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The Rise of MaBaTha - Extreme Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar

12 October 2017

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(excerpts from the executive summary Asia Report 290, International Crisis Group)

[ . . . ] Since the start of the political liberalisation in 2011, Myanmar has been troubled by an upsurge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and deadly communal violence, not only in Rakhine state but across the country. The most prominent nationalist organisation is the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (commonly referred to by its Burmese-language acronym, MaBaTha), made up of monks, nuns and laypeople. The government has focused considerable effort on curtailing this group and pushing the top Buddhist authority in Myanmar to ban it. Yet these efforts have been largely ineffective at weakening the appeal of nationalist narratives and organisations, and have probably even enhanced them. However uncomfortable it may be, a more nuanced understanding of the sources of social support for MaBaTha, as opposed to simplistic one-dimensional portrayals, is vital if the government and Myanmar’s international partners are to find effective ways to address the challenges posed by radical nationalism and reduce risks of violence.

[. . .]

The Rise of MaBaTha

A. Origins of the Organisation

The recent resurgence of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar was spearheaded in part by the “969” movement, which first became prominent in the southern city of Mawlamyine in 2011. 969 is numerological shorthand for the special attributes of Buddha and his teachings and a riposte to the number “786”, a folk Islam representation of the Basmala long used by Muslims in Myanmar and elsewhere to identify halal restaurants and Muslim-owned shops.
The 969 movement was led by prominent monks including Ashin Wirathu and Ashin Wimala and was particularly vocal in its extremist rhetoric, making claims of a Muslim plot to take over the country and of schemes to pay Muslims for marrying and converting Buddhist women.

These dire warnings combined with a simple message to the faithful to “buy Buddhist” resonated strongly and were spread widely in the country through DVDs and 969 stickers. Yet the movement remained decentralised, with no infrastructure beyond the monastic economies of individual member monks.

Wirathu had begun preaching in 2001 about the rising threat presented by Islam and was arrested two years later and sentenced to 25 years in jail for inciting deadly violence in his home town of Kyaukse by distributing inflammatory anti-Muslim pamphlets; he was freed in 2011 as part of a broad amnesty by then-President Thein Sein.
He and the 969 movement revived old prejudices: a British colonial inquiry into the 1938 riots noted that “one of the major sources of anxiety in the minds of a great number of Burmese was the question of the marriage of their womenfolk with foreigners in general and with Indians in particular”.

In late-2013, the 969 movement was effectively banned by the Sangha Council, the government-appointed body of monks that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy.
In the announcement, the Sangha Council said nothing about links between the 969 movement’s inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and subsequent outbreaks of deadly violence, but focused on the movement’s unauthorised use of Buddhist symbolism. This was not an outright dismissal of the group’s ideology, but rather reflected the Sangha Council’s frustration with the 969 movement’s lobbying for the enactment of the protection of race and religion laws (see below) – not because the council considered the laws unnecessary or inappropriate, but rather because the protection and promotion of religion comes under the remit of the Sangha Council and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Members of the 969 movement rejected not only the legitimacy of the ban, but of the Sangha Council in general, which they stated was formed by the previous military regime to control the monkhood, and which they saw as serving the interests of the government not the faith. Such views are widely held in Myanmar, though MaBaTha’s highest-ranking monks tell members that disparaging the Sangha Council is bad karma.

These actions against the 969 movement prompted it to evolve into the somewhat more formal structure of MaBaTha. Though founded a few months earlier in June 2013, MaBaTha was not particularly prominent until January 2014, when its upper Myanmar branch was established in Mandalay. Its founding monks then stated publicly that the organisation was intended not only to support the 969 movement’s ideology, but also to rein in outspoken “younger monks” (including Wirathu) who were prompting domestic and international criticism. In addition, MaBaTha’s structure was specifically designed to give official roles to laymen and women, which in turn created ambiguity about the Sangha Council’s jurisdiction over the group.
MaBaTha immediately picked up where the 969 movement had left off, rallying for the adoption of the race and religion laws and extending awareness of nationalist ideology – and the MaBaTha brand – far into rural and remote parts of the country, and making it by far the most prominent and nationally-known Buddhist nationalist group. [ . . . ] .


Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar - Asia Report No 290 (5 September 2017)
International Crisis Group