In May, Myanmar’s Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a state appointed organization representing over 500,000 Buddhist monks known as Ma Ha Na, issued a controversial order against the Ma Ba Tha nationalist group to remove its signboards across the country.
The committee’s order came in response to Ma Ba Tha’s association with anti-Muslim activities and amid calls from Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government that the Buddhist nationalist group was provoking instability. Ma Ha Na also accused Ma Ba Tha of acting against basic Sangha principles, rules and regulations.
While most Ma Ba Tha chapters have agreed to adhere to the directive, in the central city of Mandalay and Karen state capital of Hpa-an the deadline passed on July 15 with local affiliate groups refusing to comply.
At the central Thayettaw monastery in Hpa-an, an old discolored Ma Ba Tha signboard was replaced with a shiny bright new version, a testament to the town’s resistance to the order. Hundreds of Karen people gathered at the monastery to protest the decision in support of Ma Ba Tha and, as one young woman at the rally said, in the defense of Buddhism.
Ever since Ma Ha Na’s order in May for Ma Ba Tha to disband, images of its firebrand monk leader, U Wirathu, referred to by some international media as the ‘face of Buddhist terror’ for his provocative anti-Islam pronouncements, have circulated widely over social media in Karen state.
Facebook images have included selfies taken by young Karen women dressed in bright colourful traditional garb holding red placards reading ‘We love U Wirathu.’ More disturbing, pro-Ma Ba Tha images also show the controversial monk seated on a golden throne flanked by seven heavily armed Karen Border Guard Forces (BGF) soldiers surrounded by Buddhist flags.
Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, has become virtually synonymous with U Wirathu’s activities and pronouncements. While the group is primarily associated with his anti-Muslim views, the role Ma Ba Tha plays in lay people’s lives through religious and community activities is often overlooked.
While some have speculated that Ma Ba Tha is on the decline with the Ma Ha Na’s disbandment order and rising pressure from Suu Kyi’s elected government, it is evident that the group remains active through the strength of local Sangha religious authorities.
Buddhist monks in Myanmar play an important and influential role in communities. Beyond serving as one of the primary means through which people can accrue merit as part of a broader cosmological Buddhist order, monasteries are one of the first places people turn to in times of both celebration and hardship.
In Hpa-an, special occasions in Buddhist households are often marked through donations to a local monastery or by inviting a group of monks to one’s home for a meal. Many monasteries aligned with Ma Ba Tha also sponsor religiously motivated social welfare programs including schools, homes for the elderly, maternal health clinics, blood collection banks and other public services framed in Buddhist ethics.
Monks also play a role in the arbitration of justice and community disputes, and often host victims of floods or conflict in their monasteries. Indeed, the generosity through which Karen Buddhists give to the Sangha is often recirculated back to its people, providing important sustenance for local community and social life.
In Karen state, Buddhist monks have also played a prominent role in the long-running conflict between the Karen National Union (KNU) rebel groups and Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw.
Karen state’s civilian population has faced decades of instability and egregious human rights violations. Armed conflict in the area has caused mass internal displacement and heavy flows of refugees to neighboring Thailand and beyond.
In the 1990s, Hpa-an district became a major center of Buddhist pilgrimage to Mount Thamanya, where one of the most renowned Buddhist monks in the country, the late U Winaya, resided until his death in 2003.
While widely revered, the monk enjoyed an especially exalted position in Karen state by providing refuge for local civilians against forced portering, illegitimate taxation and other abuses perpetuated by both the Tatmadaw and ethnic Karen armed groups.
Northwest of Hpa-an lies Myaing Gyi Ngu, the center of charismatic monk U Thuzana, a disciple of U Winaya who presides over a similar zone of ‘non-violence.’
Those who live there must make an oath to U Thuzana, committing themselves to vegetarianism as well as five rules: no violence, no politics, no preaching of other religions, no gossip and commitment to the five Buddhist precepts.
At the same time, U Thuzana has also been closely associated with a virulent strain of Buddhist ethno-nationalism, similar to U Wirathu’s message of intolerance.
