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Myanmar censures religious prejudice

MANDALAY (SE): The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee of Myanmar, an official council of senior Buddhist monks, refused to validate what it regards as the renegade, trouble-fomenting Ma Ba Tha, which is variously translated as the Patriotic Association of Myanmar or Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, as a legitimate Buddhist organisation.

The Ma Ba Tha is seen as not only a nationalist movement, but an organisation dedicated to religious purity that wants the Union of Myanmar to be free of all religions, except Buddhism.

It has particularly targeted Islam in its public statements, which UCAN reported has fuelled religious violence in recent years. Some of its members are believed to belong to the 969 Movement, which postures as a protectionist group for the virtues of Buddha and Buddhist practices.

The numbers 969 stand for the nine attributes of the Lord Buddha, the six attributes of his teachings and the nine of the clergy.

It was formed in Mandalay around the time that the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee put a prohibition on the use of the 969 logo for political uses.

It was also largely at its prompting that the government in Naypyidaw formulated legislation in 2013 regulating religious conversions in the country and enforced monogamy, as well as banning interfaith marriages and promoting population control measures.

While some of its members claim to be open to interfaith relations, overall the Ma Ba Tha is regarded as Islamophobic.

However, the government seems to have changed its approach to the group since the new parliament was elected last year and Time magazine reported that the chief minister of Rangoon, Phyo Min Thein, was openly critical of its antics during a visit to Singapore in early July.

The Yangon-based The Irrawaddy said on July 13 that the state-backed Buddhist council, the Sangha Maha, had issued a statement saying the ultra-nationalist group is not a lawful association of monks, because it has not been formed in accordance with monastic rule in the country.

It also denied that the Ma Ba Tha is an official offshoot of a 2013 conference of Buddhist clerics organised by the Shangha Maha. It notes in its statement that the name Ma Ba Tha does not appear in any documents relating to its meetings since 1980.

The secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar, Father Maurice Nyunt Wai, welcomed the move by the official council of monks, saying that it has had its reputation tarnished by the nationalistic anti-most-things group.

“It was time for the State Sangha to promote Buddhism’s image internationally, because Myanmar has grappled with religious violence and growing hardline Buddhism in recent years,” he added.

In 2014, it led a campaign to oust the Qatar-based Ooredoo telecommunications company from Myanmar on the basis that is owned by Muslims.

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