What the State Sangha Committee actually said about Ma Ba Tha

Editor’s Note: The following post was written by Tea Circle co-founder Matthew J Walton and Aung Tun, a consultant working on governance, conflict resolutions and ethnic politics in Myanmar.

On 12 July, an important document was leaked to social media that was purportedly a statement by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (hereafter Ma Ha Na, in its Burmese acronym) on the standing of Ma Ba Tha (the Burmese acronym for the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion), a prominent group often described as a “Buddhist nationalist” organization. The authenticity of this document was confirmed the following day when state-owned media ran stories about the statement. The statement clarified the relationship between Ma Ha Na and Ma Ba Tha and refuted Ma Ba Tha’s claim of official status.

Understandably, many have been encouraged by Ma Ha Na’s statement, coming as it has in the midst of high profile criticism of Ma Ba Tha from government officials, prominent monks, civil society groups, and online netizens. The flurry of responses in the past few weeks has been a particularly welcome change from the permissive environment created by the previous government for hate speech and anti-Muslim discrimination and violence.

But much of the media coverage on Ma Ha Na’s statement has largely been inaccurate to the point of being irresponsible, with articles proclaiming that Ma Ha Na had “disowned” Ma Ba Tha, that it planned to “dissolve” Ma Ba Tha, or that it had “denounced” Ma Ba Tha’s existence. In this post, we would like to clarify exactly what Ma Ha Na said in its statement and contextualize it, in relation to the nature of Ma Ha Na as an organization, its relationship with Ma Ba Tha, and the implications for Ma Ba Tha and similar groups moving forward.

First, it is important to understand the nature of Ma Ha Na. This 47-member body acts to oversee Buddhism in Myanmar, particularly the governance of the sangha (monkhood). An excellent article by Burmese scholar U Tin Maung Maung Than chronicles the meetings that centralized the sangha in Myanmar in 1980, after decades of resistance from monks. Since then, Ma Ha Na and its state-level counterparts have given directives related to Buddhism and the governance of the monkhood, ruled on cases involving monks, and also issued decisions on allegedly heretical or deviant interpretations of Buddhism.

Popular opinion in Myanmar (or at least, popular perception) sees Ma Ha Na as an out-of-touch group of old monks who hold their positions of prominence and influence due primarily to their susceptibility to being swayed by offers of titles and other benefits from leaders of previous military regimes. According to this view, Ma Ha Na monks are deeply conservative and have acted in several instances (the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” demonstrations are the most prominent example) to prolong military rule by discouraging monastic engagement in secular (read: social and political) activities.

Whether this is a fair portrayal or not, it does appear that Ma Ha Na is often particularly guided by a concern to preserve and protect both the institutions of Buddhism in Myanmar and the overall reputation of the religion. This dynamic was displayed back in September 2013 when, after more than a year of silence in the face of anti-Muslim violence that was clearly encouraged in part by some monks’ speeches and sermons, Ma Ha Na issued an order banning the political use of the 969 symbol and the creation of formal organizations associated with the symbol.

There was nothing in this statement deploring the violence that had erupted across the country or the role of monks in legitimizing and promoting anti-Muslim attitudes. There was simply a concern to protect the reputation of Buddhism and to preserve the purely “religious” status of the number 969. Not surprisingly, 969-affiliated monks rejected the order, insisting that their activities were within the sanctioned purview of a monk and declaring that they would continue their activism.

In fact, another vehicle for that activism had already been created. Ma Ba Tha was officially established on 27 June 2013, although rose to public prominence only after its Upper Myanmar branch was established on 14 January 2014. International public criticism of 969 and of anti-Muslim attitudes and actions had been growing throughout the first half of 2013 and some of the founders of Ma Ba Tha have described their actions in forming the group as a response to this criticism as well as a way to rein in outspoken younger monks (such as firebrand U Wirathu).

