By Aman Ullah
Emergence and Organizational Structure
Burma’s leading state-backed cleric organization, Ma Ha Na, has announced on July 12 that the ultranationalist group Ma Ba Tha is not a “lawful monks’ association” as “it was not formed in accordance with the country’s monastic rules.”
The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the highest level of all Sangha Organization, comprising 47 chief members of the Sangha (Mahatheras) represent over five-hundred thousand members of the Sangha residing in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.
Citing section 4 of the State Sangha’s basic rules, the statement said there must be only one Sangha association composed of all Buddhist orders in the country, which repudiates Ma Ba Tha’s claim that it was formed in accordance with the Sangha’s rules and laws.
“This is to clarify the confusion among the public: Ma Ba Tha is not a Buddhist organisation that was formed in accordance with the basic Sangha rules, regulations and directives of the State Sangha authority,” the leaked document said.
According to the statement, there are only nine Buddhist orders around the country and the formation of a new Buddhist order is prohibited. Such organisations may also never deal in political affairs, the law said.
The State Sangha plans to issue orders banning members of township Sanghas from participating in Ma Ba Tha, or activities led by the group.
The Ma Ba Tha is a noisy monk-led group that has been at the forefront of anti-Muslim protests in Myanmar in the three years since it was founded.
The statement came hours ahead of a two-day gathering of around 50 of Myanmar’s top monks in a meeting room inside a man-made cave on the outskirts of Yangon.
Ma Ba Tha is known across the world as a racist Buddhist organisation. Its work fans the flames of hatred and violence against Muslims in Myanmar, particularly the Rohingya in Rakhine State. Its most prominent leader is Ashin Wirathu, dubbed the “bin Laden of Buddhism” for his violent, religious extremism.
The Ma Ba Tha emerged as potent political force under the former military-backed government, successfully lobbying for a series of laws that rights groups say discriminate against women and religious minorities.
Scores of people have been killed in sectarian riots that have billowed out in step with their protests.
Emergence of Ma Ba Tha
The persecution and marginalization of Myanmar’s Muslim population have sharply increased in recent years. In 2012, the country was rocked by the worst sectarian violence in over 50 years, resulting in over 200 killed and 140,000 displaced, most of them being the Rohingya. A 2015 study by the United States Holocaust Museum counted 19 early warning signs of genocide in Myanmar since the start of sectarian violence. Another study by the International State Crime Initiative concluded that the Rohingyas had already passed the first four stages of genocide, including dehumanization and segregation and are now on the verge of mass annihilation. Anti-Muslim sentiment has grown so widespread that even Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party declined to field a single Muslim among their 1,100 candidates for the November 2015 elections. Initially, the violence was primarily targeted against the Rohingya Muslims, a minority population in Rakhine State whose origin and citizenship are bitterly denied by Buddhist hardliners.
A campaign of hate speech that actively dehumanizes Muslims plays a key role in sustaining violence across Myanmar. This is not limited to the Rohingya, and in fact, anti-Muslim sentiment has evolved to the point that a range of anti-Muslim prejudices have now normalized in mainstream Burmese discourse. A tense inter-faith atmosphere has resulted in Muslim grievances finding an unreceptive ear even among many liberal and pro-democracy activists, and small triggers rapidly escalating into mob violence. The most recent such eruption was in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, in July 2014, where a mob destroyed several Muslim businesses, and resulted in the deaths of two people.
Against this backdrop, a network of ultra-nationalist monks organized as the “Ma Ba Tha” (the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion) has grown rapidly. The Ma Ba Tha has been formally active since only 2014 when it was established, but it has already grown into one of Myanmar’s most powerful socio-political forces. In 2015, it achieved huge success. Most notable was the passage of all four ‘Protection of Race and Religion Laws’ that the Ma Ba Tha had drafted and lobbied for. Collectively, the laws actively target and discriminate against key tenets of Burmese Muslim society, and significantly infringe on their religious and social freedoms. These legislative actions are backed by a sophisticated mass messaging campaign that co-opts the various anti-Muslim prejudices latent across society, and packages them into a coherent narrative that has mass appeal.
