Mandalay monks criticise Ma Ba Tha

Hardline Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha is closely associated with Mandalay, but some senior monks in the city are sharply critical of the organisation.

Ma Ba Tha, the acronym by which the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion is known, has been closely associated with Mandalay since it was established in Myanmar’s second biggest city in early 2014.

Regarded as Myanmar’s “Buddhist capital” and said to have the country’s highest concentration of monasteries in the country after neighbouring Sagaing, Mandalay is also home to the outspoken U Wirathu, Ma Ba Tha’s most controversial member. Ma Ba Tha was formed in January 2014 after monks held a conference in the city under the theme of “protecting Theravada Buddhism” in Myanmar.

Although Ma Ba Tha is influential in Bamar-dominated parts of the country, especially Ayeyarwady Region, and also notably in Rakhine State, some monks and residents in Mandalay insist that the organisation has little sway in the former royal capital.

“U Wirathu might come from Mandalay, and people might associate the city with Ma Ba Tha, but they are not supported here,” said Ko Kyaw Zin, a student.

Ahead of Sunday’s poll in Mandalay, residents said religious issues would have little effect on how they voted in a city where there was overwhelming support for the National League for Democracy.

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“Change” not “fear”, the NLD’s central message before the vote, was the target of a smear campaign involving pamphlets left on people’s doorsteps the morning before the election. The pamphlets said a vote for the NLD would amount to a vote for “kalar”, a derogatory term for people on Indian descent. Many residents said they believed the pamphlets were distributed by Ma Ba Tha supporters.

A rally held in Yangon last month by Ma Ba Tha to celebrate the passing of four controversial race and religion laws was attended by tens of thousands of monks and supporters. The organisation argues that the laws are needed to protect Buddhism, but they are widely believed to target the minority Muslim community.

New York-based non-government group Human Rights Watch said in August the laws will “entrench discrimination based on religion, and also violate internationally protected rights to privacy and religious belief”.

Ma Ba Tha has openly criticised the NLD, urging voters not to vote for any party that does not support the laws; a blur of religion and politics, which is constitutionally banned in Myanmar.

“If you follow the path of Buddhism, then Buddhism is already protected, you do not need to do any more. The most important thing is to respect the five precepts.”

“According to their activities I think they are extreme,” said U Dhammapala, the Sayadaw (abbot) of the Abayar Yama Moti monastery in the shadow of Mandalay Hill. “They are supposed to be spreading the word of Buddhism and Buddha’s teaching; [they should] keep away from political issues,” U Dhammapala told Frontier. “What they are doing now feels more like aggression and less like peace, so they are deviating from the Buddha’s path,” he said.

“Monks who do not follow the path of Buddhism, they are like children who do not listen to their parents. Buddha is like our father and we are his sons. Ma Ba Tha seems to emphasise protecting religion, but Buddha’s teaching is about peace, not violence.”

Ma Ba Tha was also criticised by U Uttara, who has studied under Sayadaw Aria Bhivamsa at the Myawaddy Mingyi monastery in Mandalay’s southern suburbs.

Sayadaw Aria Bhivamsa, who often questions Ma Ba Tha’s strategy on his Facebook page, testified in defence of former NLD information officer U Htin Lin Oo during his trial for insulting religion. U Htin Lin Oo, who was charged over a speech in which he criticised the use of Buddhism as a tool for extreme nationalism, was sentenced in June to two years’ jail with hard labour.

“The Ma Ba Tha demolishes the traditional teachings of Buddhism and because of this I worry that the real teachings of Buddha will disappear,” U Uttara said. “The aim of Buddhism is to benefit humans. His teachings were about peace, not about fighting,” he said.

“U Wirathu in Mandalay and U Parmaukkha, these are extremists. Some of those in the sangha might support them, but most of the monks in Myanmar are against them.”

U Uttara rejects the claims made by Ma Ba Tha, and notably U Wirathu, that Buddhism in Myanmar is under threat from Islam.

“No, this is not true at all,” he said.

Sayadaw Ashin Achara at the State Priyatti Sasana University, an institution in Mandalay for abbots, said Ma Ba Tha’s premise that Buddhism needed to be protected was unfounded.

“If you follow the path of Buddhism, then Buddhism is already protected, you do not need to do any more. The most important thing is to respect the five precepts,” Sayadaw Ashin Achara said, referring to the teachings to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and consuming intoxicants.

“The organisation is insulting other religions and it is also using violence. This goes against the five precepts, and is not the Buddhist way.”

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