Sectarian tension is a fact of life in parts of Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country dotted with monasteries and gilded pagodas. But interfaith conflict has escalated sharply since 2012, when communal violence in the far-western state of Rakhine left dozens dead and displaced more than 100,000 members of the Muslim minority group Rohingya from their homes.
Other sectarian clashes were later reported in the country’s heartland, and Buddhist mobs killed more than 200 Muslims. Ma Ba Tha has long denied promoting violence, but critics say that its statements — which often go viral on social media — have clearly fueled it.
“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Ma Ba Tha’s best-known ultranationalist monk, Ashin Wirathu, said in a 2013 sermon, referring to Muslims.
Analysts say the Buddhist authority’s directive, and Ma Ba Tha’s headstrong reply, illustrate a central challenge facing the governing National League for Democracy, the political party led by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The government’s crackdown on Ma Ba Tha, they say, could ease pressure on Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from rights advocates overseas who have criticized her inability — or perhaps unwillingness — to curb state-sanctioned violence against Rohingya who live in western Myanmar.
However, the analysts said, it could also drive Ma Ba Tha’s supporters toward political parties that increasingly embrace hard-line Buddhist rhetoric, including one party that is linked to the military junta that ruled Myanmar for decades until 2011.
The National League for Democracy “continues to ignore this movement in general at its peril,” Matthew J. Walton, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford who studies religion and politics in Myanmar, said of Ma Ba Tha.
Popular support for Ma Ba Tha did not hurt Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in Myanmar’s 2015 general election, the first since the end of military rule, because many people voted for broad change instead of specific policies, Mr. Walton said. But because that could change by the next general election in 2020, he added, the National League for Democracy must ask monks who support it to “articulate an alternative discourse of protecting and promoting the Buddhist religion that doesn’t require expelling Muslims.”
The state-run Buddhist authority’s directive on Tuesday came two weeks after a raid on a Muslim neighborhood in Yangon by Buddhist vigilantes who were searching for Rohingya they believed were hiding there illegally. There is a widespread view in Myanmar that Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, regardless of whether their families have lived in Myanmar for generations.
The raid led to street clashes between Buddhists and Muslims, a rarity in Yangon, and left at least one person injured. A Buddhist nationalist group, the Patriotic Monks Union, later claimed responsibility for the raid, and several people were charged with incitement to commit violence.
Sectarian tensions have been especially high in Myanmar since the fall, when Rohingya militants killed nine police officers at a border post in Rakhine, inciting a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that sent tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh. In March, widespread reports of state-sanctioned rape and killing in Rakhine led the United Nations to call for a fact-finding mission to investigate accusations of rights violations by Myanmar’s Army and security forces.
In another potential blow to religious harmony, U Ko Ni, a Muslim lawyer and a top adviser to the National League for Democracy, was shot and killed outside Yangon’s international airport in January, in what appeared to be a political assassination. Mr. Ko Ni had been working on a plan to replace Myanmar’s military-drafted Constitution with one that would strip the military of its political powers.
Tuesday’s order by the state-controlled Buddhist committee is the latest in a series of moves by the country’s religious authorities to push back against Ma Ba Tha’s influence. Last summer, for example, a top Yangon official said that the group was “not necessary” for the country, and the committee rebuked an assertion by Ashin Wirathu, the nationalist monk, that Ma Ba Tha was operating under the committee’s authority. And in March, the committee barred him from preaching for a year.
U Khin Maung Lwin, a taxi driver in Yangon, said he welcomed the Buddhist authority’s moves to clamp down on Ma Ba Tha’s activities. “We don’t need Ma Ba Tha” because Myanmar already has an official Buddhist clergy, he said. “It will only create divisions among monks.”
Ma Ba Tha was formed in 2013 and gained prominence by promoting a package of so-called race and religion laws that were passed by a military-backed government just before the 2015 election. The laws cover topics like monogamy and interfaith marriage and are widely seen by scholars and human rights groups as discriminatory toward Muslims.
After the Buddhist authority’s directive this week, Ma Ba Tha canceled an event that it had planned for this weekend in Yangon to celebrate its fourth anniversary, according to reports in the local news media. But the group’s leaders have asked their supporters to gather in Yangon anyway for a briefing about the group’s next steps.
Few expect Ma Ba Tha to go quietly. Mr. Walton said that the group had recently created a spinoff, called Dhamma Wunthanu Rakita, “to do the things that monks can’t do, like bring defamation lawsuits.” He predicted that the group would essentially rebrand itself.
“This isn’t going to spell the end for extremist monks affiliated with Ma Ba Tha,” said Matthew Smith, the chief executive of Fortify Rights, an advocacy group based in Thailand that has urged Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to curb state-sanctioned violence against the Rohingya. “They’re still mobilizing, they still have a sizable following, and they’re still attempting to influence the minds of young people.”
But even though the National League for Democracy’s patience for hard-line Buddhist groups has “clearly worn thin,” the party remains unwilling to challenge the race and religion laws and other policies that institutionalize discrimination, said Gerard McCarthy, the associate director of the Myanmar Research Center at the Australian National University.
“Anti-Muslim sentiment is ubiquitous in Myanmar and has not been challenged by the N.L.D. in any substantive or legislative sense so far,” he said.
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