A government-appointed body that regulates Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy has banned an ultranationalist monk organization known for its anti-Islamic rhetoric, according to media reports, ordering the group to disband or face punishment under both Buddhist and secular law.
The Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na), a group of high-ranking monks that serves as Myanmar’s Buddhist authority, informed government ministries Tuesday that it had ordered the hardline group Ma Ba Tha to end its activities, according to a document obtained by Agence France-Presse.
“People, either as individuals or as a group, cannot take any actions under the name of Ma Ba Tha,” the Sangha said in its statement, which also directed Ma Ba Tha to take down its posters and signboards around the country by July 15.
According to a report by Frontier Myanmar, the Sangha’s statement also warned that any breach of its edict would lead to punishment under Buddhist law and be referred to the Ministry of Home Affairs for “immediate” prosecution.
Ma Ba Tha representatives agreed to “obey [those decisions] exactly and inform other monks” in the group, Frontier said, citing the statement.
Thawparka, a leading member of the Ma Ba Tha Steering Committee, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that his organization is still determining how to respond to the order.
“We have to review the Ma Ha Na decision and discuss our future plans,” he said.
“We will let the country know what we decide.”
Thawparka added that the Ma Ba Tha’s fourth anniversary conference scheduled for May 27-28 had been canceled.
AFP cited a statement from the group which said that a meeting to discuss the Sangha’s decision would be held in its stead.
Myanmar has seen frequent outbreaks of religious violence in recent years amid tensions stoked by hardline groups such as Ma Ba Tha.
In one of the latest incidents, a violent confrontation between Buddhists and Muslims broke out on May 9 in a Yangon neighborhood where Ma Ba Tha monks had claimed that ethnic Rohingya Muslims were hiding illegally.
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.
Ma Ba Tha monks last week denied allegations that they had provoked the violence.
The Sangha’s decision to shut down Ma Ba Tha came several weeks after it banned Wirathu—a prominent monk in the ultranationalist organization—from delivering sermons for one year because his use of hate speech against religions other than Buddhism was seen as causing communal strife and hindering efforts to uphold the rule of law.
The firebrand monk has since made several appearances in front of crowds with his mouth taped shut to protest his silencing by authorities, and recently made a controversial visit to Rakhine state in western Myanmar, which is home to the Muslim Rohingya.
Myanmar’s Buddhist majority views the Rohingya, a stateless group of 1.1 million, as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, and government policy has denied them citizenship and access to other basic rights for decades.
Army refutes report
Reports of the Sangha’s ban came as Myanmar’s army on Tuesday cleared itself of allegations that soldiers may have carried out ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Rakhine, despite a damning report released by United Nations investigators in February.
The army, or Tatmadaw, dismissed claims by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) that troops “very likely” committed mass killings and widespread rapes during a crackdown in Rakhine late last year based on its own investigation, the official Global New Light of Myanmar reported, citing the Tatmadaw’s “True News information team.”
The Tatmadaw said it carried out an investigation from Feb. 10 to March 4, interviewing 2,875 villagers from 29 villages in Rakhine regarding the accusations that “security forces performing area clearance operations committed terrorist attacks.”
“Out of 18 accusations included in OHCHR’s report, 12 were found to be incorrect, with remaining six accusations found to be false and fabricated accusations based on lies and invented statements,” the report said.
The investigation determined that one motor bike was “driven without the knowledge of its owner” by a soldier who was later found guilty, sentenced to one year in prison and ordered to pay the owner 530,000 kyats (U.S. $387) in compensation.
A village chief and village residents who failed to extinguish a fire at a hostel for school teachers “were whipped several times,” while two others were sent to jail, the report added.
The Tatmadaw’s findings differ significantly from those of the OHCHR, which said security forces may have committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing amid the crackdown in north Rakhine aimed at capturing or killing insurgents who had attacked police border posts.
The OHCHR had based its information on interviews with hundreds of the more than 70,000 Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh during the operation.
Myanmar’s civilian government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has also denied allegations of rights abuses against the Rohingya and refused to allow a U.N. fact-finding mission into Rakhine to investigate.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.