Is this the end of Ma Ba Tha?

Matthew J Walton and Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi warn that the sentiments underlying “Buddhist nationalist” activities remain strong, dangerous and misunderstood.

After a period of flourishing under the USDP government, Ma Ba Tha (the Burmese acronym for the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion) has experienced a series of setbacks since the NLD came to power in 2016. First, a ruling from the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na, in its Burmese acronym) in July 2016 clarified that Ma Ba Tha was not formed as an official sangha organization. That was followed by another Ma Ha Na ruling in May 2017 that outlawed the group’s use of the name Ma Ba Tha. (Here, we continue to use Ma Ba Tha as a shorthand, since many of its supporters and critics in Myanmar do the same.) In July 2018, Ma Ha Na issued a similar order directed against the group’s new branding, the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. The government’s campaign against Ma Ba Tha escalated when sedition charges were brought against the vitriolic monk U Wirathu in May of this year, and another Ma Ha Na ruling last week has reiterated both the ban on the group’s previous names and the threat of civil prosecution for those defying it.

It has taken more than two years for religious and state officials to get serious about punishing Ma Ba Tha and monks like U Wirathu. This seems to support our previous argument that Ma Ha Na’s orders were concerned with distancing the monastic authority from Ma Ba Tha and urging its senior leadership not to act in a way that defamed Buddhism, while also avoiding direct conflict with the powerful group. But it is also clear that the NLD government—especially the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture—is intent on pushing forward with its pressure on Ma Ba Tha, and that U Wirathu’s insulting comments about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seemed to cross a line for the government.

While we agree that official condemnation of incitement, hate speech and violence are necessary responses, we argue that the NLD response still seems to misread the reasons why Ma Ba Tha has remained popular and influential for so long. Its blunt approach—alongside academic and media analyses that oversimplify the movement—risks angering and alienating people whose encounters with the group have been primarily filtered through local Buddhist community development or education projects. Additionally, government, religious and civil society actors should learn from some additional divisive effects of Ma Ba Tha’s activism, that have gone largely unnoticed in the focus on the anti-Muslim attitudes of some of its most prominent figures.

The Ambiguity of A-Myo, Batha, Thathana

First, we want to urge a different understanding of what Ma Ba Tha represents through its name. The group’s preferred English translation of its (former) name is “The Patriotic Association of Myanmar;” scholars and media tend to translate its full name (A-myo, batha thathana saun shauq ye a-hpwe, အမျိုး ဘာသာ သာသနာ စောင့်ရှောက်ရေး အဖွဲ့ ) more literally as “The Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion.” Much scholarly and media analysis paints this as aligned with inherently exclusionary identity markes, on both “national” (a problematic translation, for reasons we explain below) and religious grounds. It may be so, but we argue that the term’s unique combination of inclusivity and ambiguity, alongside exclusion, both helps to fuel Ma Ba Tha’s popularity and contains the seeds of its own division.

The key terms in Ma Ba Tha’s name, the things it was formed to protect, are a-myo (အမျိုး), batha (ဘာသာ), and thathana (သာသနာ). This is a revitalization (and slight reinterpretation) of a common mantra popularized by the nationalist Dobama Asiayone (“We, the Burmese Association”) in the 1930s during the struggle against British colonial rule, but with important implications for today’s ethno-religious landscape.

A-myo has been variously translated as “race” or “nation;” in some cases it seems to refer to bloodlines as well. A variant, lu myo (လူမျိုး), can also signify ethnicity, although the root word simply means “type” or “type of person.” In some situations, the response to an inquiry about one’s lu myo could also be one’s religious identity. While Ma Ba Tha’s rhetoric and membership paint it as a multi-ethnic organization, most analysis of the group positions it—usually implicitly—as an ethnic Burman organization.

In the 1930s, batha would have referred to batha-saga (ဘာသာစကား, language), although in the contemporary context it is taken to mean batha-ye (ဘာသာရေး, religion), which Ma Ba Tha says in its founding documents applies to any of the religions professed by the 135 recognized taingyintha (a term often translated as “national races,” but with an additional implication of indigeneity). This means that in theory it includes Christianity, Hinduism, Animism and even Islam, although in practice many Ma Ba Tha figures have deployed this argument rather disingenuously and prioritized Buddhism in their rhetoric and activities.

Thathana (သာသနာ, Pali sāsana) is often used as shorthand to refer to the Buddhist religion, but its scope is much more comprehensive. It includes the Buddha’s teachings, the texts and commentaries, material elements of the religion such as temples and monasteries, the sangha and lay communities, and the lived experience of the teachings among Buddhists themselves. The anthropologist Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière describes thathana as “religion as teaching instituted in a ‘social space.’” Without thathana, Buddhism would cease to exist in any meaningful way. And, given the Buddha’s claim that all things, even knowledge of his teachings, are impermanent, even something like the Buddhist calendar seems to convey the fleeting nature of thathana in a very acute and visceral sense, experienced as the counting down of days for the very existence of Buddhism.