At the time of its founding—and at several national conferences that followed—Ma Ba Tha enjoyed both de facto and explicit support of Ma Ha Na leadership (although, importantly, not an official endorsement). For example, Bamaw Sayadaw Ashin Kumara Bhivamsa, Chair of Ma Ha Na, spoke at both Ma Ba Tha chapters’ founding meetings. Actions like this certainly gave the impression that Ma Ha Na was implicitly supportive of Ma Ba Tha and informal expressions of support continued even up to the beginning of June this year, when a statement from Ma Ha Na sought to discourage the more extreme statements and activities of Ma Ba Tha. But even in that statement, Ma Ha Na’s general secretary, U Sandhi Marbhivamsa, stated that “Some of Ma Ba Tha’s ideas are aligned partially with those of Ma Ha Na because they are under our guidance.” On 25 July, in response to the Ma Ha Na statement, Ma Ba Tha released video of the previous Minister of Religious Affairs, U San Sint, making statements at a 2014 conference that seemed to acknowledge a more formal relationship between the two groups.

These and similar actions made many people think that Ma Ba Tha had the blessing of the highest Buddhist authorities in Myanmar. While there may not have been an explicit endorsement, it is important to understand how people in Myanmar, having lived under decades of authoritarian rule, have become proficient at interpreting subtle signs and acting accordingly. This has particularly been the case when authorities do not always speak or act directly, but survival requires reading between the lines, a set of skills that those living in developed democracies have never had to acquire. [h/t to Matt Schissler for pointing this out and to Jennifer Leehey, who has done excellent research on this dynamic]

Because of this presumed endorsement, the Ma Ha Na statement was something of a surprise. Even after NLD Chief Minister of Yangon Region U Phyo Min Thein had called Ma Ba Tha unnecessary and redundant and vowed to lobby Ma Ha Na to dissolve the group, drastic action appeared unlikely. But true to form, as the tide of public opinion started to turn, monks in Ma Ha Na seemed to think that they needed to give a response, especially when U Wirathu publicly claimed that “Ma Ba Tha is organised under the authority of Ma Ha Na, and it was approved and accepted by the All Order Sangha Conference in 2013 in Kabaraye, so it is a legal organisation.”

We have read the Ma Ha Na statement carefully in Burmese and base the analysis that follows on the specific wording it contains. The statement strongly objected to a previous statement issued by Ma Ba Tha regarding its official status. Ma Ha Na said that Ma Ba Tha had not been created from the within the official orders of the sangha at any of the five councils held between 1980-2014 and that the usage of the name Ma Ba Tha was inappropriate for this reason (presumably because the protection of the Buddhist religion ought to be the primary responsibility of Ma Ha Na and not any other organization). Finally, it clarified that Ma Ba Tha had not been created in accordance with official procedures laid out in the organizational rules of the sangha.

This is a far cry from Ma Ba Tha being “disowned” or “dissolved” and it is important to specify what Ma Ha Na said (and didn’t say) because it has implications for what we can expect official reactions to be in the future (both from the government and from monastic authorities) as well as what we might expect in response from Ma Ba Tha. If U Phyo Min Thein did indeed ask Ma Ha Na to outlaw Ma Ba Tha (and the reporting on this is unclear), Ma Ha Na did not fully accept that argument. It would be one thing for the monastic committee to issue a vague rebuke of a more extreme faction within the organization, but the fact remains that some of the leading Ma Ba Tha monks are extremely well-respected and influential, its chair Insein Ywama Sayadaw being the most prominent. Ma Ha Na cannot afford a direct confrontation with a segment of monks that still retain significant and widespread popular support, despite the current public backlash.

The June statement from Ma Ha Na regarding the alignment of some of Ma Ba Tha’s views with Ma Ha Na is also not refuted in the July statement. The official response from Ma Ba Tha admitting that it was not an organization officially created under the sangha’s procedures clarified that it was a “religious missionary group,” a statement of purpose that would line up very well with some of the ways in which official Buddhist institutions have functioned in Myanmar (consider the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University based in Yangon). Many of Ma Ba Tha’s activities, including teaching dhamma schools for children and publishing books and journals on Buddhism, are also presumably in line with Ma Ha Na’s interests (and are not inherently problematic or divisive). And it is relevant to note that, although many expected Ma Ha Na to say something further about Ma Ba Tha after its internal meeting on 13-14 July, no additional statement was forthcoming, suggesting that the committee considered its statement to be the final word on the subject.

We read the July statement from Ma Ha Na clarifying Ma Ba Tha’s status as an attempt to distance the sangha committee from the nationalist organization in a way that would insulate Ma Ha Na from criticism directed at Ma Ba Tha and essentially allow Ma Ha Na to wash its hands of responsibility for Ma Ba Tha’s activities (or the speeches given by its members). But Ma Ha Na did not say that Ma Ba Tha could not exist and also did not condemn its activities (beyond its claims to more official recognition than it indeed had).

