Emergence and Organizational Structure
By Aman Ullah
Burma’s leading state-backed cleric organization, Ma Ha Na, has announced on July 12 that the ultranationalist group Ma Ba Tha is not a “lawful monks’ association” as “it was not formed in accordance with the country’s monastic rules.”
The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the highest level of all Sangha Organization, comprising 47 chief members of the Sangha (Mahatheras) represent over five-hundred thousand members of the Sangha residing in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.
Citing section 4 of the State Sangha’s basic rules, the statement said there must be only one Sangha association composed of all Buddhist orders in the country, which repudiates Ma Ba Tha’s claim that it was formed in accordance with the Sangha’s rules and laws.
“This is to clarify the confusion among the public: Ma Ba Tha is not a Buddhist organisation that was formed in accordance with the basic Sangha rules, regulations and directives of the State Sangha authority,” the leaked document said.
According to the statement, there are only nine Buddhist orders around the country and the formation of a new Buddhist order is prohibited. Such organisations may also never deal in political affairs, the law said.
The State Sangha plans to issue orders banning members of township Sanghas from participating in Ma Ba Tha, or activities led by the group.
The Ma Ba Tha is a noisy monk-led group that has been at the forefront of anti-Muslim protests in Myanmar in the three years since it was founded.
The statement came hours ahead of a two-day gathering of around 50 of Myanmar’s top monks in a meeting room inside a man-made cave on the outskirts of Yangon.
Ma Ba Tha is known across the world as a racist Buddhist organisation. Its work fans the flames of hatred and violence against Muslims in Myanmar, particularly the Rohingya in Rakhine State. Its most prominent leader is Ashin Wirathu, dubbed the “bin Laden of Buddhism” for his violent, religious extremism.
The Ma Ba Tha emerged as potent political force under the former military-backed government, successfully lobbying for a series of laws that rights groups say discriminate against women and religious minorities.
Scores of people have been killed in sectarian riots that have billowed out in step with their protests.
Emergence of Ma Ba Tha
The persecution and marginalization of Myanmar’s Muslim population have sharply increased in recent years. In 2012, the country was rocked by the worst sectarian violence in over 50 years, resulting in over 200 killed and 140,000 displaced, most of them being the Rohingya. A 2015 study by the United States Holocaust Museum counted 19 early warning signs of genocide in Myanmar since the start of sectarian violence. Another study by the International State Crime Initiative concluded that the Rohingyas had already passed the first four stages of genocide, including dehumanization and segregation and are now on the verge of mass annihilation. Anti-Muslim sentiment has grown so widespread that even Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party declined to field a single Muslim among their 1,100 candidates for the November 2015 elections. Initially, the violence was primarily targeted against the Rohingya Muslims, a minority population in Rakhine State whose origin and citizenship are bitterly denied by Buddhist hardliners.
A campaign of hate speech that actively dehumanizes Muslims plays a key role in sustaining violence across Myanmar. This is not limited to the Rohingya, and in fact, anti-Muslim sentiment has evolved to the point that a range of anti-Muslim prejudices have now normalized in mainstream Burmese discourse. A tense inter-faith atmosphere has resulted in Muslim grievances finding an unreceptive ear even among many liberal and pro-democracy activists, and small triggers rapidly escalating into mob violence. The most recent such eruption was in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, in July 2014, where a mob destroyed several Muslim businesses, and resulted in the deaths of two people.
Against this backdrop, a network of ultra-nationalist monks organized as the “Ma Ba Tha” (the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion) has grown rapidly. The Ma Ba Tha has been formally active since only 2014 when it was established, but it has already grown into one of Myanmar’s most powerful socio-political forces. In 2015, it achieved huge success. Most notable was the passage of all four ‘Protection of Race and Religion Laws’ that the Ma Ba Tha had drafted and lobbied for. Collectively, the laws actively target and discriminate against key tenets of Burmese Muslim society, and significantly infringe on their religious and social freedoms. These legislative actions are backed by a sophisticated mass messaging campaign that co-opts the various anti-Muslim prejudices latent across society, and packages them into a coherent narrative that has mass appeal.
Alongside the violence, there has been a growing ultranationalist campaign by elements within the Burmese monkhood to protect Myanmar and Buddhism against an apparently existential Muslim threat. The most visible manifestation of this campaign came in the form of the “969,” a grassroots movement started in Mon State in 2012 by a group of five junior-level monks seeking ‘to protect race and religion in Myanmar.’ The 969 message, which overtly targeted Muslims, spread rapidly across Myanmar, with stickers and flags bearing the group’s logo appearing on taxis, businesses, and homes.
