The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, also known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ha Na, has announced a mid-July deadline that, if enforced, would effectively put an end to the public profile of the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, in a move further imperilling the controversial association’s survival.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Burma’s highest authority on Buddhism said the 47 senior abbots of Ma Ha Na, at a special plenary meeting, had concluded that Ma Ba Tha is an illegitimate organisation and ruled that use of its banner by individuals or groups for any purpose would be prohibited as of 15 July. The ban would apply to any affiliated signage, ordering that any insignia representative of the group be taken down by the mandated date.
Sixteen leading Ma Ba Tha monks, including its chair Bandata Tilawka Biwuntha — the abbot of the Insein Ywama Pariyatti Monastery in Rangoon — and deputy chair Badanta Thila Lakhanawuntha, later on Tuesday signed onto a separate statement recognising the Ma Ha Na decision and pledging to comply.
Ma Ba Tha, a Burmese acronym for the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, has been accused in recent years of fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment with Buddhist nationalist rhetoric that has often found its most prominent voice in the firebrand monk Wirathu. He 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.”
Among the Buddhist clergy, violators of the 15 July deadline will be charged under the 1990 Law Relating to the Sangha Organisation, according to the Ma Ha Na statement, while laypersons would face consequences under “the relevant existing laws.” Ma Ha Na urged the Ministry of Home Affairs to immediately begin implementing the directive.
The 15 July deadline comes about a year after Ma Ha Na struck its initial blow against Ma Ba Tha’s legitimacy, declaring that the nationalist group’s claim to represent Buddhism were without merit. Preceding that, Rangoon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein became the most high-profile public official to criticise the group when on 3 July 2016 he questioned the need for Ma Ba Tha’s existence.
Many viewed the dual rebukes as a turning point for the nationalist group, which was formed in 2014 and was allowed to push its agenda with few constraints under the previous government.