Firebrand monks are powerful force in Myanmar despite setback in elections



Dark-skinned and bearded men jump a young woman after she prays at a Buddhist shrine. They push her to the ground and rape her. Then they cut off her ear and slit her throat.

A lurid video recently posted online by a firebrand monk in Myanmar purports to re-enact the woman’s death at the hands of Muslim assailants. Her killing in 2012 set off widespread violence between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims in the Southeast Asian nation.

Tens of thousands of people viewed the video until Facebook blocked it on Feb. 1, a sign of the continuing reach of Myanmar’s Buddhist extremists even as the country moves toward civilian rule after five decades of military dominance.

A new report by U.S. researchers finds that a divisive religious group known as Ma Ba Tha, which counts the hard-line monk Wirathu among its senior members, is likely to remain a force for some time to come in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Ma Ba Tha’s anti-Muslim prejudices resonate in the broader Burmese society, according to the report.

The conflict and security research group C4ADS spent several months studying hate speech in Myanmar. It focused on Ma Ba Tha, or the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, scrutinizing the social media accounts of the group’s leading monks and followers.

“We find a decentralized, but still highly organized, group that operates with unrivaled freedom,” the report says. It cites the group’s activist rallies, legislative campaigns, powerful media network and pressure directed at judges and police to influence legal cases.

The report concludes that the incoming government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, or NLD, is unlikely to confront Ma Ba Tha, despite the religious group’s support for a rival pro-military party that was trounced in November elections. The new NLD-led parliament convened last week.

“While the (election) defeat is embarrassing to an organization whose key leaders had openly advocated against the NLD, it may prove to have little material impact over the long run,” the report says.

Experts say the NLD’s victory was driven by support for Suu Kyi and a desire for civilian rule. But the party did not field a single Muslim among its 1,151 election candidates — a sign of the political sensitivities surrounding religion.

Also, there is popular support for Ma Ba Tha’s campaign to deny rights to stateless Rohingya Muslims, who have been targeted in the religious violence and live in apartheid-like conditions in western Myanmar, according to the report.

Ma Ba Tha denies spreading hate speech. “We are not telling anyone to hate Muslims or kill them or anything like that. We are just trying to protect our own race and religion and showing love to our country,” central committee member Ashin Parmoukkha said during an interview in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city.

Yet even the group’s more moderate leaders have espoused an ultra-nationalist outlook in which Muslims, who account for 5 to 10 percent of Myanmar’s 52 million people, pose an existential threat to the Buddhist majority.

Ma Ba Tha’s vice chairman, the renowned monk Sitagu Sayadaw, organized a peace conference last month with participants from more than 50 countries. He told a visiting U.S. delegation in 2014 that Buddhist countries “are living in constant daily fear of falling under the sword of the Islamic extremists.”

The ability of Ma Ba Tha leaders to simplify Buddhist teachings has added to the group’s popular appeal. It has a nationwide network of offices, oversees newspapers, broadcasts TV sermons and does charitable work.

Wirathu, the monk who posted the video, is Ma Ba Tha’s most provocative voice. He served several years in prison for inciting deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2003. In January 2015, he called a U.N. special envoy on human rights a “whore” and a “bitch” after she criticized a bill restricting interfaith marriage and religious conversions in Myanmar. It was among four race and religion bills that were championed by Ma Ba Tha and were signed into law last year despite opposition from the NLD.

The video posted in late January on his Facebook page, which has 131,000 followers, was intended as a teaser for a longer video portraying the May 2012 killing of 27-year-old Ma Thida Htwe in western Rakhine State. A court sentenced to death two Muslim men for robbing, raping and killing the woman. A third man was charged; state media reported that he hanged himself in custody.

The woman’s killing triggered the first in several bouts of Buddhist-Muslim violence that has left more than 200 dead and 140,000 homeless.

Wirathu, 47, defended the video in an interview with the Myanmar Times newspaper, saying he wanted to show the incoming NLD government that it “needs to prioritize protecting the race and religion of the country.”

Facebook took down the video after complaints from activists, including Myanmar scholar Maung Zarni, who said its portrayal of Muslim men as bloodthirsty and its use of Buddhist symbolism were clearly intended to resonate with Burmese racists.

The NLD and government officials have also criticized the video, but Maung Zarni contended that authorities have “incubated” Ma Ba Tha and allow it to act with impunity.

Tina Mufford, East Asia analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the group has grown rapidly in the past two years and she expected its “warped” anti-Muslim messaging would continue.

“The elections may be over, but Ma Ba Tha’s inner workings are still in place,” she said.