Ultra-nationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha has been spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric across Myanmar for years. Cosmopolitan Mandalay is at the heart of this hostility – which many fear is here to stay
In a cluttered room in a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, a group of crimson-robed monks and their followers feverishly smoke and talk. One monk wearing black, thick-rimmed glasses feeds paper into a photocopier. Another lies on the floor, stapling pages of propaganda together. Hangers-on laugh loudly and flick cigarette butts into an ashtray.
They’re forming petitions, explains a monk with oversized sunglasses perched on his forehead. A local journalist recently criticised the group’s front man, the vitriolic monk Ashin Wirathu, known for his violently anti-Muslim rhetoric. They now want the reporter arrested.
“Jihadi Muslims want to overwhelm the country, so we have to protect it,” says Eindaw Bar Tha, the monk lying on the floor.
This is the headquarters of the Committee to Protect Race and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha. It is an ultra-nationalist Buddhist organisation, and for years it has been spreading anti-Muslim sentiment across the country from this unassuming base. Self-anointed protectors of Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist religion, Ma Ba Tha members have sown insidious new tensions in Mandalay, a diverse city home to sizeable Muslim, Christian and Hindu populations.
In 2014, the hostility culminated in anti-Muslim riots widely linked to Ma Ba Tha – a tension that’s still present throughout Mandalay. On the street, a Muslim man passing a monk freezes up for fear of saying a wrong word. A Buddhist taxi driver, driving away from an Islamic neighbourhood, mutters: “So many Muslims.”
Smar Nyi Nyi, a softly spoken Muslim businessman, puts it like this: “When we are speaking with the Buddhists we have to be careful. We don’t want our words to harm them. Also, we are thin-skinned about their words.”