robed monks, nuns and other followers filled the monastery in northern Yangon to mark the third anniversary of the founding of Ma Ba Tha, which has been at the forefront of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar in recent years.
The group proved a potent political force under the former military-backed government, who they successfully lobbied to pass a series of controversial laws that rights groups say discriminate against women and religious minorities.
But the organisation ultimately lost out in November elections that saw their allies in the incumbent party trounced by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which is now leading the former junta-run country’s first civilian administration in half a century.
Ma Ba Tha representatives from around the country took the microphone at the start of the two-day conference to review their achievements over the past year and outline plans for the future.
“Our principles are very simple: to protect our people and our religion,” U Ottama, a monk attending the conference, told AFP.
Much of the anti-Muslim rhetoric espoused by group’s leaders has targeted the Rohingya — a ethnic minority denied citizenship in Myanmar and relegated to apartheid-like conditions ever since deadly riots tore through Rakhine State in 2012.
One of Suu Kyi’s biggest challenges will be carving out a solution for the Rohingya — who Buddhist nationalists have branded illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite the fact that many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
The Nobel peace prize winner has faced international criticism for not taking a stronger stance on the Rohingya, and for failing to field any Muslim candidates in November’s polls — a move observers say was a concession to groups like Ma Ba Tha.
While hosting US Secretary of State John Kerry last month, Suu Kyi asked for “space” as her administration seeks to build trust and ease sectarian tensions.
Some Buddhists’ strident rejection of the term Rohingya has made simply uttering the word an act fraught with controversy.
In recent weeks Ma Ba Tha and other nationalist groups have held a series of demonstrations to protest the US Embassy’s reference to Rohingya in a press release, later calling for the expulsion of US Ambassador Scot Marciel.