The ambiguous populism of Ma Ba Tha

- through Fabrice Groult

Published on

Investigation into the resurgence of Buddhist nationalism, in the footsteps of the ultra-nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu.

One number, 969, was one of the main catalysts for the emergence in Burma (Myanmar) of Ma Ba Tha, a Buddhist organization described as ultra-nationalist whose most media-oriented face is undoubtedly the monk Ashin Wirathu (ashin means “venerable” in Burmese). In this country keen on numerology, "969" symbolizes the three jewels of Buddhism (the Buddha, the practice and the community). Distributed as early as 2011 in the form of stickers by a small group of monks seeking to "protect race and Buddhism in Myanmar", it quickly spread throughout the country, becoming the vehicle of a campaign to boycott businesses. held by the Muslim minority (2,4% according to the 2014 census, 4,3% if we take into account the Rohingyas, before their mass exodus of 2017) perceived as a threat to the very existence of Buddhism.

This movement, which intervened at the beginning of a period of political transition (between 2011 and the free elections of 2015) after half a century of military dictatorship, played an inciting role in a series of violent incidents, including many Muslims (Rohingyas in west, but also other communities such as Meiktila and Lashio) were the main victims in 2012 and 2013. It was formalized in 2013 within a new organization, Ma Ba Tha (“Association for the Protection of the and religion") which quickly embodied the resurgence of a Buddhist nationalism. The 969 campaign was banned in 2013.

Buddhists in the anti-colonial struggle

Buddhism, the vehicle of Burmese national identity, is an ancient phenomenon that dates back notably to the colonial era. From the end of the XNUMXth century, the British master contrived to unravel the tight mesh of Buddhism by dint of humiliations – the officers who knowingly entered temples with their boots on their feet – and measures to secularize teaching and favoritism of non-Buddhist ethnic minorities. These policies provoked the emergence of monks and Buddhist groups such as the famous U Wisara or the Association of Young Buddhist Men, who played a significant role in the anti-colonial struggle.

During the decades of military dictatorship (1962 – 2010), if Buddhism was torn between factions subservient to the generals and sporadic opposition movements, its identity – “Burma IS Buddhist” – was never called into question.

The emergence of Ma Ba Tha and other nationalist movements was also a response to deep frustration felt by many Buddhist Burmese with the Sangha (the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, known by its acronym Ma Ha Na), the highest authority of the Buddhist clergy perceived as detached from the people, close to the military, incapable of confronting the existential threat to religion.

Ma Ba Tha was very quickly built up as a decentralized national organization around a number of monasteries run by popular abbots and not all of them reputed to be extremists, as well as many lay people. The association has created through eight "departments" social and educational projects such as a network of Sunday schools or legal consultation centres, particularly for women in difficulty, which partly fill the gaps in the State and of the Buddhist hierarchy. Using modern means of communication – social networks, television channels, newspapers – Ma Ba Tha has thus forged strong support from a good part of the population.

In 2015, Ma Ba Tha was at the origin of a legislative package on "the protection of race and religion", relating in particular to interfaith marriage or polygamy, considered by the Muslim community as discriminatory against it. This legislative victory was, however, followed by political failure when Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) overwhelmingly won the November 2015 elections despite Ma Ba Tha's pleas for the pro-military party.

Massacres and exodus of Rohingyas

But the numerous provocations, excesses of language and anti-Muslim speeches of the most virulent monks of Ma Ba Tha as well as the political interference of the association prompted the Ma Ha Na to take measures against him. In May 2017, ten months after a first warning, Ma Ba Tha, accused of not having respected the rules of the hierarchy during his training, was ordered to no longer use his name and logo. He responded by renaming himself the "Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation". The Sangha then attacked Wirathu, who particularly welcomed the assassination in January 2017 of a renowned Muslim lawyer and banned him from public speech for a year.

There is no doubt that the repetition of incendiary speeches and provocations by the most radical members of groups like Ma Ba Tha contributed to a certain popular legitimization of this operation qualified by several international agencies as ethnic cleansing.

As early as August 2017, following several attacks by a mysterious Rohingya armed group on gendarmerie posts and other local targets in Arakan (or Rakhine) State, the Burmese army supported by groups of local villagers ( Buddhists) caused the exodus to neighboring Bangladesh of some 700 Rohingyas, considered certainly as Muslims, but also and above all as illegal Bengali migrants. Thousands of Rohingyas were victims of massacres and other human rights violations, hundreds of villages destroyed. There is no doubt that the repetition of incendiary speeches and provocations by the most radical members of groups like Ma Ba Tha contributed to a certain popular legitimization of this operation, qualified by several international agencies as ethnic cleansing and even genocide.

Some analysts, highlighting Ma Ba Tha's social investments, protest against the treatment the association receives in the Western press. “A more nuanced understanding of the sources of social support for Ma Ba Tha, rather than simplistic one-dimensional representations, is vital if Myanmar's government and international partners are to find effective ways to address the challenges posed by radical nationalism and reduce the risks of violence,” commented the International Crisis Group in a 2017 report titled “Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar.”

Very well, but in this case, the question is to know why Ma Ba Tha continues to allow ambiguity to hover by allowing its most extremist members to act and express themselves without sanction.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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