Alongside the violence, there has been a growing ultranationalist campaign by elements within the Burmese monkhood to protect Myanmar and Buddhism against an apparently existential Muslim threat. The most visible manifestation of this campaign came in the form of the “969,” a grassroots movement started in Mon State in 2012 by a group of five junior-level monks seeking ‘to protect race and religion in Myanmar.’ The 969 message, which overtly targeted Muslims, spread rapidly across Myanmar, with stickers and flags bearing the group’s logo appearing on taxis, businesses, and homes.
The 969 showed significant marketing savvy. Its monks displayed an innate ability to package commonly held grievances and prejudices against Muslims that have existed for centuries into easily digestible content relevant to a modern mass audience. They then distributed these through a variety of new media channels, including social media. The 969 is widely alleged to have helped fuel the violence. It is said that the ‘hidden hands’ behind the June 2012 Rakhine violence found a “recurrent pattern,” with 969 sermons preceding anti-Muslim riots.
However, while the 969’s message found widespread resonance, the 969 organization itself remained a decentralized grassroots movement without the infrastructure necessary to catalyze any meaningful socio-political change on a national scale. In late 2013, the 969 was banned by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka (Ma Ha Na).
The Ma Ba Tha (the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion or, as it often translates itself, the Patriotic Monks Association of Myanmar) has risen as the 969 has waned. A much more coherent organization than the 969, the Ma Ba Tha has become the steward of the populist anti-Muslim narrative launched by the 969, and in large part as a result, has grown into one of the country’s most powerful socio-political forces. In this process, the Ma Ba Tha has come dangerously close to violating the laws of both the Burmese constitution and of the monkhood. Monks are governed by the rules of the Buddhist Sangha that discourage involvement in politics, and are prohibited from abusing “religion for political purposes” under Section 365 and from voting under Section 392 of the 2008 constitution.
As one of the country’s largest religious organizations, the Ma Ba Tha lends significant legitimacy to the anti-Muslim narratives that are poisoning Myanmar’s socio-political discourse. The Ma Ba Tha claims to have over 250 offices and 10 million followers across the nation. Ma Ba Tha monks are spread out in local chapters across the country; as a result, they have significant autonomy in their local operations.
The Ma Ba Tha is officially led by a 52-member Central Committee (CC) that is sub-divided into the Central Executive Committee (CEC), and then further divided into eight Managerial Departments. Among the 52 members only 42 were able to identify with a high probability, including by cross-referencing lists and news compiled by local journalists. The identified (CC) members include several of the founding 969 monks and some of Myanmar’s most influential and respected mainstream Buddhist monks. These monks represent a diverse range of opinions on the “Muslim issue” and some would even be considered moderate relative to their colleagues; however, most, if not all, agree that ‘race and religion’ are under threat, and primarily by the Muslim minority.
Their ‘head office’ is at Ashin Tiloka Bhivunsa’s Insein monastery, where they oversee a powerful communications apparatus including news and electronic media, cable broadcast deals, and conferences. Through this media apparatus, they are not only able to provide public profile of individual monks but also significant donor funding as well and also able to propagate widely their core messages.
The Chairman of the Central Committee is Ashin Tiloka Bhivunsa an Abbot of Insein Ywama Monastery, who leads the eight-member Central Executive Committee (CEC). He holds the title Agga Maha Pandita one of the highest honorifics in Theravada Buddhism and oversees a monastery school in Yangon with 1,000 students.
The Vice Chairman Sitagu Sayadaw (also known as Ashin Nyanissara) is also an Agga Maha Pandita and is one of popular and influential monks. He has publicly spoken out against the violence in 2012 and voiced several popular prejudices associated with Burmese Muslims. However, it is said that, he plays a backseat, but seemingly opportunistic role. He tried to be distancing himself from the Ma Ba Tha during the last two years and avoid to attend 2015 annual conference, and also released a statement in early 2015 that he is only related with his Sitagu Buddhist Missionary organization not any other else. However, after the ratification of the Race and Religion bills in late October, he returned to deliver the keynote speech at the triumphant celebration rally in Yangon.