Although we have disaggregated the terms here, for many, if not most, of those working for the protection of a-myo, batha, thathana, the identities are inseparable. This sentiment is reflected in the commonly cited aphorism “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist.” While the first label in this sentence, “Burmese,” is usually taken to refer only to the ethnic Burman majority (technically, the words are the same in the Burmese language), a similar sentiment probably exists for other Buddhist-majority ethnic groups in Myanmar. For example, one Rakhine human rights activist told us, “I strongly believe that a true Rakhine wouldn’t believe in any religion other than Buddhism. I am Buddhist myself and we’ve believed in Buddhism since the time of our grandparents and their grandparents.”

This collective identity, then, refers to a community that is defined by religion—primarily Buddhism—but otherwise more nebulously and perhaps contingently bounded. However, much of what is at stake here is that the a-myo, batha, thathana nexus is defined in various, divergent, even conflicting ways. Many supporters are motivated chiefly by religious concerns, although there is disagreement over how best to protect the religion.

Here we want to offer a crucial conceptual distinction that helps to explain the abiding support for Ma Ba Tha, even among people who reject its anti-Muslim arguments: we distinguish between Ma Ba Tha (the organisation for the protection of a-myo, batha, thathana) and a more general sentiment that it is a noble duty of both monks and lay Buddhists to protect and propagate a-myo, batha, thathana. We label this second phenomenon ma ba tha, in reference to a widespread—not necessarily divisive or exclusionary—impulse among Buddhists that is unlikely to disappear. It can motivate both violent externally-oriented defences of the religion as well as more internally-oriented campaigns to strengthen belief and practice, especially in times of rapid change and uncertainty.

Ma Ba Tha (the organization) vaulted to prominence in 2014 and 2015 by filling a religio-cultural vacuum and effectively claiming an interpretive and practical monopoly on the protection of ma ba tha. For a time, this made it the only nationwide channel for supporting ma ba tha work, seen as essential to many Buddhists. Ma Ba Tha’s journals, as well as pronouncements by its leaders and sermons given by its monks, convey a particular understanding of ma ba tha, one that, while superficially inclusive in some ways, conveys the prominence of Buddhism in Myanmar national identity.  

All of this matters because ma ba tha has become the ground upon which religio-political claims are articulated to the public, to formal religious authorities and to the state, and since 2013, Ma Ba Tha has largely controlled this discourse. Yet ma ba tha remains a nebulous term, with a lack of agreement over how best to protect the religion—understood in terms of the most effective methods as well as those that are more consonant with Buddhist teachings—and proper moral conduct of both monks and laity. Not only have political parties, ethnic armed groups and other organizations taken up the protection of ma ba tha in their platforms, the government has a particular interest in asserting unifying—and often homogenizing—narratives of identity. For that, ma ba tha is potentially powerful, but also potentially divisive, given the tendency of a-myo to be interpreted along subnational (ethnic) lines. We examine those divisions below, but first we look at how Ma Ba Tha has promoted itself as a champion of both Buddhism and community development.

Ma Ba Tha’s Religious and Social Activities

Ma Ba Tha is probably best known internationally for its advocacy of the four discriminatory “race and religion” laws Myanmar passed in 2015 and for the virulent anti-Rohingya rhetoric and activities of some of its leading voices. But our research has shown that this is not the way in which many people encounter the organization, especially at local levels. In developing its religio-political message to protect Buddhism, it has significantly supported and expanded many of the existing efforts by grassroots groups and community Buddhist networks, acting as what Melyn McKay and Khin Chit Win have called a “force multiplier,” especially for marginalized groups within the Buddhist majority. Ma Ba Tha has financially supported the publication of more than a half dozen journals in recent years, some with national reach, others with regional circulation; while many of the articles convey nationalist or exclusionary messages, others publicize the organization’s work in community activities.

A 2017 report from the International Crisis Group discussed Ma Ba Tha’s efforts in disaster relief (including in international contexts) and in expanding the ongoing work of monks and other religious groups to provide a social safety net for those in need. It also documented extensive work by women—much of it funded, supported or facilitated by Ma Ba Tha—in the areas of dispute resolution and legal aid. Some women explicitly frame their activities in empowering, feminist terms, and for many, working alongside Ma Ba Tha, even if their interests do not fully align, creates opportunities for them to pursue work and develop professional and community profiles that would otherwise not be supported.

