Ma Ba Tha: the faces of Burmese radical Buddhism

- through Fabrice Groult

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Gallery of portraits of devotees of Ma Ba Tha.

“In our country, you are just a whore. This insult, launched in 2015 by Wirathu during a speech in Yangon in front of several thousand people, was aimed at the Korean Yanghee Lee, special rapporteur of the United Nations on human rights in Burma, who had criticized a discriminatory bill against non-Buddhists. It is one of the innumerable provocations which have made this monk the best-known face of Burmese Buddhist radicalism.

When he appeared on the media scene in 2011, Wirathu, then 43, had just been released from prison where he had just spent eight years for inciting violence against the Islamic minority. As soon as he was released, in charge of one of the twenty Buddhist teaching classes at the Masoeyein monastery in Mandalay, he launched with colleagues the movement 969. This man with a chubby face and a charming smile exudes an undeniable charisma that has enabled him to seduce and retain crowds of unconditional admirers. In 2015, as reported The Express, during a sermon in front of hundreds of people in Meiktila, in the center of the country, he was loudly applauded by declaring: “Is it better to marry a dog or a Muslim? A dog, because unlike a Muslim, a dog will never ask you to change your religion…”

Wirathu, the “Burmese Bin Laden”

The reasons for Wirathu's sudden release from anonymity have never been clarified. Seasoned observers of the Burmese scene argue that during his years in prison, he was "conditioned" by an extremist faction of the Burmese junta under the leadership of Aung Thaung, who was general and Minister of Industry - this which allowed him to become a multi-millionaire - before being elected to parliament in 2010. Aung Thaung is said to have made several visits to Wirathu in his cell. The latter, questioned by The Express, does not deny: "It was simply a question of courtesy visits, nothing more". Aung Thaung, who died in 2015, had been blacklisted by the US government a year earlier for "encouraging violence, oppression and corruption".

The course of Wirathu, who in 2012 spoke of him as "Burmese Bin Laden", is then only a succession of provocations condemned by the Sangha and many Burmese, but never - or with weakness - by the Ma Ba Tha . In October 2019, accused of sedition for making an anti-government speech and under an arrest warrant, he is on the run.

Other monks who are members of Ma Ba Tha have committed themselves all over the country in the radical footsteps of Wirathu. Among the best known are Ashin Vimala Buddhi, abbot of a temple in Mon State and general secretary of the association, as well as Ashin Kawi Daza, head of a temple in Karen State, also associated to the 969 movement.

“Is it better to marry a dog or a Muslim? A dog, because unlike a Muslim, a dog will never ask you to change your religion…” Wirathu

Several personalities who had previously made themselves known for noble reasons have joined the movement. Among them, Ashin Sopaka, 42, who had fled the dictatorship in 2001 to take refuge in several Asian countries and then in Germany. After having been one of the leaders of the revolt of the monks in September 2007, he had traveled the world organizing marches for peace and founded projects in Thailand for Burmese refugees living on a municipal dump. When he returned to Burma in 2011, he led demonstrations calling in particular for the “release of political detainees” and then joined Ma Ba Tha, of which he became a virulent spokesperson. No one knows what prompted this man, apparently steeped in empathy and tolerance, to become an openly Islamophobic militant. “We will never give them land. Not even an inch. These are people who want to kill others,” he declared in 2012 to CBS News about the Rohingyas, in the aftermath of a new wave of violence targeting them.


Ma Ba Tha's most ambiguous personality is Sitagu Sayadaw (also known as Ashin Nyanissara). Renowned for his philanthropic projects and his work in teaching the dhamma - which earned him the prestigious title of Agga Maha Pandita, one of the most honorary in Theravada Buddhism -, this 82-year-old man is considered one of the most influential and respected Buddhist monks not only in Burma, but also abroad where he is often invited. Since he accepted the vice-presidency of Ma Ba Tha, he seems to be evolving in a delicate position of balancing act, expressing for example during conferences of the association his support for its objectives while affirming to play no role in them. formal. On several occasions, he also made comments that shocked many, including some of his followers. In November 2017, in front of Burmese army officers, he quoted a passage from mahavamsa, an epic poem from the 2019th century, which at best could be interpreted as an absolution, at worst a justification for a soldier killing another human being. More recently, in July XNUMX, speaking about the UNESCO World Heritage listing of the Buddhist archaeological site of Bagan, he accused the Burmese government of handing over this heritage to an organization funded by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. (OIC). “How could they deliver Bagan to them and use their money for our Buddhist heritage? »

If the popularity of these monks affiliated with Ma Ba Tha is indisputable, it is difficult to measure the magnitude. Many moderate monks believe that the systematic use of the media and social networks has amplified the message of their colleagues beyond their real representativeness. The nationalists "do not represent 89% of Myanmar's Buddhist population, but their voices are higher than those of most monks who keep their cool and prefer not to speak out against them", the newspaper said. UCA News Ariya Wun Tha Bhiwun Sa, better known as Myawaddy Sayadaw, a monk from Mandalay who leads interfaith campaigns against hate and violence across the country.

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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