An ultranationalist monk organization in Myanmar on Tuesday denied that it was involved in a violent confrontation between Buddhists and Muslims last week in a Yangon neighborhood where monks had claimed that ethnic Rohingya Muslims were hiding illegally.
Monks from the Patriotic Myanmar Monks Union, also known at Ma Ba Tha, told a press conference in Yangon that the group had been falsely accused of provoking a May 9 conflict with Muslims in Mingala Taungnyunt township in the east-central part of the city.
Two people were injured during the melee during which police had to fire warning shots into the air to disperse a crowd that had gathered.
“We are holding this press conference because Ma Ba Tha didn’t know or do anything regarding the incident in Mingala Taungnyunt, though some well-known people have accused us of doing it,” said Pyinnya Wara, a Ma Ba Tha leader. “[The] monks who participated in the incident said they were not from Ma Ba Tha.”
“We see that some people are trying to destroy Ma Ba Tha’s image,” he said.
A monk named Thuseitta from the Patriotic Young Monks Union told RFA’s Myanmar Service on May 10 that Ma Ba Tha monks had received information that some Rohingya were hiding in apartments on two floors of a building in Mingala Taungnyunt township. They then alerted police and immigration officials who searched the premises.
After police determined that no one in the apartments was there illegally, a scuffle between the monks and Muslim residents broke out as the monks left the building.
Two people were injured, and police fired warning shots to break up the crowd.
Myanmar’s Buddhist majority views the Rohingya, a stateless group of 1.1 million who live mainly in the country’s western Rakhine state, as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and government policy has denied them citizenship and access to other basic rights for decades.
Ma Ba Tha’s 'bad image'
Ma Ba Tha monks also used the press conference as an opportunity to stress that they were not involved in a decision to close two Muslim schools in Yangon’s Thaketa township.
In late April, a group of Buddhist ultranationalists pressured local officials to close the two schools, arguing that Muslims were using them to hold prayers in violation of an agreement signed by school leaders in October 2015.
“Ma Ba Tha’s image has been destroyed because of the media which do not ‘comment correctly’ on Ma Ba Tha’s actions,” said Ashin Thawparka, a Ma Ba Tha leader. “Some media have written that Ma Ba Tha did something bad, but we didn’t actually do it. That’s why Ma Ba Tha has a bad image.”
Ma Ba Tha leaders also said they have formed a new group called Dhamma Wunthanu Retkhita (Religious and Nationalistic Spirits Association) to work on religious and national affairs.
Ma Ba Tha monks said the group will not take action against people or organizations that have falsely accused the organization of stirring up trouble in the past, but will do so in the future in accordance with the law.
When reporters asked Ma Ba Tha leaders if they intend to take action against Wirathu— a prominent monk in the Ma Ba Tha movement, who is known for his fiery anti-Muslim rhetoric—for his online posts inciting hatred against those of other faiths, Ashin Thawparka indicated that they would not do so.
“When U [honorific] Wirathu posted something online or said, he usually mentions that it is his personal opinion,” he said. “Because he says it is his personal opinion, it is not Ma Ba Tha’s policy or objective.”
Antiterrorist Association formed
In a related development, anti-Wirathu campaigner Myat Kyaw told RFA on Tuesday that he and others have formed an Antiterrorist Association on April 5 because they heard that the firebrand monk would deliver a sermon despite a ban by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka (Ma Ha Na), the government-appointed body of high-ranking Buddhist monks that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy in Myanmar.
The body enacted the ban on March 10 to prevent Wirathu from giving sermons across the country for one year because of his use of hate speech against religions other than Buddhism to cause communal strife and hinder efforts to uphold the rule of law.
“We will recognize an act as terrorism if someone destroys peace, discriminates or bullies others, or foments violence” Myat Kyaw said, adding that the group will reject the acts and work to stop the perpetrators, whether they are monks or laymen.
“We thought that [Wirathu] ignored the order of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka,” he said. “We formed this group with about 10 people to reject U Wirathu’s action against the State Sangha Maha Nayaka.”
Myat Kyaw also said that Wirathu made a comment during a sermon that he would send dogs for women to marry instead of marrying Muslims.
“These are not appropriate words coming from a monk,” he said, adding that his group collected 500 signatures in South Dagon Township in the southeastern part of Yangon and submitted them to Ma Ha Na to determine whether Wirathu’s comment was inappropriate.
Myat Kyaw said the anti-Wirathu movement is growing as members continue to collect signatures in South Okkalapa township in eastern Yangon to submit to leading monks from the State Sangha Maha Nayaka and the head of Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture.
“It is Ma Ba Tha’s business if it controls U Wirathu or not, but we think it should because what Wirathu does can affect to Ma Ba Tha because he is a Ma Ba Tha member,” he said. “U Wirathu should adhere to monastic discipline as well.”
“As the essence of Buddhism is peace, Buddha’s sons [monks] mustn’t do anything like [what Wirathu is doing],” he said.
In the past, Wirathu has spoken out against the country’s Rohingya Muslims and their defenders, participated in rallies celebrating the 2015 passage of a set of four controversial Race and Religion Protection Laws said to discriminate against Muslims, and praised the brutal January 2017 assassination of Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim lawyer and critic of Myanmar’s powerful military.
A recent unverified Facebook post that appeared to be posted by Wirathu threatened that Mingala Taungnyunt township would be destroyed on Monday in retaliation for the confrontation between monks and Muslims.
The threat prompted authorities to increase security in the area, though no incidents were reported.
Reported by Thiha Tun, Htet Arkar, Kyaw Thu and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.