The military chief of Myanmar’s Yangon region has donated nearly U.S. $20,000 to the country’s leading Buddhist ultranationalist organization, drawing condemnation from observers who say the group’s activities are “hindering national progress” in the fledgling democracy.
Major General That Pon, head of the Yangon region military command, joined some 1,000 monks at the headquarters of the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation in Yangon’s Insein township on Monday for the group’s annual meeting, during which he made a contribution of 30 million kyats (U.S. $19,630) on behalf of his division.
Senior monks from the foundation—formerly known as the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, until the government banned the use of the name in 2017—railed against the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) at the meeting over its handling of the conflict with Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, suggesting it had “tarnished the reputation” of Myanmar and its majority Buddhist religion.
They called for a boycott of the NLD during next year’s general election, saying that the 25 percent of seats in Myanmar’s parliament that are reserved for military officers by constitutional mandate is “too little,” and expressing their support for those in the army who are “fighting for the interests of the country.”
The monks also slammed authorities for pursuing a sedition lawsuit against one of the group’s leaders, firebrand Buddhist monk Wirathu, after he made inflammatory comments against the civilian-led government and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi at nationalist rallies.
The foundation has continued to operate despite rulings last year by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture and the State Sangha Maha Nayaka (Mahana)—a government-appointed council that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy in Myanmar—that it had illegally changed its name and which ordered the group to cease all activities.
On Tuesday, Myanmar’s Military Information Committee spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun defended That Pon’s attendance at Monday’s meeting and his donation, despite objections over the group’s openly anti-Muslim and anti-NLD rhetoric.
“The Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation is a group formed by Buddhist monks—that’s why the Yangon region military command has donated money as charity,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“This foundation has publicly announced its objectives, and we are contributing to those objectives.”
Thaw Par Ka, a central committee member of the foundation, also defended the donation.
“We Buddhist monks will accept donations, regardless of who gives them—the ruling NLD party, opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), or Aung San Su Kyi,” he said.
“If our donors are true supporters for protecting the race and religion, we will support them, but if they are damaging religion, we will oppose them.”
He added that if the foundation deserved a full ban as an illegal organization, “there is no way the military would have backed our cause.”
Ariya Wonthar Bi Wonthaka, a Buddhist monk from the Myawaddy Min Gyi monastery, told RFA that the military’s support for the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation was already well known, but that “now they have made it formal by showing their support in public.”
“[The foundation is] hindering national progress, and they don’t represent the majority of Buddhist monks,” he added.
Calls by RFA to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture for comment on the military’s donation went unanswered on Tuesday.
Nationalist monks have repeatedly staged pro-military rallies throughout Myanmar as pressure mounted over what the international community has called excessive use of force by the armed forces against the Rohingya in Rakhine state, while Wirathu has led protests against the government and Aung San Suu Kyi.
In 2016, Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing donated money to Wirathu, leading to public criticism after a photo of him with the monk went viral. International rights groups have called for Min Aung Hlaing to be tried for crimes against humanity for the Myanmar army’s scorched-earth military campaign that drove more than 740,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh in 2017.
Observers also expressed concerns over the religious organization’s increasing bid to insert itself into national politics, although they acknowledged the group has a sizable following and that a move by authorities to shut it down could lead to popular unrest in Myanmar, where some 90 percent of the country’s population practices Buddhism.
NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt told RFA that his party wants “religious organizations to focus on religious missions.”
“We should be suspicious of their status as a religious organization if they start making claims about politics,” he said, noting that “this is not the first time they called for boycotting the vote.”
“It is no good that religious leaders are interfering with politics. It will prolong conflicts and trouble the people.”
Khin Maung Myint, a legal consultant, told RFA that the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation is “defying” last year’s rulings by the Mahana and the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture by continuing operations, and that its members should be arrested for holding their annual meeting on Monday.
“This is an example of unlawful assembly, according to Criminal Penal Code 141-142,” he said.
“Members of this assembly are subject to sentences of six months in prison and labor. Since the organization and its meeting are illegal, their statements are meaningless.”
Call for negotiations
But Political analyst Aung Thu Nyein said that the Mahana should determine the best way to deal with the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation, as the group is creating a problem that “must be settled by the monks themselves.”
“If the government is forced to use its authority to stop them, it could create more problems,” he warned.
“There are disagreements and different opinions on both sides. I think it is best to settle these problems through peaceful negotiations.”
Reported by Aung Theinkha and Thet Su Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.