Authorities against ultranationalist Buddhist party

The Ma Ba Tha, or Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, applied to register a party. Banned by the government in the past, the movement is pro-military, and accuses Myanmar’s civilian government of not protecting Buddhism. The worst incidents of religious intolerance have occurred in its strongholds. It claims ten million members in almost 300 townships.

Naypyitaw (AsiaNews/Agency) – The Union Election Commission (UEC) has rejected an application to form a political party filed by a group of lay persons from the ultranationalist Ma Ba Tha Buddhist association.

The UEC rejected the application at its meeting on 23 November, saying that some group members were not in compliance with the Political Parties Registration Law.

Maung Thway Chon, one of the leaders of the would-be party, accused the UEC of discriminating against Ma Ba Tha, which has criticised Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government over the past year.

“Their denial of our request to form a party, before we have had a chance to act [as a party], is a suppression of nationalism and goes against democratic norms,” he said.

Ma Ba Tha grew out of 969, a nationalist movement established in 2012 to boycott Muslim-owned businesses. In 2013, 969 members rebranded the group as the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha.

The movement accuses Aung San Suu Kyi’s movement of favouring Muslims and not protecting Buddhist traditions and culture, a task which, in its opinion, was done by the military alone.

In recent months, some of its most important members, including the controversial monk Wirathu (pictured), have preached and published numerous anti-Islamic sermons, fuelling ethnic tensions in the country.

In May, the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a government body composed of high-profile monks that oversees and regulates the Sangha (monastic community), forbade Ma Ba Tha from operating under its name and ordered it to remove its signs across the country by 15 July. Since then, Ma Ba Tha has used the Buddha Dhamma Charity Foundation.

In late May, the movement celebrated its fourth anniversary unveiling a plan to form a political party that would work for the national interest, unity and sovereignty. On that occasion, the leaders claimed that Ma Ba Tha had ten million members in almost 300 townships across the country.

Myanmar’s worst incidents of religious intolerance usually occur in its strongholds, even against Christians, which are often prevented from meeting for Sunday services.

Theravada Buddhism is the country’s main religion, practiced by about 89 per cent of the population. The Bamar are its main ethnic group, followed by Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Karen, Zo and ethnic Chinese.

Myanmar has the highest proportion of monks to the population and the highest spending on religion. Monks, who are revered in society, number about 500,000, whilst nuns are around 75,000.

Most Burmese are suspicious about monks who are members of ultra-nationalist groups, often linked to the military and its business interests.

Conversely, they have great respect for the monks who led the struggle against the military junta, which cracked down hard in the past, killing hundreds.