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Several revered Buddhist monks from across Burma have spoken out against the nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement, describing it as a minority group, and its actions as divisive and politicised.
The monks joined a growing chorus of criticism of the movement, which was recently disowned by the State Sangha, hit with legal complaints and warned by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
U Ariya Bhivamsa, an abbot at Myawaddi Mingyi Monastery in Mandalay, said some monks had initially viewed Ma Ba Tha as a protector of Buddhism, but most had come to realise that it was radical and close to the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
“The majority of the Sangha community do not support Ma Ba Tha. But while the good and disciplined monks keep silent to avoid disputes, Ma Ba Tha monks are being boastful,” he told Myanmar Now.
U Sandar Siri, abbot at Shwe Thein Monastery in Rangoon who participated in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, said Ma Ba Tha was a malign influence and caused disagreements among monks.
“Burma’s Sangha [Buddhist order] never experienced any rift since Theravada Buddhism started to flourish here. But Ma Ba Tha has now caused a rift,” he said. “They must stop their works as they are going against the will of the majority of the monks.”
U Eissaria from Vimutisukha Viraha Monastery in Hpakant Township, Kachin State, another leading monk during the Saffron Revolution, said Ma Ba Tha’s attacks on other religions and its support for the USDP during the 2015 elections had undermined relations between the public and clergymen.
“There has been a remarkable division among people and monks. The works of Ma Ba Tha are disturbing Burma’s communities, instead of protecting race and religion,” he said.
U Eissaria added that the Ma Ba Tha “attacked the NLD with extremist ideology.”
Threats and damaged reputation
U Eissaria said Ma Ba Tha had also done considerable damage to the international reputation of Burma’s monks, noting that he and fellow clergymen had been labelled nationalists during their trips abroad to Denmark, France and Sweden.
“My friends told me such disturbances are happening in these countries since the emergence of Ma Ba Tha,” he said.
U Cintika, an abbott from Maha Vijitarama Monastery in Mandalay, said Ma Ba Tha’s supporters were so aggressive that they would even threaten moderate monks who publicly questioned the movement.
“There have been disputes and accusations between pro- and anti-Ma Ba Tha monks,” he said, adding that he recently received a phone call in which supposed supporters of U Wirathu, a firebrand nationalist monk based in Mandalay, had threatened to kill him.
An unexplained incident last month had raised further concerns. U Cintika said a motorbike crashed into him while he was walking back from a local pagoda at night and the drivers sped away without identifying themselves.
Ma Ba Tha monks contacted by Myanmar Now offered a limited response to the criticisms leveled against the organisation.
U Vimala Buddhi, another firebrand monk based in the Mon State capital Moulmein, said Ma Ba Tha had no political affiliation and only worked to defend Buddhism.
U Sopaka, a Buddhist monk who is the official spokesperson of Ma Ba Tha, said the organisation would continue to strengthen Buddhism, regardless of the statements by other monks, the State Sangha or the government.
“We have clear objectives and a roadmap — we will implement them in the future,” he said.
A turning point?
The Ma Ba Tha rose to prominence in the wake of the 2012 communal violence between Arakan State Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, and it initially gained sympathy for their views from Burma’s Buddhist majority.
Ahead of the 2015 elections, Ma Ba Tha monks portrayed Buddhism as threatened by Burma’s Muslim minority and said the USDP should continue to run the country in order to protect Buddhism.
Tensions between Ma Ba Tha and the government have been steadily rising since the NLD assumed power in April, as the movement tried to pressure the NLD during its attempts to resolve the Arakan crisis.
It appears to have been somewhat of a turning point and the government, NLD members and senior monks have all begun to criticise and pressure the Ma Ba Tha.
Last week, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee distanced itself from Ma Ba Tha, saying it had never officially endorsed the movement and that it was operating outside of Sangha rules and regulations.
A day later, U Wirathu was hit with a defamation suit filed with police by a Rangoon charity over highly insulting remarks he made against Yanghee Lee, the UN human rights rapporteur for Burma.