Myanmar government cracks down on Buddhist nationalists

Some critics say the government’s move against the hard-line nationalist Ma Ba Tha group comes too little, too late.

Buddhist monk Wirathu,
File: Wirathu, pictured in the centre, is known for his controversial statements against Muslims [Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP]

Myanmar is cracking down on a hard-line Buddhist nationalist group, aiming to curb ethnic and religious tension that saw two mosques destroyed and scores of Muslim residents fleeing their villages in recent weeks.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and government leader Aung San Suu Kyi has come under criticism from human rights activists and lawyers for not cracking down on the perpetrators of the attacks aimed at the Muslim minority.

In an apparent response to the criticism, the government has made a surprisingly decisive move against an organisation of nationalist monks, known as the Ma Ba Tha, threatening legal action if it spreads hate speech and incites violence.

On Friday, the government launched a task force to prevent violent protests as part of a broader push to stop religious violence.

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Religious tension simmered in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for almost half a century of military rule, before boiling over in 2012 in the west of the country into clashes between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.

Violence between Muslims and Buddhists in other areas followed in 2013 and 2014.

President Htin Kyaw said in a statement that the task force would not only move against violent protesters, but also investigate and hold accountable anyone inciting violence.

“We do not want to disturb peaceful protests, but we do not allow violence while protesting,” said Zaw Htay, spokesman for the State Councillor’s Office occupied by Suu Kyi.

Critics have accused the group of using hate speech and inspiring violence against Muslims, and members of the ruling National League for Democracy party have said Ma Ba Tha is largely responsible for the spread of Islamophobia across the country.

The Sangha Council, the country’s officially sanctioned order of monks, declared on Tuesday that it did not recognise Ma Ba Tha as a member of the country’s Buddhist order.

Most politicians have been reluctant to criticise the group because its nationalist message seemed popular in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar.

‘Enemy number one’

“I’ve realised that the ruling party and the new government are targeting me as their ‘enemy number one’ to dismantle the whole Ma Ba Tha,” Wirathu said in his Wednesday statement. “A dictatorial woman’s government is going to put me in prison.”

His group was hostile to Suu Kyi’s party even before last November’s election, but didn’t stem its landslide victory.

Ma Ba Tha – more formally known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion – “was never recognised as a real Buddhist organisation”, Win Htein, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s ruling party and a government legal affairs expert, said on Friday.

“Now the Sangha Council finally has to denounce them because they have become uncontrollable.”

He said the government was reluctant to act ahead of the council’s action, but now was less constrained.

Minister of Culture and Religion Aung Ko told reporters on Thursday that the government plans to ask the Sangha Council to deal with cases of hate speech.

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Ma Ba Tha has built networks across Myanmar after initial violence against Muslim Rohingyas in western Rakhine state in 2012.

As recently as June, there were two mob attacks on Muslim religious institutions in other parts of the country.

Aside from any violence it may have directly incited, Ma Ba Tha successfully lobbied the previous military-backed government for a series of laws that rights groups say discriminate against women and religious minorities.

Tun Kyi, a prominent Muslim peace activist and former political prisoner, said the government’s challenges to Ma Ba Tha come too late.

“They had caused violence, death and forcing people from their homes, and that shows the lack of rule of law in this country,” he said.

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Source: News Agencies