The 969 showed significant marketing savvy. Its monks displayed an innate ability to package commonly held grievances and prejudices against Muslims that have existed for centuries into easily digestible content relevant to a modern mass audience. They then distributed these through a variety of new media channels, including social media. The 969 is widely alleged to have helped fuel the violence. It is said that the ‘hidden hands’ behind the June 2012 Rakhine violence found a “recurrent pattern,” with 969 sermons preceding anti-Muslim riots.
However, while the 969’s message found widespread resonance, the 969 organization itself remained a decentralized grassroots movement without the infrastructure necessary to catalyze any meaningful socio-political change on a national scale. In late 2013, the 969 was banned by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka (Ma Ha Na).
The Ma Ba Tha (the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion or, as it often translates itself, the Patriotic Monks Association of Myanmar) has risen as the 969 has waned. A much more coherent organization than the 969, the Ma Ba Tha has become the steward of the populist anti-Muslim narrative launched by the 969, and in large part as a result, has grown into one of the country’s most powerful socio-political forces. In this process, the Ma Ba Tha has come dangerously close to violating the laws of both the Burmese constitution and of the monkhood. Monks are governed by the rules of the Buddhist Sangha that discourage involvement in politics, and are prohibited from abusing “religion for political purposes” under Section 365 and from voting under Section 392 of the 2008 constitution.
As one of the country’s largest religious organizations, the Ma Ba Tha lends significant legitimacy to the anti-Muslim narratives that are poisoning Myanmar’s socio-political discourse. The Ma Ba Tha claims to have over 250 offices and 10 million followers across the nation. Ma Ba Tha monks are spread out in local chapters across the country; as a result, they have significant autonomy in their local operations.
The Ma Ba Tha is officially led by a 52-member Central Committee (CC) that is sub-divided into the Central Executive Committee (CEC), and then further divided into eight Managerial Departments. Among the 52 members only 42 were able to identify with a high probability, including by cross-referencing lists and news compiled by local journalists. The identified (CC) members include several of the founding 969 monks and some of Myanmar’s most influential and respected mainstream Buddhist monks. These monks represent a diverse range of opinions on the “Muslim issue” and some would even be considered moderate relative to their colleagues; however, most, if not all, agree that ‘race and religion’ are under threat, and primarily by the Muslim minority.
Their ‘head office’ is at Ashin Tiloka Bhivunsa’s Insein monastery, where they oversee a powerful communications apparatus including news and electronic media, cable broadcast deals, and conferences. Through this media apparatus, they are not only able to provide public profile of individual monks but also significant donor funding as well and also able to propagate widely their core messages.
The Chairman of the Central Committee is Ashin Tiloka Bhivunsa an Abbot of Insein Ywama Monastery, who leads the eight-member Central Executive Committee (CEC). He holds the title Agga Maha Pandita one of the highest honorifics in Theravada Buddhism and oversees a monastery school in Yangon with 1,000 students.
The Vice Chairman Sitagu Sayadaw (also known as Ashin Nyanissara) is also an Agga Maha Pandita and is one of popular and influential monks. He has publicly spoken out against the violence in 2012 and voiced several popular prejudices associated with Burmese Muslims. However, it is said that, he plays a backseat, but seemingly opportunistic role. He tried to be distancing himself from the Ma Ba Tha during the last two years and avoid to attend 2015 annual conference, and also released a statement in early 2015 that he is only related with his Sitagu Buddhist Missionary organization not any other else. However, after the ratification of the Race and Religion bills in late October, he returned to deliver the keynote speech at the triumphant celebration rally in Yangon.
Among the CEC another prominent hardliners monk is Ashin Kawi Daza, the Abbot of Mae-Baung monastery in Karen State, who was one of the most senior monks associated with the 969, and is one of the most aggressive anti-Muslim propagandists in the country. In September 2012, a Buddhist nationalist group based at his monastery issued one of the first anti-Muslim boycott orders, circulating leaflets in the Hpa-an township instructing Buddhists under threat of “serious effective penalty” to immediately cease selling or renting property to and buying goods from Muslims. The leaflet also forbids Buddhist women from marrying Muslim men.
Under the Central Executive Committee, there are eight “departments” that are led by “managers”, most of who are prominent “younger” monks and were formerly associated with the 969 movement. Several of these monks constantly carry on anti-Muslim hate speech, while several are engaged in activities that could be viewed as blurring the lines between religion and politics. The most famous of them is Wirathu who served several years in jail for inciting anti-Muslim riots that led to the death of several Muslim civilians in his home village of Kyauk-se in 2003 and routinely paints Muslims in a negative light in the media.
A significant amount of operational influence over the Ma Ba Tha’s strategy and its communications apparatus is believed to reside with the younger, more outspoken members. For example, Wirathu, as mentioned, is officially only a ‘manager’ in the formal hierarchy, but he has managed many significant events, which were greater than his formal responsibility.