Among the CEC another prominent hardliners monk is Ashin Kawi Daza, the Abbot of Mae-Baung monastery in Karen State, who was one of the most senior monks associated with the 969, and is one of the most aggressive anti-Muslim propagandists in the country. In September 2012, a Buddhist nationalist group based at his monastery issued one of the first anti-Muslim boycott orders, circulating leaflets in the Hpa-an township instructing Buddhists under threat of “serious effective penalty” to immediately cease selling or renting property to and buying goods from Muslims. The leaflet also forbids Buddhist women from marrying Muslim men.
Under the Central Executive Committee, there are eight “departments” that are led by “managers”, most of who are prominent “younger” monks and were formerly associated with the 969 movement. Several of these monks constantly carry on anti-Muslim hate speech, while several are engaged in activities that could be viewed as blurring the lines between religion and politics. The most famous of them is Wirathu who served several years in jail for inciting anti-Muslim riots that led to the death of several Muslim civilians in his home village of Kyauk-se in 2003 and routinely paints Muslims in a negative light in the media.
A significant amount of operational influence over the Ma Ba Tha’s strategy and its communications apparatus is believed to reside with the younger, more outspoken members. For example, Wirathu, as mentioned, is officially only a ‘manager’ in the formal hierarchy, but he has managed many significant events, which were greater than his formal responsibility.
Addition to the prominent monks, about half of the 23 identified “members” of the Central Committee are laypeople who offer technical expertise that monks do not have. Laypeople are concentrated in the Legal Affairs, Accounting, and Information and Media departments. Key individuals among them include Maung Thway Chun, editor of the Ma Ba Tha’s popular Aung Zeyathu journal and U Ye Khaung Nyunt, a lawyer who oversees the legal department. These technical departments have been central to the Ma Ba Tha’s success, and are important examples of the growing efficiency and professionalism of the group. They have been crucial in helping the Ma Ba Tha expand its media outreach, navigate the legal environment with ever-increasing efficiency, and have served as training centers for the broader network of Ma Ba Tha supporters and volunteers.
The most visible symbol of Ma Ba Tha power has been its massive public conferences. The latest mass event was the Ma Ba Tha-sponsored nation-wide celebration of the Race and Religion Bills in late September and early October 2015, which were so large that gatherings had to be housed in sports stadiums. In fact, the main event on October 2, 2015 had over 30,000 attendees and had to receive special dispensation to use Rangoon’s Thuwanna stadium from the President himself, who usually does not allow its use for non-sporting events. Prior to that celebration, the Ma Ba Tha had also held at least two large conferences, in January 2014 and in June 2015. Social media posts of these events indicate that these events are invariably well organized to rival most professional and mainstream conferences. Events feature sign-in sheets, lanyards, and name badges for all attendees; table cards and television screens for speakers; and a large amount of Ma Ba Tha paraphernalia for attendees, including t-shirts emblazoned with the Ma Ba Tha logo, as seen on social media; In late 2015, even food aid supplied by the Ma Ba Tha was distributed in sacks stamped with their logo, according to imagery on Facebook.
Monks under the Ma Ba Tha umbrella appear to operate with a significant degree of autonomy. Monks often conduct initiatives on their own prerogative, but with the implicit support of the Ma Ba Tha, which gives them significant power in their dealings. For example, the Ma Ba Tha’s protest movement pressured the government to cancel a very high-profile multi-million dollar real-estate project on military-owned land due to its proximity to the Shwedagon Pagoda. The Architectural Association of Myanmar and the Yangon Heritage Trust had already been waging a campaign to halt the project, but the government’s decision to cancel only came after the Ma Ba Tha’s involvement. The protest was initially spearheaded by Ashin Parmoukkha, but quickly became a major agenda among the broader the Ma Ba Tha community. With such significant mobilizing power that can pressure even Myanmar’s most powerful actors, it is worrying when leading Ma Ba Tha monks choose to focus on already vulnerable communities.
