Tea Circle

“Rowdy monks” or a crisis of monastic authority?

Matthew J Walton looks at Ma Ba Tha’s persistence in the light of criticisms of Myanmar’s monastic authorities.

The NLD government’s relatively quiet campaign against nationalist monks has burst into the headlines again in the past few weeks. First, on 21 February, Minister of Religious Affairs and Culture U Aung Ko made a request to the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na, in its Burmese acronym) that the group step up its disciplining of monks who speak or behave in ways that disgrace the religion. Then, on 25 February, another monk named Ashin Issariya (famous for his organising role in the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” and probably better known by his pen name “King Zero”) tried to hold a press conference to call on the government and Ma Ha Na to discipline U Wirathu for disrespecting Buddhism. It was disrupted by a group of aggressive “nationalist monks,” which seemed to prompt another statement from U Aung Ko the following day. In this statement, he claimed that the government found it difficult to act against these monks because of a lack of consensus within society on the proper political role of monks.

Hand-wringing about monks in politics is nothing new in Myanmar. Unsurprisingly, this is itself a deeply politicised topic, where one’s approval of a monk’s “political” activities often depends on how much those activities align with one’s own political perspective. (It is also important to note the ways in which the term “political monk” has been used to delegitimise monastic activities since at least the colonial era, and regularly under previous military governments.) It may be a bit disingenuous of the minister to suggest that, in order for the authorities to be able to take action, society needs to make a definitive determination on what has always been and likely always will be an essentially contested question within Buddhist cultures. But this recent series of events shines light on how the precarity of religious authority in Myanmar today has shaped the current incarnation of “Buddhist nationalist” groups.

For the last 18 months, I have been part of a research team (that also includes Dr Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi, Aye Thein and Saw Aung Than Wai) for the ESRC-funded project “Understanding ‘Buddhist nationalism’ in Myanmar.” Part of our goal has been to track the nuances and variation in the phenomenon of “Buddhist nationalism” in different contexts across Myanmar, essentially disaggregating a movement that we believe is neither unitary nor unified.

Crisis of Authority

Recently, members of our research team gave a talk at the University of Oxford in which we positioned the emergence of Ma Ba Tha (the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion, mostly re-branded since June 2017 as the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation) within an extended crisis of religious and religio-political authority in Myanmar. (You can listen to a podcast of the talk here.) We know that the current transition has generated deeply felt anxieties regarding the resilience of Buddhism in the country. While this has been most notably and problematically directed against a perceived existential threat from Islam, there is a complementary line of concern related to the level of devotion in Buddhist practice and corresponding levels of respect for Buddhist institutions such as the sangha (monkhood).

Ma Ba Tha rose to prominence amidst persistent criticisms of Ma Ha Na, which I describe briefly below. But, however much Burmese monks might resent the politically motivated centralisation of the monkhood, they also seem to value the existence of the monastic authority, both because of its role in keeping discipline within the sangha and as a voice of advocacy for monks and for Buddhism, more generally. Persistent concerns that Ma Ha Na is simply a tool of the government (whichever government is in power) run alongside a sense that the organisation is necessary, but no longer sufficient, for the protection of Buddhism. It is these sentiments, we argue, that created fertile ground for a group like Ma Ba Tha to emerge and occupy a crucial religio-political space. And it is disputes over the proper boundaries of that space and the role of monks and political authorities within it, that underlie recent events related to monastic discipline and governance.

Criticisms of Ma Ha Na

The 47 monks at the top of the Ma Ha Na hierarchy are often seen as old and out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of the monkhood and of Buddhism more broadly. Most critics stop short of claiming that individual monks within Ma Ha Na are “corrupt,” but there are worries about its senior figures having become too comfortable and that their decisions have been influenced by their receiving titles and respect from high-ranking lay figures. They are particularly criticised for being under the control of the government, under whose auspices Ma Ha Na was created in the 1980s. As one monk told us, “Under normal circumstances, it’s good to have an organization like Ma Ha Na. However, it shouldn’t exist, as it currently does, in a position of subordination whereby it only does the government’s bidding.”

Many monks encounter Ma Ha Na only in its regulatory capacity, and even then, their interactions would take place largely at arm’s length, and only sporadically. Ma Ha Na rules monastic life from a distance, its dormant administrative mechanism becoming active only when serious problems arise, such as disputes over monastic property. Otherwise, the interactions between local monasteries and abbots and different levels of Ma Ha Na authorities remain at a bare minimum. As a result, the central organisation only seems to appear in monks’ lives when it is “interfering” in their affairs.

At the same time, others (such as Ashin Issariya and U Aung Ko) express concerns regarding the regulation of monastic conduct in general. Ma Ha Na is supposed to undertake this purification duty and it is seen as not consistently carrying out this duty. It should be noted that this can often be a self-interested critique, in that monks strongly believe that other monks should be disciplined and held to the vinaya (rules of monastic conduct) more strictly, but see regulation of their own conduct and activities as unjustified interference.

