OPINION: Ma Ba Tha and similar groups of extremist monks in Myanmar could face resistance after a government official finally rebuked their brand of nationalism
It took just one dismissive comment from the chief minister of Yangon to seemingly deflate Ma Ba Tha. The Buddhist nationalist organisation has become known for its provocative segregation policies and derogatory depictions of Muslims, but now, almost for the first time, they were the ones under attack.
It was a big moment, but the events that followed should be viewed in context of the massive political and religious reorientation taking place in Myanmar. Both political and religious actors are testing the waters of the country’s new political realities, revealing the diversity of political and religious positions. But that does not necessarily mean that the threat from repressive Buddhist nationalism has passed.
The chief minister, Phyo Min Thein, made his comment on 3 July, during a trip to Singapore, declaring that: “We don’t need the Ma Ba Tha.” It was a simple but bold statement given the organisation’s history of intimidation and hostility toward its opponents.
Ma Ba Tha leaders promptly reacted by demanding the government denounce the comment. Protest demonstrations were also announced. The recently elected National League for Democracy (NLD), which has previously been cautious in its criticism of Ma Ba Tha for fear of inciting negative campaigning from the organisation or provoking violence and unrest, showed no signs of being intimidated.
Back in Yangon, the chief minister repeated his statement, the NLD refused to reprimand him and, within two weeks, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee – the official leaders of the Myanmar monkhood – had stated that Ma Ba Tha is not recognised as an organisation within the Sangha.
Ma Ba Tha was silenced, and the announced protests failed to materialise. The contrast to the pre-election atmosphere, where Ma Ba Tha campaigned for its discriminatory policies largely unchallenged, could not be more evident.
Prior to the 2015 election, it was in the interests of the previous government, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), to shift the focus from issues such as education, healthcare and democracy over to nationalistic rhetoric and hostility against Muslims. The USDP lacked the political credibility of the NLD and instead gave tactical support to the Ma Ba Tha monks and their exploitation of pre-existing underlying distrust between religious groups in Myanmar.
With the election over, the incentives for political actors to back Ma Ba Tha are gone. Furthermore, with its overwhelming election victory, the NLD has less to fear and feels confident that it has the people’s backing. While Ma Ba Tha enjoyed support among Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar majority in 2013 and 2014, this support declined significantly as it became evident that central Ma Ba Tha leaders were attempting to thwart the NLD and the party’s revered leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
When the NLD took office in April, the shift in the country’s political centre of gravity also revealed diversity within the monastic order that had been suppressed during the decades of military rule.
After the brutal crackdown on protesting monks during the ‘saffron revolution’ in 2007, members of the Sangha who were critical of military rule kept a low profile. Any association with the democracy movement was dangerous and could lead to defrockment and arrest. Similarly, during the rise of the nationalist movement, hardly any monk would openly voice discontent with the way that Buddhist thinking had been mixed with extreme nationalism and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Only in private and in confidential settings was such criticism expressed but, with the shift to a democratically led government, religious and political diversity among monks has resurfaced.
Although monks rarely display a clear political agenda, they do express a variety of social values reflecting their personal convictions. And when this is more comfortably displayed, the thinking of groups such as Ma Ba Tha is challenged by other members of the religious clergy – in turn boosting the confidence of political actors and civil society groups to challenge them as well.
Does this mean we have seen the end of Buddhist nationalist extremism in Myanmar? Probably not. To reduce Ma Ba Tha to a pawn in a political game would be a gross underestimation of the resonance there is for their policies among some sections of the populace in Myanmar. Ma Ba Tha essentially responds to two concerns that are perceived by many as real challenges to Myanmar society. First is the feeling that Buddhist practice and Buddhist values are on the decline: many people do not go to the temple as often, neglect their duties of giving alms to monks, and do not live up to the moral standards of Buddhist practice. The second concern is that, while Buddhism is perceived to be fading, there is a feeling that Islam is on the offensive and slowly taking over the religious domain.
Despite evidence from the national census dismissing any increase in the number of Muslims, the popular belief that this is the case remains. In these times of vast economic and social change it is likely that these perceptions will live on. The Buddhist nationalist movement will persist, but it should increasingly be confronted by political and religious counterforces.
Marte Nilsen is a senior researcher with the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) who specialises in Southeast Asian current affairs, with a focus on Myanmar and Thailand.