AUTHORITIES in Burma (Myanmar) have vowed to take action against the outlawed Ma Ba Tha group should the hardline Buddhist organisation proceed with plans to rebrand itself to circumvent the government’s ban on it.
Religious Affairs Minister Thura Aung Ko said this in response to the formation of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, signalling mounting tensions between the democratically elected government and the influential ultra-nationalist group linked to incidences of hate speech and religious violence with the country’s minorities.
“The State Sangha committee (government-appointed body of high-ranking Buddhist monks) has announced the illegality of Ma Ba Tha as a whole group or as an individual member,” Aung Ko was quoted by Myanmar Now on Friday.
The minister said the formation of the newly-formed foundation was a “trick” by the dissolved Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Committee to Protect Race and Religion, to reform itself under a different name.
Although he did not mention the type of action to be taken, Aung Ko said it may do so “at a certain time.”
In May, the Ma Ba Tha said it planned to change their name to enable the group to continue their activities in response to a ban imposed by the government
Thousands of members defiantly attended a two-day conference despite the government’s May 23 order to disband it.
The hardline group also held a series of protests since then and expressed interest in forming a political party to run in the next elections, due in 2020.
However, Aung Ko insisted the group was not strong enough to gain public support, adding the State Sangha committee was viewed as the more legitimate body of Buddhists in the country.
“No religious organisation has the same status of the State Sangha committee as it is the highest ranking religious body.” – Aung Ko
“Its decisions also represent the majority of Buddhist people in Myanmar.”
The minister also accused the group of being “stooges of dictators who are trying to return to military dictatorship”, according to Myanmar Now.
“I am not the direct target of these protesters. They are actually disturbing the democratic government,” Aung Ko said.
A spokesman of the foundation, Dr Ashin Sopaka, said the group was unperturbed by the government’s warning.
“Our foundation does not oppose the directives of the State Sangha committee. It was formed in line with the rules and principles of this committee. So we disagree with the minister’s careless remark.”
Anti-Muslim sentiment in Burma is most potent in the troubled Rakhine State, where the Rohingya Muslims minority are effectively stateless. They have been subjected to violence and persecution at the hands of Buddhist vigilantes heavily influenced by the Ma Ba Tha and Burma’s security forces.
The United Nations has claimed more than 1,000 Rohingya people have been killed in the army’s operations in Rakhine and at least 70,000 have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since late 2016.