Many monks seem to want a monastic hierarchy that is not only independent of the government, but can act as a strong defender of monastic interests and of Buddhism more generally. Advocating on behalf of Buddhism would not only include engaging with the government, but taking a more active role in encouraging, managing and supporting activities that strengthen the religion, such as parahita (social work) and thathana pyu (building up the religion through the construction of religious edifices, implementing Buddhist education, or providing material support to monks).

But importantly, there are (often vague and unarticulated) limits to how much monks should be involved in mundane affairs. Senior monks within Ma Ha Na might be restricted in the available actions they could take, because of the perceived dependence of Ma Ha Na on the government, the sluggish pace of the monastic bureaucracy, or because the dictates of the vinaya, while ideally providing a code of conduct for all monks, might weigh more heavily on more senior and respectable monks.

Ma Ba Tha Fills a Religio-Political Vacuum

This point brings us back to consideration of Ma Ba Tha’s emergence as a group that straddles the religious and political spheres, and compels us to re-think its relationship with Ma Ha Na. This relationship can seem competitive and antagonistic, but recall that, even in the moments where Ma Ha Na has censured Ma Ba Tha, it has done so in very particular ways, and senior Ma Ha Na monks have continued to express support for the shared goal of protecting the Buddhist religion and Buddhist community more broadly.

There is, then, a way in which monks from both groups could see their coexistence as complementary and mutually beneficial. That is, Ma Ba Tha, as a sangha-lay organisation, could be seen to be in a better position to respond to perceived “emergencies,” whether communal violence, natural disasters or government policies perceived as hostile to Buddhism. Of course, the other side of this is the expectation that Ma Ha Na would be more focused and effective in its areas of competency, such as in advocating for monks and maintaining discipline within the sangha.

And, despite occasional harsh public criticisms of Ma Ha Na (mostly from more firebrand monks like U Wirathu), the language with which these critiques are expressed reveals the persistent influence of the monastic hierarchy and the norms that govern intra-sangha relations. Even the softest form of condemnation is made in such a way that it is carefully depersonalized. In our interviews, even monks who were strong detractors of Ma Ha Na wouldn’t name particular figures within Ma Ha Na’s senior leadership. Similarly, Ma Ba Tha’s senior monks have always been appropriately deferential in response to Ma Ha Na’s public orders against their group.

Challenging or Strengthening Ma Ha Na?

These intra-sangha tensions are rarely discussed in analyses of Ma Ba Tha, which usually focus on anti-Muslim attitudes— which, while still an important and consequential part of the group’s ideology, are not the only relevant aspect of its existence. Because Ma Ba Tha emerged during the previous, military-aligned political administration, most analysis of the group has highlighted government support for the organisation, especially in the context of the 2015 election. A more contentious relationship between Ma Ba Tha and the current NLD government has brought these critiques of Ma Ha Na back to the surface, reminding us that both religious and political authorities try to influence the other and exercise some control over the other’s realm, and that religious authority in Myanmar is continuously contested and re-negotiated. Paying attention to these dynamics helps provide a more accurate picture of what Ma Ba Tha is, how it has been evolving, and where the potential fracture points are, both within the organisation and within the sangha more broadly.

Broader insecurities about the place, status and durability of Buddhism that circulate in Myanmar today have sometimes been directed towards the perceived external threat from Islam. But they have also been focused internally, via a discourse on inadequacies in sangha governance and a real or perceived decline in respect for monastic moral authority. While the criticisms of Ma Ha Na in the present period appear to be consistent with those expressed in past decades, they are refracted through a perceived crisis of Buddhism in present moment, occurring in the context of the expansion of political space within Myanmar and dynamics of globalisation more broadly. Ma Ba Tha was not intended as a direct challenge to religious authorities in Myanmar, but it has provided an effective vehicle for carrying out activities seen as outside the scope of Ma Ha Na’s remit. It has continued calls for the reform of monastic governance, while also expanding the institutional networks through which monks can conduct their religious, social and (sometimes) political activities.

We can see the same dynamics present in the recent statements by U Aung Ko and Ashin Issariya. The latter is concerned about the effects that U Wirathu’s words and actions might have on the reputation of Buddhism. (Ironically, some senior monks expressed exactly the same concern when they founded Ma Ba Tha almost five years ago.) The minister knows that he walks a fine line in trying to manage and discipline the sangha from the position of a layperson, with no moral authority over a monk. While the entire monkhood tries to keep these disputes hidden behind closed doors, they spill into public view in periods of heightened tension or fears related to the perpetuation of Buddhism. Myanmar’s still-uncertain transition has not assuaged any of those fears, which likely means we can expect to see conflicts between monks continue, accompanied by calls for Ma Ha Na to do its job and discipline “rowdy” monks. But it also suggests that Ma Ba Tha continues to remain relevant and influential— in part because it operates in a religio-political space that the formal monastic authorities are unable or unwilling to occupy themselves.