Addition to the prominent monks, about half of the 23 identified “members” of the Central Committee are laypeople who offer technical expertise that monks do not have. Laypeople are concentrated in the Legal Affairs, Accounting, and Information and Media departments. Key individuals among them include Maung Thway Chun, editor of the Ma Ba Tha’s popular Aung Zeyathu journal and U Ye Khaung Nyunt, a lawyer who oversees the legal department. These technical departments have been central to the Ma Ba Tha’s success, and are important examples of the growing efficiency and professionalism of the group. They have been crucial in helping the Ma Ba Tha expand its media outreach, navigate the legal environment with ever-increasing efficiency, and have served as training centers for the broader network of Ma Ba Tha supporters and volunteers.
The most visible symbol of Ma Ba Tha power has been its massive public conferences. The latest mass event was the Ma Ba Tha-sponsored nation-wide celebration of the Race and Religion Bills in late September and early October 2015, which were so large that gatherings had to be housed in sports stadiums. In fact, the main event on October 2, 2015 had over 30,000 attendees and had to receive special dispensation to use Rangoon’s Thuwanna stadium from the President himself, who usually does not allow its use for non-sporting events. Prior to that celebration, the Ma Ba Tha had also held at least two large conferences, in January 2014 and in June 2015. Social media posts of these events indicate that these events are invariably well organized to rival most professional and mainstream conferences. Events feature sign-in sheets, lanyards, and name badges for all attendees; table cards and television screens for speakers; and a large amount of Ma Ba Tha paraphernalia for attendees, including t-shirts emblazoned with the Ma Ba Tha logo, as seen on social media; In late 2015, even food aid supplied by the Ma Ba Tha was distributed in sacks stamped with their logo, according to imagery on Facebook.
Monks under the Ma Ba Tha umbrella appear to operate with a significant degree of autonomy. Monks often conduct initiatives on their own prerogative, but with the implicit support of the Ma Ba Tha, which gives them significant power in their dealings. For example, the Ma Ba Tha’s protest movement pressured the government to cancel a very high-profile multi-million dollar real-estate project on military-owned land due to its proximity to the Shwedagon Pagoda. The Architectural Association of Myanmar and the Yangon Heritage Trust had already been waging a campaign to halt the project, but the government’s decision to cancel only came after the Ma Ba Tha’s involvement. The protest was initially spearheaded by Ashin Parmoukkha, but quickly became a major agenda among the broader the Ma Ba Tha community. With such significant mobilizing power that can pressure even Myanmar’s most powerful actors, it is worrying when leading Ma Ba Tha monks choose to focus on already vulnerable communities.
In this context, one of the more worrying recent trends has been the interference of Ma Ba Tha monks in local police and judicial cases. Ashin Parmoukkha appears the most egregious, as seen in various pieces of imagery from 2015. For example, he is seen allegedly reviewing the police case file on a Muslim man accused of stabbing his Buddhist friend. In another, in Sanchaung Township, he is seen on social media allegedly pressuring firmer sentencing against a reportedly mentally ill Muslim imam, while in North Okkalapa Township, he is seen Facebook lobbying for charges against 200 Muslims who had ‘illegally gathered’ alongside members from a virulently anti-Muslim youth activist group. More recently in October 2015, he can be seen on social media visiting a local crime scene even before the body had been cleared. In November 2015, the police arrested and fined $800 to five men for publishing and releasing a colander that claiming Rohingya to be an ethnic group of Myanmar but by the intervention of Ashin Parmoukha and other Ma Ba Tha monks, the police re-arrested and incarcerated the men The local police chief admitted to local media that he had “received an order from my superiors to arrest these men under a different charge” and added that, “this is a case related to protecting the race and religion.”
The Ma Ba Tha has also used this power to influence judicial cases at a higher level, including attacking interfaith activists. For example, Zaw Zaw Latt, an inter faith activist, was arrested in 2015 for a photograph of himself with a firearm in Kachin, two years prior to the arrest. He was charged for being in association with ‘unlawful groups;’ Latt’s family claims that Ma Ba Tha members showed up at his court hearings. In addition, he was targeted by at least one Ma Ba Tha magazine.
Many prominent monks with large follower bases regularly travel across the country to attend sermons, rallies, and events. For example, Wirathu appears to maintain a grueling travel schedule. According to the data collected by the Burmese Muslim Association, he made a total of 24 public appearances across the country in just one month in March 2015, including in Mandalay, Yangon, Kachin, Mon, Karen, and Rakhine states. During these visits, he is alleged to have cultivated relationships with various hard-line political parties and armed groups around the country. According to available imagery from Rakhine State, Wirathu met with Aye Maung, the leader of a major Rakhine nationalist party, and Maung Maung Ohn, the then-Chief Minister. In Karen State, he met with leaders from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, an anti-Muslim breakaway group from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), as seen in the left-hand image below.
(To be continued…)