In this context, one of the more worrying recent trends has been the interference of Ma Ba Tha monks in local police and judicial cases. Ashin Parmoukkha appears the most egregious, as seen in various pieces of imagery from 2015. For example, he is seen allegedly reviewing the police case file on a Muslim man accused of stabbing his Buddhist friend. In another, in Sanchaung Township, he is seen on social media allegedly pressuring firmer sentencing against a reportedly mentally ill Muslim imam, while in North Okkalapa Township, he is seen Facebook lobbying for charges against 200 Muslims who had ‘illegally gathered’ alongside members from a virulently anti-Muslim youth activist group. More recently in October 2015, he can be seen on social media visiting a local crime scene even before the body had been cleared. In November 2015, the police arrested and fined $800 to five men for publishing and releasing a colander that claiming Rohingya to be an ethnic group of Myanmar but by the intervention of Ashin Parmoukha and other Ma Ba Tha monks, the police re-arrested and incarcerated the men The local police chief admitted to local media that he had “received an order from my superiors to arrest these men under a different charge” and added that, “this is a case related to protecting the race and religion.”
The Ma Ba Tha has also used this power to influence judicial cases at a higher level, including attacking interfaith activists. For example, Zaw Zaw Latt, an inter faith activist, was arrested in 2015 for a photograph of himself with a firearm in Kachin, two years prior to the arrest. He was charged for being in association with ‘unlawful groups;’ Latt’s family claims that Ma Ba Tha members showed up at his court hearings. In addition, he was targeted by at least one Ma Ba Tha magazine.
Many prominent monks with large follower bases regularly travel across the country to attend sermons, rallies, and events. For example, Wirathu appears to maintain a grueling travel schedule. According to the data collected by the Burmese Muslim Association, he made a total of 24 public appearances across the country in just one month in March 2015, including in Mandalay, Yangon, Kachin, Mon, Karen, and Rakhine states. During these visits, he is alleged to have cultivated relationships with various hard-line political parties and armed groups around the country. According to available imagery from Rakhine State, Wirathu met with Aye Maung, the leader of a major Rakhine nationalist party, and Maung Maung Ohn, the then-Chief Minister. In Karen State, he met with leaders from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, an anti-Muslim breakaway group from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), as seen in the left-hand image below.
Channels of Communication and public mobilizations
At the heart of the Ma Ba Tha’s power is its highly effective communications apparatus, which is one of the most powerful mobilizing forces in the country today. In 2014, the first petition by the Ma Ba Tha in support of the Race and Religion bills, which was sent to President Thein Sein, was reported to have 1.3 million signatures. By February 2014, the Ma Ba Tha claimed an additional 3 million signatures in support of the laws, or nearly 8 percent of the country’s population. To engage and maintain this large base of support, the Ma Ba Tha uses a variety of dissemination channels, both online and offline.
Among these are a range of publications, including a magazine that is likely to have one of the largest circulations of any such publication in the country; a cable TV deal to broadcast sermons throughout the country on Myanmar’s largest television provider, SkyNet and a vast array of social media accounts, both directly and indirectly connected to the organization and to individual monks on the Central Committee.
A major reason for the Ma Ba Tha’s success has been its willingness to shape its outreach to best engage the masses. For example, Chairman Ashin Tiloka is well known for his teaching style that simplifies traditional Buddhist teaching methods; he distils complex philosophies into easy to understand lessons, and uses tables, charts, and common language instead of complicated scripture. He is also known for his humility and willingness to communicate with junior monks and laypeople on equal terms. This is often in stark contrast to the reputation of senior monks on the State Sangha, who are seen as having been corrupted by the trappings of wealth and privilege. Today, many Ma Ba Tha monks engage followers with the same pragmatism, employing a range of innovative sermonizing tactics. For example, one video shows a 969 monk standing on a table in front of a crowd, singing and clapping with the audience to a catchy song in a manner more reminiscent of a concert than a sermon.
The song, which was the 969’s unofficial anthem and often accompanies Ma Ba Tha videos, is titled, ‘We will Fence the Country with Our Bone.” One verse mentions “infidels” (i.e. Muslims) who, “drink our water… break our rules… suck our wealth… insult us the host… destroy our youth…Alas, they are one ungrateful creature.”