Monks like U Wirathu responded predictably, denouncing Ma Ha Na and claiming that it was still being controlled by the government, now in NLD hands. But the official response from Ma Ba Tha was more muted. The group had already cancelled a threatened protest against U Phyo Min Thein’s initial comments and Ashin Sopaka, a prominent Ma Ba Tha monk, merely confirmed that “what Ma Ha Na said was true.”

What does this mean for Ma Ba Tha moving forward? One prediction after the November 2015 election was that we might begin to see more splits in the group, as it moved beyond the rallying power of its four “religious protection” laws and its members began to espouse more diverse aims and methods. We have definitely seen some leading Ma Ba Tha monks resign or distance themselves from the group, some possibly due to relationships with or pressure from the NLD, others maybe concerned with their reputation, and others because of disagreements over Ma Ba Tha’s political allegiances.

One likely scenario is that, in response to Ma Ha Na’s statement, some of Ma Ba Tha’s more senior monastic leaders recalibrate to tone down their anti-Muslim rhetoric and re-focus the organization on educational and social goals, recognizing that Ma Ha Na may not want a fight but is now willing to act if it feels that certain lines are crossed. This might then compel some of Ma Ba Tha’s younger and more activist monks to branch off or focus their activities through different channels. Indeed, U Wirathu recently reaffirmed the affiliation between 969 and the Sri Lanka-based Bodu Bala Sena, and numerous smaller groups, such as the Patriotic Monks Union, have been the “ground troops” for organizing protests and other public events. It is notable that, in response to reporting that a group from the Patriotic Monks Union had interrogated a vendor at Shwedagon Pagoda for selling items from a non-Buddhist distributor, Ma Ba Tha’s media outlet published a statement saying it had no connection to the incident.

It also seems clear that, while Ma Ha Na’s statement may not have been as strong a repudiation of Ma Ba Tha as many have understood it, responses from the government have been more direct. In addition to U Phyo Min Thein’s frank comments, Union Religious Affairs Minister Thura U Aung Ko explicitly warned Ma Ba Tha against hate speech and cited the forthcoming hate speech law, which could be used to punish the kind of rhetoric that some Ma Ba Tha monks thrive on. If popular perception—which sees Ma Ha Na as simply a tool of the ruling party—is correct, it could also indicate that the recent statement is the beginning of a shift to a less permissive position from Ma Ha Na on anti-Muslim and Buddhist nationalist activities, provided the NLD government is committed to this stance.

It is also important to acknowledge that, even as we are parsing and contextualizing Ma Ha Na’s statement, the same is happening among Burmese communities and many of them are interpreting the statement as an outright rejection. We believe that there is a danger in reading too much into Ma Ha Na’s statement, but there is a potential positive consequence as well. That is, state authorities (including national and local officials, judges, and policy) have been unwilling to take action against Ma Ba Tha monks, even when there has been clear evidence of hate speech or incitement. Some have even said that they could not act because these matters were under the jurisdiction of Ma Ha Na. Ma Ha Na’s statement could remove the presumed protective shield from Ma Ba Tha and affiliated monks, empowering authorities to act in cases where they would previously have been reluctant. [h/t to Matt Schissler for raising this possibility]

While many have welcomed this new attitude of state and religious authorities toward Ma Ba Tha, it is important to be aware of how far the Ma Ha Na statement went. And while it is certainly important for authorities to begin rolling back the free hand that groups like Ma Ba Tha had for anti-Muslim activities, it’s also worth reflecting on the consequences of a broader split within Myanmar’s monkhood. Ideological divides that occurred in Burma from the 1930s through the 1950s pitted right-leaning and left-leaning monastic groups against each other, with groups attacking each other in the press and sometimes even coming to blows in the streets. Myanmar’s sangha remains an incredibly influential institution, having joined or led pro-democracy protests on many occasions, but having been a leading instigator of inter-religious conflict over the past few years. Ma Ha Na’s statement on Ma Ba Tha reflects the delicate balancing act it must maintain as it tries to guide and control an ideologically diverse and potentially powerful community of monks.

Author: matthewjwalton

Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly Buddhism in Myanmar and Burmese Buddhist political thought. He also writes on ethnicity, conflict, and Burmese politics more generally.

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