YANGON — Buddhist monks of the nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement have opened a private high school on the outskirts of Yangon this week, where they said they will provide free education for children and teach them to “protect race and religion” of Myanmar.
Mahaw Thadar High School in Hlegu Township has enrolled around 150 children for Grade 9 and will accept more students for Grades 10 and 11 next year, said Ashin Panya Vara, the monk who founded the school.
“I expect these school children will become decent citizens of our country and will protect and safeguard our race and religion,” he told Myanmar Now in an interview at the new facility.
He said the teaching would follow the standard high school curriculum, but also include religious and literature programs taught by monks that will build children’s morals and Buddhist devotion.
At the school’s opening on Wednesday, the monk gave a one-hour speech to children and staff on “morality and code of conduct as citizens.”
The influential Ma Ba Tha movement and several associated nationalist organisations are accused of spreading hate speech and fanning communal violence against Myanmar’s Muslim minority in recent years with claims that Islam is threatening Buddhism.
The group recently held protests to demand that the new National League for Democracy government implements harsh government policies towards the stateless Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State and that foreign embassies refrain from using the term Rohingya.
Asked whether these views would be impressed upon the young minds of the students, Ashin Panya Vara, one of the Ma Ba Tha leaders, said, “We will not make any comment on other religions, but will talk about the knowledge of our own religion.”
‘Children Need This Mindset From Childhood’
Headmaster Hla Tun, who oversees eight teachers, was also evasive when asked about teaching Ma Ba Tha’s divisive message. “I just consider the development of talented children, rather than political or nationalist inspiration,” he said.
“Although the monks from Ma Ba Tha set up the school, we are responsible for both teaching and administrative roles. The school is not intended for only religious motivation,” he said.
Cho Thar Khaing, a 25-year-old primary school teacher from Theinzayat Township in Mon State, added, “The monks are better trainers for nationalist inspiration – children need this mindset from childhood.”
The new school bears the name of the young Buddha-to-be, Mahaw Thadar, and was built on 5 acres of land. It has a brand-new, five-storey building and two extensions where students receive free meals and lodging. It is registered as a private high school without enrolment fees and outstanding students will be supported to continue higher education.
“We had a dream to contribute to the education sector of the country long before, but we could only establish it this school year,” said Ashin Panya Vara.
An agricultural resources company named Maha Myaing donated the land and the buildings were paid for by gold mining company Amyotha Kyipwa Toetat Yay, or National Prosperity Company, which has financed many of Ma Ba Tha’s activities.
Khin Htay Kyi, 46, a mother from Mandalay Region’s Yamethin Township, said she had enrolled her son because the monks could give him a good foundation for his future. “I want my child to have a successful life through religious practices and nationalist inspiration,” she said.
Her son Thu Htet Oo, 13, said he was happy to be at the school and rolled of its mantra: “I want to become a citizen who can protect and safeguard his race and religion.”
Ma Ba Tha rose to prominence during democratic transition in recent years and received supported from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party for a controversial package of four ‘Race and Religion’ laws last year that are seen as discriminating against Muslims.
In turn, the monks called on voters to support the USDP in the November elections, an effort that failed to resonate with the public.
Story: Htet Khaung Linn