The Buddhist nationalist group formerly known as Ma Ba Tha once again struck a defiant tone this week, releasing a statement proclaiming: “No matter which names the association has adopted, no changes will be made in terms of the standpoint of the association,” and adding that “the association will adhere to its initial mission.”
Ma Ba Tha, a Burmese acronym for the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, changed its name to the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation in late May, days after Burma’s highest Buddhist authority issued a statement describing the association as illegitimate and declaring that use of its banner for any purpose would be prohibited as of 15 July. The ban — ordered by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee — was to apply to affiliated signage, requiring that any insignia representative of the group be taken down by the mandated date.
The statement from the foundation, dated 26 July, defended its continued existence as lawful and called any effort to question its legitimacy “mostly groundless statements and criticisms” made by “lowly people.”
“Recently, those individuals from inside and outside of the country who are against the endeavours to protect race and religion are attacking and damaging the image of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion in various ways. Even the Buddhists populations in the country were deceived by such actions of those individuals,” began the statement, without naming any person or group specifically.
“We hereby affirm that we strongly condemn those individuals who have attacked a lawful association like the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation in various ways and will counter such acts in accordance with Dhamma,” the missive concluded.
It was not clear what prompted the latest broadside from the nationalist group, which issued a similar defence of its existence shortly after being targeted for dissolution. Media reports in recent days, however, have indicated that Ma Ba Tha signage remained posted after the 15 July deadline had passed at some locations in Mandalay, and Karen and Arakan states.
U Wirathu, a firebrand monk long-affiliated with Ma Ba Tha, shared the foundation’s statement this week on his Facebook page.
Some of Ma Ba Tha’s most prominent critics have included Rangoon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein and Union Minister for Religious Affairs Aung Ko. The association’s notoriety even reached the US capital in 2015, when it was specifically mentioned in an American spending bill that denied funding to “any organization or individual the Secretary of State determines and reports to the appropriate congressional committees advocates violence against ethnic or religious groups and individuals in Burma, including such organizations as Ma Ba Tha.”
Criticism dogged Ma Ba Tha since its formation in 2014, with the association accused of fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment at a time of heightened tensions between Burma’s majority-Buddhist and minority-Muslim communities. The group often found its most prominent voice in U Wirathu, who infamously appeared on the cover of an issue of TIME magazine’s Asia edition in July 2013 accompanied by the headline “The face of Buddhist terror.”