Yet U Thuzana’s charismatic leadership has appealed to many disgruntled Buddhist Karen soldiers who split from the KNU in December 1994 to form the Democratic Buddhist Karen Army (DKBA) under his patronage.
Under the KNU’s primarily Christian leadership, Buddhist soldiers formed deep grievances against their superiors, tensions that came to a head under the influence of U Thuzana, who once prophesized that he would bring peace to Karen state.
The DKBA signed a peace agreement with the central government, a deal that led to the pivotal assault on the KNU’s headquarters in Mannerplaw in January 1995, an attack that irreversibly undermined its armed resistance.
For Buddhist communities in Hpa-an district, U Thuzana and the DKBA were viewed as bringing peace and stability to the region. As a result, thousands of Buddhists migrated to the Myaing Gyi Ngu area during the 1990s and 2000s to live under his believed sacred protection.
In subsequent years, the DKBA became closely associated with the Myanmar military’s human rights abuses through its raids on Karen refugee camps in Thailand and burning and looting of other Karen communities near the border. KNU-DKBA tensions saw the targeting of Christian villages, resulting in new waves of refugees as DKBA rebels burned churches and forced Christians to convert to Buddhism.
U Thuzana’s mission to restore a distinctly Karen ‘Buddhist land’ also entailed abuses against Muslims. With an army of Buddhist soldiers at his behest, U Thuzana is known among local Muslims to have advocated the burning down of mosques, Muslims’ homes and other acts of communal incitement in a bid to rid the Myaing Gyi Ngu area of all Muslims.
“This time was very bad,” one local Hpa-an Muslim from the Myaing Gyi Ngu area told this writer. “U Thuzana and his soldiers did a lot of bad things to our people. We are always afraid of him and what he will do next.”
After the DKBA was absorbed into the Myanmar military’s Border Guard Forces (BGF) in 2010, it was initially thought that U Thuzana’s influence would wane. The fact that he has also been unwell for many years, living mostly at a specialized medical facility in Bangkok, Thailand, in recent years, contributed to his fall from view.
U Thuzana is now visibly back on the move. Over the last two years he has made his mark in the local news by overseeing the building of Buddhist pagodas in Christian church compounds and alongside existing mosques, in moves condemned by both the previous Thein Sein and incumbent Suu Kyi governments as well as community groups across the country.
More recently he has aligned himself with U Wirathu and other contentious Ma Ba Tha monks known for mobilizing anti-Muslim sentiments in the Karen community. These new alignments were clearly seen in March 2016 when U Thuzana gave a sermon in a small trading town outside Hpa-an.
After preaching about the importance of Buddhist charity, giving generously and keeping the five Buddhist moral precepts, he cautioned against the spread of Islam and the supposed decline of Buddhism in the region. He praised the town’s support for Ma Ba Tha and enforcement of its rules against allowing Muslim-owned land or businesses.
Anti-Muslim sentiment and violence has long been evident in Karen state’s conflict-ridden landscape, predating the country’s political transition from direct military rule that began after military-rigged elections in 2010. Indeed, the Ma Ba Tha signboard incident in Hpa-an is less a resurgence of Islamophobia than a resurfacing of long-running tensions and long-held views.
The alignment of U Wirathu and U Thuzana through anti-Muslim Buddhist activism threatens to heighten religious tensions across the country, including between Buddhist and Christian communities. The potential for U Thuzana and his armed men to capitalize on renewed conflict between Muslim and Buddhist communities in the service of their own politico-religious projects should not be underestimated.
While some might believe that Ma Ba Tha is on the decline, the emerging alliance of Buddhist extremists and armed actors in Karen State points in the opposite direction. The respect that U Thuzana commands in many Buddhist areas of Karen state, and indeed across the entire country, underscores this complex phenomenon.
The rising confluence of armed groups and nationally prominent Buddhist monk extremists introduces a disturbing new dynamic to Myanmar’s religious-political conflicts that, despite official efforts to curb the Ma Ba Tha and its message of hate, seem likely to get worse before they get better.
Justine Chambers is the Associate Director of the Myanmar Research Center and a Doctoral Fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University