It’s been a good month for the group of nationalist Buddhist monks in Myanmar known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (or, more commonly, by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha). Formed in the aftermath of deadly interreligious violence in western Myanmar in 2012, the group has been a fixture of the political scene as the country has struggled to sustain the forward momentum of its ongoing democratic transition.
Along with the associated Buddhist extremist 969 movement, Ma Ba Tha’s main contribution to the political debate since its formation has been its effective fomentation of anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide. Prominent monk Wirathu—famed for his rabid anti-Muslim tirades—is a member of the group, and it has amassed a sizeable following as it has ratcheted up its xenophobic rhetoric.
While Buddhist monks are constitutionally barred from voting in Myanmar, they still wield immense political influence in the conservative majority Buddhist country. Scoring two major victories on July 7, Ma Ba Tha made clear the extent to which it has the capacity to influence Burmese politics and policy decisions as the 2015 general election approaches.
The first of these victories was the Myanmar parliament’s passage of the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill. The bill places restrictions on the ability of Buddhist women to marry men of other faiths, including requiring interfaith couples to seek permission from local authorities in order to wed.
Ma Ba Tha had been promoting the bill for years as part of a series of legislation designed to “protect” Buddhism in Myanmar. The first of these bills, which enables the government to mandate birth spacing and other reproductive restrictions in specific areas of the country, was signed into law in May.
Despite outcry from prominent international voices, which denounced the Marriage Bill as an affront to women’s and minority rights, the bill passed by an overwhelming margin—524 votes to just 44 in parliament. The lopsided tally demonstrated that few national politicians are willing to cross the powerful Ma Ba Tha lobby on issues it views as its core priorities.
Ma Ba Tha secured its second major victory when the government signed an order backing down from its plans to build a series of new high-rise developments near the revered Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
In the preceding months, Ma Ba Tha had led the charge against the projects, which critics argued would obstruct views of the Shwedagon Pagoda and possibly disrupt the foundations of the sacred site. Just before their cancellation, Ma Ba Tha had threatened to lead nationwide protests if the government moved ahead with them.
Authorities in February had temporarily suspended the projects, but until recently they had been hesitant to scuttle plans entirely, having already inked agreements with developers. The ultimate decision to cancel them for good after Ma Ba Tha began aggressively campaigning therefore proved to be an impressive achievement for the monks.
The political dynamics behind these recent victories are complex. Despite its leaders’ claims of political independence, many observers and activists contend that Ma Ba Tha’s real strength comes, in large part, from a mutually beneficial working relationship with the current government.
Indeed, despite the group’s odious international profile as a xenophobic collection of “mad monks,” the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has effectively embraced it. Government officials have, for the most part, looked the other way when Ma Ba Tha leaders have engaged in divisive hate speech against Muslims in Myanmar, allowing this type of rhetoric to proliferate, while cracking down on individuals accused of “insulting” Buddhism.
In return, the USDP has benefited thus far from Ma Ba Tha’s presence on the political scene. Despite the fact that monks are generally supposed to remain above the fray of electoral politics, one Ma Ba Tha leader flat out told fellow members at a recent gathering in Yangon to rally support for the ruling party in advance of elections this November.
Beyond such direct support, Ma Ba Tha’s rhetoric and actions have also yielded the added bonus of heightened religious tensions, which stir up divisive nationalist sentiment that threatens to undermine opposition parties, including the National League for Democracy (NLD)—the USDP’s biggest rival in elections this November.
But the cancellation of the high-rise developments near Shwedagon Pagoda represents a harbinger of potential problems for the future of this presently productive relationship. The campaign—Ma Ba Tha’s first targeting development projects, rather than the country’s vulnerable Muslim minority—proved that the monks have their own broader agenda.
In many ways, the campaign was a test of Ma Ba Tha’s true political heft. Getting the government to buy into a scheme to further restrict the rights of an already persecuted minority was relatively easy. But getting an administration, which has made economic development its key priority, to backtrack on firm commitments to developers was a much heavier lift.
Government leaders, who’s tacit support (or at the very least hands-off approach) has allowed Ma Ba Tha to amass a sizeable public following, likely believed that the group would remain focused on pushing for anti-Muslim policies they had no problem enacting.
But by enabling the group’s rise, the ruling party may have unwittingly created a monster it cannot so easily control.
As Ma Ba Tha leaders flex their political muscles, more dramatic policy clashes with the current government could arise. Future governments, too, will have to contend with this powerful and increasingly unpredictable political force.
Oren Samet is a researcher on domestic politics in Myanmar and democracy and human rights issues worldwide. He is a research and communications officer for ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).