Newspapers and Magazines
The Ma Ba Tha publishes a wide range of literature that is both low cost and widely circulated. These include Aung Zeyathu, a weekly newspaper that is available at most tea shops for 1,000 kyat (US$ 0.78); Atumashi, a magazine for Upper Burma; and a bi-monthly magazine, Tharkithwe or “Royal Blood,” that is reported to have a circulation of around 50,000. This number may appear low compared to international standards, but is much higher than the circulation of even The Irawaddy, the highly respected and largest Burmese independent media organization, at 30,000 readers.
In addition, the Ma Ba Tha publishes a periodical journal called Myittatagun, which sells for 500 kyat (US$0.39). Given the print quality, all of these publications are remarkably inexpensive, even by local standards. The hardcopy Myittatagun is a glossy print and bounded publication, and self-reports on the inside cover to have an extensive production staff, including consultants, legal advisors, graphics designers, editors, and a newsroom with reporters in at least three states. Many of these magazines appear to have come a long way in professionalism; for example, the first copy of Tharki-thwe from July 2013 is an amateurish black and white production, but the 2015 publication is a professionally designed color edition, as seen in authors’ copies. Finally, Ma Ba Tha monks also publish a wide range of books and other literature, many of which are available in major bookstores throughout Myanmar, as seen by authors’ field visit in September 2015.
The Central Committee appears to run a significant, but frugal, operation to maintain these publications. Reuters imagery from September 2015 shows bulk copies of magazines, including Aung Zeyathu and Tharki-thwe, being packed for distribution at the Ma Ba Tha head office in Chairman Ashin Tiloka’s Insein monastery. What is described in captions as a “warehouse” appears to be little more than a room located within their headquarters. The publications are believed to be shipped to local chapters, who distribute them through their own networks, but the magazines themselves are printed in Yangon; Myittatagun is published at Myin Chan Press in Kyauktada Township. It is likely that the revenue from sales helps offset the costs of publication, but it is believed that donors may defray at least some of the cost. For example, one post from July 5, 2015 on a pro-Ma Ba Tha Facebook page, noted that Tharki-thwe publications had been donated by an affiliated monk-teacher community association, and were available at no cost in all Mawlamyine monasteries.
TV and Radio
In addition to its publications, the Ma Ba Tha has aggressively pushed to expand into radio and TV to broaden its reach. During its June 2015 conference, a Thai delegation pledged funding and the donation of equipment worth at least $35,800 to fund the construction of two radio stations. Pornchai Pinyapong, the owner of a Thai private hospital and president of the World Fellowship of Buddhist Youth, was reported to have brokered the deal. The deal was blocked by the government, which cited a current law that requires a partnership with the state-linked TV broadcaster. The ruling has stalled the project, but the Ma Ba Tha has vowed to mobilize support behind the upcoming Broadcast Bill to reform the law. Meanwhile, Pinyapong has also continued his patronage in Myanmar, despite some condemnation in Thailand, including a strong Bangkok Post editorial criticizing his activities.
Despite setbacks on its radio stations, the Ma Ba Tha has experienced significant success on the TV front. In September 2015, it signed a licensing deal with Skynet, the country’s largest cable news provider to broadcast its sermons. Skynet is owned by U Kyaw Win, the owner of Shwe Than Lwin, an entity that was formerly sanctioned by the European Union. According to imagery from 2015, SkyNet camera crews have been widely seen at Ma Ba Tha events and Ma Ba Tha monks appear to have received significant airtime. In the few months since the formal deal, social media posts show that even smaller Ma Ba Tha aligned fringe activist groups appear to be gaining national airtime.
Many Ma Ba Tha monks are tech-savvy. Many junior monks maintain large and active online presences, including social media accounts, blogs, and other websites. Even 77-year old Ashin Tiloka is known to text, and is seen clutching his Smart phone in at least one image on a social media post. The most popular is Wirathu, with a primary Facebook account that boasts 117,000 followers as of November 2015, but another representative example is Ashin Sopaka, who operates at least four Facebook accounts. Many of these accounts release nearly identical content, and are high-volume feeds that post a large amount of information and imagery multiple times a day.
