The Rise of Political Buddhism in Myanmar

Narrow Burman-Buddhist nationalism remains the country’s biggest barrier to sustainable political reform.

The Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, is gaining ground in Myanmar. It has also been receiving increased international attention—last month for its proposal to ban Muslim headscarves in public schools.

A Buddhist monk adjusts his robe at a monastery affiliated with the Ma Ba Tha (Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion) on the outskirts of Yangon. The Ma Ba Tha organization, mainly active in Yangon and the northern city of Mandalay, promotes hardline Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar.

The organization was founded in 2014, when central figures from the more widely known 969 movement started campaigning for four laws to ban polygamy, restrict interfaith marriages and religious conversions, and enforce birth control measures among groups with high rates of population growth. All four laws, which are aimed at Myanmar’s Muslim population, passed parliament earlier this year. The new initiative to legally ban Muslim headscarves in public schools is the group’s latest.

Buddhism in Myanmar has become increasingly politicized with the rise of the Ma Ba Tha, which has its roots in 2012, when the loosely organized 969 movement of monks and laypeople called for a boycott of Muslim businesses. The numerological symbol 969, which represents the triple gems of Buddhism—the noble qualities of the Buddha [9], the dhamma [6], and the sangha [9]—is meant to counter that of Islam, 786 (Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim). 969 campaigns have coincided with a number of serious violent attacks on Muslim neighborhoods by Buddhist nationalist mobs in Rakhine State and several urban areas across Myanmar.

Ma Ba Tha seeks to protect the “Burman race” and Buddhism against the perceived threat of Islam, a religion that has deep roots in the histories and cultures of Theravada Buddhist countries across South and Southeast Asia. Muslim populations in these countries remains small—officially 9.7 percent in Sri Lanka, 6 percent in Thailand, 4 percent in Myanmar, and 1.6 percent in Cambodia. Nevertheless, Buddhist monks and laypeople have expressed grave concerns about the future of Buddhism amid fears of Muslim expansion.

  • Read more at the Tricycle, where the full text was published 6 July 2015.
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