But Ma Ba Tha has also effectively grafted itself onto existing groups and networks, benefitting from the prestige of community leaders who are involved in supporting or funding many activities in their local communities. Even when these activities aren’t necessarily directly supported by, or even connected to, Ma Ba Tha, if the community leader is associated with Ma Ba Tha, the activity can carry the organization’s imprimatur. Dhamma schools—classes on Buddhist teachings and culture, usually organized on weekends or in the evenings—are an area where Ma Ba Tha has been particularly effective, not only in organizing classes itself, but in benefiting from its connections with prominent individuals. Ma Ba Tha has close links with the other two main dhamma school groups, Dhamma School Foundation and Hitadara, due largely to senior monks that are members or patrons of multiple organizations. U Wimalabodhi, founder of Hitadara, is Secretary of the Baho chapter of Ma Ba Tha. Similarly, Insein Ywama Sayadaw, U Tiloka Biwuntha, is Chair of the Baho chapter of Ma Ba Tha and one of five senior monastic patrons of Dhamma School Foundation. Many of the classes taught under the aegis of these other groups are organized or funded by prominent Ma Ba Tha members, giving the impression that Ma Ba Tha is responsible for more Buddhist education than it directly supports.

Given all of the activities that Ma Ba Tha is involved in, it is no wonder many people continue to see it as a group carrying out essential work for the protection and propagation of Buddhism. And the fact that the group has rhetorically dominated public discussion on ma ba tha for the last five years obscures the fact that much of the work attributed to the group has been carried out by networks and community organizations that pre-dated it and, in many cases, have not even received its direct support. But as long as ma ba tha remains a compelling concern for Buddhists in Myanmar, Ma Ba Tha—and groups like it—will have a constituency.

Unintended Effects of Ma Ba Tha’s Activism

Even as Ma Ba Tha has retained a certain level of popularity, its work is also generating broader negative effects. Of course, the primary one has been a destructive increase in discrimination and violence against Muslims; this effect has been catastrophic with regard to the Rohingya, who continue to face intolerable conditions in Myanmar and in camps along the Bangladesh border. Here, we want to consider additional, possibly unexpected, outcomes related to the prestige of the sangha and an increase in inter-ethnic tensions related to religious nationalism.

Over the past few years, Ma Ba Tha has been at the forefront of a resurgence in monastic engagement in social development and political discourse, that has been particularly pronounced since the mid-2000s. But this increased activism appears to have hurt the standing of the organization, and possibly of the sangha as a whole. Part of this can be attributed to the negative media coverage that the group has received, both in the international media and in a number of influential domestic outlets. Of course, some of Ma Ba Tha’s most visible monastic members have gone out of their way to be controversial: the infamous U Wirathu’s vulgar and demeaning insults aimed at UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee in 2015 and his praise for the assassins of Muslim lawyer U Ko Ni in 2017 are only two examples of a steady stream of shocking behavior that for a long time went uncensored from religious authorities and only recently earned him an arrest warrant. Outspoken monks such as U Wirathu have been a constant source of worry to Ma Ba Tha leadership, which must chart a course between riding his popularity and risking damage to the institution of the sangha in the country and the image of Buddhism abroad.

There is growing evidence that Ma Ba Tha’s activities might have pushed things too far. In addition to the increased pressure and disciplinary action from religious and now political authorities, equally damning are the results of a public opinion survey conducted in early 2019 by the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE). On questions measuring public levels of trust in various institutions, only 48% of respondents indicated that they had confidence in religious leaders (here, largely a proxy category for monks). Remarkably, this represents a precipitous drop from a mark of 80% confidence recorded during the same survey in 2016, when religious leaders were the highest polling group, just surpassing the President. While people’s trust in religious leaders—particularly monks—has eroded for a number of reasons, including broad concerns regarding monastic conduct, those factors predated the first survey, suggesting that a significant part of the decline can be attributed to monastic activism, most of which has been associated with Ma Ba Tha.

The ambiguity of Ma Ba Tha’s “nationalist” advocacy has also exacerbated ethno-national divisions in the ma ba tha identity. That is, the a-myo that is taken for granted as the subject of Ma Ba Tha’s activities does not appear to be the same a-myo cited by most non-Burman ethnicities. This isn’t a surprising finding to those familiar with Myanmar’s decades of civil conflict, but one of the notable aspects of the early years of Ma Ba Tha’s rise was the ability of Rakhine and Burman Buddhists to find common cause in a shared religious struggle that—at least temporarily—trumped ethnic distrust. In our interviews in Rakhine State, it was clear that this recognition of shared religious identity was provisional: every single respondent professed to be working specifically for Rakhine lu myo, with a great deal of scepticism for the allegedly more universal a-myo of Ma Ba Tha and other central groups. For some, this was simply expressed through the assertion that their work was for their own group. A Sittwe-based teacher who is active in relief and community development work explained, “We are Rakhine and Rakhine lu myo. I believe that any action that leads to prosperity of Rakhine lu myo and any action that protects Rakhine from any possible harm as a-myotha ye [nationalist activities] for Rakhines.”