The content on these accounts is typical of the younger generation of networked monks, who post a high volume of content with detailed coverage of their sermons, events, travels, and personal thoughts on major news items. While Wirathu and Ashin Sopaka are both believed to personally manage and post on their accounts, they are also assisted by ‘media teams,’ often comprised of laypeople and junior monks armed with smart phones, cameras, and computers, as seen on various social media posts. In fact, computer literacy and training has become an important priority for many monks. Ashin Sopaka recently held a free two-month computer literacy training event for laypeople at his monastery. Available imagery from a social media account apparently controlled by Ashin Sopaka, shows a well organized operation with textbooks produced by the monastery and instructors in well-stocked classrooms.
Source of Fund and Donors of Ma Ba Tha
Myanmar is a deeply religious society, and all segments of society liberally donate to monks and monasteries. In 2014, Myanmar ranked first in the “Global Giving Index,” a ranking of charitable behavior among countries around the world, despite being one of the poorest and least developed countries in Asia. Much of this charitable giving is directed towards the monkhood in the forms of cash, gifts deemed useful to monks or their monasteries, and even labor through donated volunteer time. An analysis of available Ma Ba Tha donation receipts shows donations ranging from small individual contributions of a few hundred kyats to upwards of US$10,000 (12.7 million kyat).
Donations are unregulated and subject to virtually no accountability. The Ma Ba Tha appears to have low operating costs. Much significant expenditure is donated, such as much of the technical expertise that has allowed the Ma Ba Tha to reach its current level of efficiency.
Nearly all of the Ma Ba Tha’s team of lawyers, accountants, and media experts are reported to provide their services for free. An illustrative case is the lead lawyer U Ye Khaung Nyunt and his daughter who claim they came out of retirement at the urging of senior Ma Ba Tha monks. In an interview, Nyunt claims to be helping purely for “the merit” (i.e. the concept of good deeds that accumulate into the next life in the path towards spiritual enlightenment). Interviews with local journalists suggested the same regarding other Ma Ba Tha advisors who worked full-time jobs and assisted the Ma Ba Tha after hours. Other significant donations are similarly intangible. For example, the Ma Ba Tha’s grand October 2015 celebration rally at Thuwanna Stadium was a venue secured by a special Presidential exemption. For other major events, such as the Race and Religion Law celebration in Pathein, even the 20,000 required chairs were donated, in that case by the Irrawaddy General Administration Department.
Mode of Donations
The donations of Ma Ba Tha appear to be primarily made in the form of cash, for which some monasteries issue receipts. However, increasing shares of donations also appear to route through the formal banking system, with some monks even posting their bank account details online to facilitate donations. The majority of available donations to the Ma Ba Tha, though, appear to be relatively small and from laypeople of various socioeconomic statuses, as seen on donation receipts and bank transfer slips.
Donors and Fundraising System
The Ma Ba Tha does not advertise its big-money donors, and some no doubt prefer anonymity. However, in some cases, donors have chosen to publicize their contributions. One such donation that received significant press was alleged to have consisted of 700 million kyat, or US$ 550,000, donated to the Ma Ba Tha by a Buddhist group backed by a gold mining firm, Myanmar National Prosperity Public Company (MNPPC). However, according to contacts who reached out to Ma Ba Tha after the news release, the Ma Ba Tha claimed that the figure had been misreported and was closer to US$ 55,000.
The latter figure appears more realistic. In an interview with BBC Burmese around the time of the donation, MNPPC Chairman Soe Tun Shein stated that he had donated 1 viss (about 3.6 pounds) of gold. At market rates, it would be worth approximately US$60,000 (76 million kyat). This may not be Shein’s only donation; Wirathu claimed in September 2015 that he had previously made another donation of “1 billion kyat” (US$770,000) to flood relief efforts, although there is no corroborating evidence. It is worth noting that the MNPPC is reportedly currently in dispute with the government concerning its gold concessions, resulting from the company owing money to the ministry of Mines and having incurred local opposition to their operations.
Accurate details on the Ma Ba Tha’s fundraising efforts are difficult to determine. For example, one image from August 2015 circulated on pro-Ma Ba Tha social media accounts shows Central Committee members Ashin Thadhamma and Ashin Wimala Buddhi sitting alongside a significant amount of cash as seen in the image on the right. No other details on time, location, or donor are available, but the amount appears to be between US$5,000-10,000. Additionally, it is widely believed that some monks can raise very significant sums through their own channels. For example, a flood relief committee created by Sitagu Sayadaw raised million kyats ($252,000) in just four days, according to local media. Furthermore, funding can come from a wide range of sources.
