YANGON — Myanmar’s government has denounced an influential Buddhist nationalist group after failing earlier to speak strongly against it though others were accusing it of using hate speech and inspiring violence against Muslims.
The Ma Ba Tha organization’s charismatic leader, the monk Wirathu, responded Wednesday by calling the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a “dictatorial woman.”
The Sangha Council, a state institution that oversees Buddhist monastic discipline, declared Tuesday that it did not recognize Ma Ba Tha as a member of the country’s Buddhist order. Last week, the government’s minister for Yangon, Phyo Min Thein, said the group shouldn’t exist, rejecting Ma Ba Tha’s demands on official policy toward the Muslim Rohingya minority. The group planned, then called a protest against the minister.
Most politicians have been reluctant to criticize the group because its nationalist message seemed popular in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar. Even Suu Kyi disappointed admirers of her decades-long nonviolent struggle for democracy by failing to crack down on the group, which has been blamed for stirring up deadly violence.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party took power in March, and she was named State Counselor, a position created just for her because the military-drafted constitution bars her from being president.
“I’ve realized that the ruling party and the new government are targeting me as their ‘enemy number one’ to dismantle the whole Ma Ba Tha,” Wirathu said in his Wednesday statement. “A dictatorial woman’s government is going to put me in prison.” His group was hostile to Suu Kyi’s party even ahead of last November’s election but didn’t stem its landslide victory.
Ma Ba Tha — more formally known as Association for the Protection of Race and Religion — “was never recognized as a real Buddhist organization,” Win Htein, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s ruling party and government legal affairs expert said Friday. “Now the Sangha Council finally has to denounce them because they have become uncontrollable.”
He said the government was reluctant to act ahead of the council’s action, but now was less constrained.
Minister of Culture and Religion Aung Ko told reporters Thursday that the government plans to ask the Sangha Council to deal with cases of hate speech.
Ma Ba Tha has built networks across Myanmar after initial violence against Muslim Rohingyas in western Rakhine state in 2012. As recently as June, there were two mob attacks on Muslim religious institutions in other parts of the country.
Aside from any violence it may have directly incited, Ma Ba Tha successfully lobbied the previous military-backed government for a series of laws that rights groups say discriminate against women and religious minorities.
Tun Kyi, a prominent Muslim peace activist and former political prisoner, said the government’s challenges to Ma Ba Tha come too late.
“They had had caused violence, death and forcing people from their homes, and that shows the lack of rule of law in this country,” he said.