A Rakhine monk from Buthidaung was even more explicit in his outright distrust of what he saw as persistent Burman repression of Rakhines and other ethnic minority groups, combined with a perceived Islamic threat:

Speaking of nationalist groups, union taingyintha such as Kachin, Kayah [Karenni], Kayin [Karen], Mon, Rakhine, Shan are being subjected to oppression because this government is failing to honour the federal principle Aung San laid down. In such a situation, taingyintha have been struggling for their own freedom. At the same time, here at the west gate, we are struggling to free ourselves from the yoke of the so-called great race or Burmans on the one hand. On the other hand, because we are seeing that the Bengali Muslims are gradually swallowing up Rakhine State’s west gate or Mayu District like a python, Rakhines are fighting not to lose their own country and their own territory. Most of the Rakhine groups–be they sangha association or lay association–are working at two fronts.

Nowhere is this dynamic clearer than with the escalation of the Tatmadaw’s conflict with the Arakan Army (AA). Founded in 2009, the Arakan Army trained and fought mostly in Kachin State, alongside the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in its early years. It began engaging in more conflicts with the Tatmadaw in 2015, but stepped up its activities with attacks on Myanmar border posts and police stations throughout the first months of 2019. The AA’s propaganda makes clear its assertion that it is protecting not only a Buddhist identity, but a Rakhine Buddhist one, which it believes is threatened by the Tatmadaw and the Burman-dominated state. While Rakhine grievances certainly pre-date Ma Ba Tha and its activism, the vagueness of its identity referents have fuelled a multi-pronged “Buddhist nationalism,” not only increasing direct attacks on the military, but also undermining what limited level of stability Rakhine State has left.

Karen State offers another case where Ma Ba Tha seems to have offered an appealing platform for Karen religio-nationalist sentiment and anti-Muslim attitudes. Indeed, apart from the Mandalay (Upper Myanmar) chapter that U Wirathu holds influence over, Karen State Ma Ba Tha was the only other chapter to refuse the 2017 Ma Ha Na order to drop the name and take down the group’s signboards. Likely emboldened in part by the support of Karen armed groups, Zwegabin Sayadaw, Chair of Karen State Ma Ba Tha and one of the most senior monks in Karen State, explained in an interview, “I said it like this, if you want the country to be broken up, come and take [the signboard].” In contrast to Rakhine ethno-nationalism, in Karen State, Ma Ba Tha has been embraced by many without major concern over the group’s more universalizing (and Burman-centric) interpretation of a-myo. But even here, political organizing that combines national and religious identities in a place as ethnically diverse as Myanmar risks exacerbating ethno-national divides, despite the alleged intention to bring people together along religious commonalities.

Ma Ba Tha’s advocacy on behalf of ma ba tha was initially enhanced by the term’s unique combination of attributes: It captures anxieties that many Buddhists in Myanmar harbour about their religion, especially amidst the current changes, and its component parts are ambiguous enough to be able to provide a large tent to capture Myanmar’s ethnic—even religious—diversity. The prioritization of religious identity in the mix has temporarily suppressed ethnic differences, but this ambiguity also makes it more likely that activism rooted in the ma ba tha identity will produce divisive effects. These effects will be exacerbated if the NLD government continues its campaign to demonize and repress Ma Ba Tha more broadly, rather than targeting its most problematic members and activities, and compelling the monastic group to get serious about policing itself and clearly denouncing incitement and hate speech. The government needs to adopt a more nuanced approach, even if only due to the political risk inherent in its recent moves, with the potential to alienate Buddhists and create space for rival parties to stake a claim to more boldly defend a-myo, batha, thathana.

However, even though we want to emphasize that there are ways of expressing or protecting ma ba tha that need not be actively hostile to minority groups, the identity is still fundamentally exclusionary at some level. In Myanmar, at least, thathana refers only to Buddhism, and the rigid, arbitrary listing of 135 recognized taingyintha groups leaves out many who live within the country’s borders—not least the Rohingya. Sentiment regarding ma ba tha may have propelled Ma Ba Tha’s rise and it may also continue to motivate positive, community-building activism, but it can never be an inclusive national identity for Myanmar.

(Image from Flickr Creative Commons)

Dr. Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi, is Convener and Interim Director of the International Gender Studies Program at the University of Oxford. She is the winner of the ‘Excellent in Gender Research’ award for her doctorate, by the Australia Gender Institute and is the first senior Burmese female research fellow at the University of Oxford. 



Author: matthewjwalton

Matthew J Walton is an Assistant Professor in Comparative Political Theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Prior to that, he was the inaugural Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford and was a co-founder of Tea Circle. 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.