One instance involves the flood relief coordination committee managed by Ashin Sopaka on behalf of the Central Committee. According to what appears to be a page from the committee’s accounting book posted on a social media account, donations came from Ma Ba Tha Central, various local chapters, Mon State USDP party, and local companies, including a bookstore and two bus companies.
While the allegation is that the Ma Ba Tha receives significant funding from the military, political, and business elites of Myanmar, there is very little information available in the open-source to validate this claim. However, available imagery indicates that several local political elites were courting the Ma Ba Tha’s support in the run-up to the elections. A notable donor was USDP-candidate Lin Zaw Tun, pictured below, who donated $31,000 to the Ma Ba Tha in August 2015.
Proximity with USDP but Hostile to NLD
Through 2015, the USDP and Ma Ba Tha appeared to have closely aligned interests, with the Ma Ba Tha pushing forward its ideological agenda and the USDP garnering political support from the powerful monkhood. As such, ratification of the Race and Religion Laws earned President Thein Shein and the USDP significant support from prominent Ma Ba Tha monks. Many of these monks were vocal in 2015 in their preference for the USDP as stewards of ‘race and religion’ in Myanmar, especially as compared to the NLD. Prominent Ma Ba Tha monks were clearly taken by surprise by the extent of the USDP’s defeat. Some have sought to rationalize it in various ways, alluding to the idea that the election was a referendum on the USDP’s past failings, and not on race and religion issues. The level of USDP support for the Ma Ba Tha has been a matter of significant debate inside Myanmar.
Laws delineating religion and politics are severe. Article 12 (A4) of the Political Parties Registration Law, for example, is quite specific in mandating that any political party using religion for political means shall not have the right to exist. As such, any overt high level USDP and military support has been muted; nonetheless, there is a body of evidence that shows several rank and file USDP politicians and leaders making donations and articulating public support for the Ma Ba Tha. It is difficult to determine whether this rises to the level of institutional support, but it is more certain that government officials at the highest levels have favored policies that are in line with Ma Ba Tha narratives and disadvantage the rights of Muslims and other minorities. The government has allowed Ma Ba Tha mass rallies and activities to occur without any interference, in stark contrast to the lack of freedom afforded to other pro-democracy and human rights activists. Additionally, several significant USDP politicians are online consumers and disseminators of Ma Ba Tha content. Win Wunna, a Deputy Director with the Ministry of Immigration, often re-posts Ma Ba Tha statements and content on what appears to be his personal Facebook page, including the Ma Ba Tha’s criticism of the draft National Education Bill that claims, “Legal loopholes that could allow Islamic schools.”
The Ma Ba Tha has publicly stated that it sees the USDP’s non-interference as a sign of tacit support. As early as 2013, Ashin Wimala addressed the issue by telling a journalist that, “By letting us give speeches to protect our religion and race, I assume they [the government] are supporting us.” A year later, at a ceremony to launch the Mandalay chapter of the Ma Ba Tha in January 2014, Chairman Ashin Tiloka voiced precisely the same sentiment. A social media post quotes Ashin Tiloka saying, “Fellow monks don’t fear of what you are doing. The government hasn’t objected to what we have been doing, and the leaders have allowed us as to do what we are doing. Keep striving for the Ma-Ba-Tha cause.”
However, as the Ma Ba Tha has grown more powerful, monks have grown more aggressive. Ashin Wimala politically threatened politicians who were thinking of voting against the Race and Religion Bills at the June 2015 Ma Ba Tha convention, stating, “I want to know which representative turn down the law… I will make it so that they get no votes in 2015.” This was echoed by Ashin Vimala, a Central Committee leader who said, “We need to note their names, those who did not support our proposal. I told our followers not to give votes to those lawmakers in the upcoming election.”
The ratification of the Race and Religion Bills between May and August 2015 significantly improved the relationship between the USDP and the Ma Ba Tha. During the keynote speech at the grand celebration rally in Yangon in October 2015, Chairman Ashin Tiloka publicly voiced gratitude for the personal efforts of President Thein Shein, while others had stated their gratitude several months earlier. In June 2015, after the ratification of one of the four bills, Ashin Vimala addressed a public event of over 1,000 monks saying, “We all should forget the bad that [the USDP] have done in the past. They are doing good things for us now. We should support them now.” This surge in support behind the USDP and Thein Shein was particularly evident online. After Thein Shein was summoned by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in October 2015 “to respond to allegations of human rights violations committed against the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority,” there was an outpour of support on social media. A significant proportion of monitored and observed profiles, including those of Ma Ba Tha monks, changed their profiles to sport a photograph of President Thein Sein on a black backdrop with the slogan “I’ll be with you Mr. President.”
While USDP-Ma Ba Tha relations have evolved over the past year, there have been persistent allegations that the nexus is far deeper. Some imply that the government is responsible for having created and nurtured the Ma Ba Tha. Many of these allegations center on the now deceased former key regime crony and Minister of Industry, Aung Thaung who is alleged to have closely supported the 969 and Ma Ba Tha. There is little available evidence for these specific allegations. However, in one video posted on YouTube, Wirathu is seen meeting with Aung Thaung. In the video, Wirathu appears deferential to Aung Thaung and appears to be lobbying for the release of his comrades still imprisoned by the regime. An investigative documentary aired by Al Jazeera dived further into such allegations, quoting several interviewees who claimed first-hand knowledge of Wirathu’s close relationships with the security services. It included at least two sources claiming that during the 2012 visit, Aung Thaung also met with Wirathu privately, after which his attitudes towards Muslims drastically changed. Wirathu denied having a close relationship with Aung Thaung or his followers. That being said, the Aung Zeyathu issue released after Aung Thaung’s death on July 23, 2015 featured the banner headline “We are All Aung Thaung.”
Hostile towards NLD
As the Ma Ba Tha grew increasingly positive towards the USDP through 2015, its messaging toward the NLD grew increasingly hostile. Various Ma Ba Tha monks and supporters sought to portray the NLD as unsympathetic to issues of ‘race and religion’ and “pro-Muslim,” with NLD members finding themselves directly and indirectly targeted in Ma Ba Tha affiliated campaigns. The Ma Ba Tha allegedly constituted a significant worry to NLD strategic and electoral planners in the run-up to the elections.
A senior member of the NLD admitted in an Irrawaddy article from August 2015 that the party decision not to field a single Muslim candidate in the elections was a result of fear that the Ma Ba Tha would use it to label them a ‘Muslim party.’ In hindsight, it appears to the researchers that the Ma Ba Tha significantly overreached in its deliberate provocations of the NLD, which is now likely to lead the country. However, the NLD’s cautious attitude towards the Ma Ba Tha appears to indicate its understanding of the resonance of the Ma Ba Tha’s populist anti-Muslim message, and its recognition of the Ma Ba Tha as a significant political player.
Many of the Ma Ba Tha’s supporters were much more outright in their hostility towards the NLD. One of the most common ‘viral’ images that regularly circulate in pro-Ma Ba Tha forums is an edited picture of Aung San Suu Kyi in a hijab that even Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledged as a political liability. She complained that, “They took a photograph, cut out the monks and put the photograph on the Internet and said I was paying obeisance to the Muslims. And what was worse was, when I went to the Mon state recently, they distributed this photograph to make the Monks think that I was pro-Muslim or anti-Buddhist.” Additionally, various social media posters are often openly derogatory of Aung San Suu Kyi, labeling her a foreigner and Muslim sympathizer, while others disseminate pieces of misinformation that misrepresent or discredit her positions and leadership. A prominent example came in September 2015, when an email allegedly written by Aung San Suu Kyi was “leaked” and circulated on the Internet. The email, which was addressed to a Rohingya rights activist in the U.K., claimed that the NLD would support and focus on the equality and rights of Rohingyas if they won the November elections. The email was widely disseminated through pro-Ma Ba Tha social media channels, even though Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD quickly moved to deny its authenticity.