The last few weeks in Myanmar have witnessed a confusing flurry of activity and news related to Buddhist nationalist and activist groups, marked by official bans, defiant public meetings, the creation of subsidiary groups and multiple re-brandings.

Yet, as has been the case consistently over the past few years, both domestic and foreign media reports continue to get basic facts and dynamics of the situation wrong, while statements from Myanmar public officials have often been dismissive and misguided. This matters not only for journalistic integrity but also for the policy approaches that might be adopted in response to the country’s persistent and rising inter-religious tensions and violence.

A new approach to the phenomenon of “Buddhist nationalism” is needed in Myanmar, put in scare quotes here because, while some groups openly acknowledge the nationalist aspects of their efforts, others are more oriented towards the protection of Buddhism, and at times we need to be able to differentiate between the two.

This new approach should recognize nuance and variation among Buddhist and nationalist groups, and acknowledge that the sentiments that have at times motivated unacceptable anti-Muslim violence and discrimination are also connected to more acceptable religious and community-building activities.

Buddhist monks and activists from Myanmar protest in front of the Thai embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, against the Thai military government invoking a special emergency law to let authorities search the Dhammakaya Temple in an attempt to arrest a former abbot, February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun - RTS1049K
Buddhist monks and activists from Myanmar protest in front of the Thai embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, against Thailand’s military government’s invoking a special emergency law to arrest a former abbot, February 24, 2017. Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

A brief review of recent events is in order. In April and May, court cases against some prominent lay and monastic self-described nationalists generated public protests that seemed linked to vigilante actions by Buddhist groups and individuals in Yangon.

These included the May 9 closure of allegedly unsanctioned Islamic schools in Thaketa Township on April 28 and trespassing in a private residence to search for “illegal” residents in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township.

After local authorities took relatively swift action against the perpetrators, another protest took place in the new capital of Naypyitaw, calling for the resignation of the Minister of Religious Affairs, U Aung Ko.

All of this took place in the lead-up to the fourth annual conference of Ma Ba Tha, the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, scheduled to take place on May 27-28. Before Ma Ba Tha could hold its conference, however, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee – the country’s official Buddhist authority that uses the Burmese acronym Ma Ha Na – issued an official statement on May 23 directed at the group.

Buddhist ultranationalist monks from the radical Ma Ba Tha group attend a meeting to celebrate their anniversary with a nationwide conference in Yangon, Myanmar May 27, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun - RTX37U0L
Buddhist monks from the nationalist Ma Ba Tha group attend a meeting to celebrate their anniversary with a nationwide conference in Yangon, Myanmar May 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

This statement has been almost universally misunderstood and misreported as a “ban” on Ma Ba Tha, in a problematic pattern consistent with other coverage of the group and “Buddhist nationalism” generally in Myanmar.  The statement cites several sections of both the Sangha Organization Law and the Sangha Organizational Procedures in declaring that Ma Ba Tha was not formed in accordance with these directives.

It goes on to say that neither the group nor individuals associated with it can use the full Burmese name it currently uses and that all of the organization’s signboards across the country must be taken down by July 15. It also provides for the Buddhist authorities and the Ministry of Home Affairs to take action against those who do not comply with the directive.

The indirect—yet oddly specific—wording throughout the statement is consistent with some of Ma Ha Na’s earlier directives, including a September 2013 order banning the “political use” of the 969 symbol and its July 2016 statement clarifying that Ma Ba Tha was not officially formed according to Ma Ha Na policies. These were carefully calculated statements that sought the appearance of disciplinary action without direct confrontation.

None of these statements, including the most recent one, make any comment on the aims, motivations or activities of the relevant groups and, indeed, always stop short of banning the groups outright.

Ma Ba Tha leadership seems to understand the game that is being played here, as its two top officials contritely signed the document in the presence of Ma Ha Na members. The group quickly pivoted to re-brand itself as the “Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation” at the conclusion of its rescheduled conference.

Myanmar hardline Buddist monk Wirathu speaks during a meeting following the decision of the State Sanhga Committee to abolish their group, in Yangon on May 27, 2017. More than 1,000 monks and followers from Myanmar's ultra-nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement gathered in a Yangon monastery on May 27 despite a recent order from Buddhist authorities to disband their network, which has been accused of stoking Islamophobia. / AFP PHOTO / YE AUNG THU
Myanmar Buddist monk U Wirathu speaks during a meeting following the State Sanhga Committee’s ruling against the Ma Ba Tha group, in Yangon on May 27, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Ye Aung Thu

Ma Ha Na, Myanmar’s official Buddhist authority, is often misunderstood. While some of its 47 member monks are well-respected for their scholarship or preaching, popular perception of the body is of a rubber stamp for former military governments.

It is probably more appropriate to see Ma Ha Na as an arm of the government more generally, meaning that it is a conservative group that is strongly constrained and pressured by whoever is in power and has generally been guided more by an interest in maintaining a stable status quo rather than supporting authoritarianism.

Beyond this, its main interest is in protecting the image of Buddhism writ large, and it is through this lens that we can understand its recent actions to separate itself from the negative press associated with Ma Ba Tha.

Ma Ha Na is also constrained in several ways from acting more directly against a group like Ma Ba Tha. First, it must be very careful at taking any action that could be seen as causing a schism in the monkhood, as this was strictly forbidden by the Buddha.

But more importantly (and problematically), Ma Ha Na simply doesn’t have the popular support to overtly challenge Ma Ba Tha in a way that would threaten its continued existence.

Not only does Ma Ba Tha continue to enjoy widespread support but Its leading figures are near-universally beloved monks like the Insein Ywama Sayadaw, who commands much more respect among the population than most of the Ma Ha Na monks.

Men gather to pray inside Mahamuni Buddhist temple in Mandalay October 6, 2015. Buddhist-majority Myanmar goes to the polls on November 8 in an election billed as Myanmar’s first free and fair ballot in 25 years. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi last month urged supporters not to let the issues of race and religion dominate the parliamentary election, while critics have branded her National League for Democracy (NLD) too sympathetic to Muslims and unwilling to protect Buddhism. Picture taken October 6, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Silva - RTX1U6V5
Devotees pray inside Mahamuni Buddhist temple in Mandalay October 6, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

Media coverage or other analysis that sloppily equates Ma Ba Tha with the firebrand monk U Wirathu in the public’s perception is simply wrong, and one reason why observers continue to misapprehend the nature of the group.

This does not mean that some of these leading lay and monastic figures do not express problematic, exclusionary anti-Muslim views, but this isn’t the lens through which many Ma Ba Tha supporters view the group.

Since Ma Ba Tha’s founding, it and similar groups have regularly been the subjects of erroneous and misleading media reporting. One cause of this seems to be an overwhelming desire on the part of journalists and other (mostly urban local or international) commentators for the empirical reality of Ma Ba Tha’s existence and popularity to be different than it actually is.

The breathless enthusiasm with which the media greets every minor development that might be viewed as a setback for Ma Ba Tha or “Buddhist nationalists” reflects an inability or unwillingness to really understand the dynamics of this phenomenon.

Simply put, a large proportion of Buddhists in Myanmar continue to be genuinely worried about the fate of their religion. This anxiety has been problematically and inaccurately directed towards Islam and Muslims, often through misinformation.

People and Buddhist monks protest while Malaysian NGO's aid ship carrying food and emergency supplies for Rohingya Muslims arrives at the port in Yangon, Myanmar February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
People and Buddhist monks protest while Malaysian NGO’s aid ship carrying food and emergency supplies for Rohingya Muslims arrives at the port in Yangon, Myanmar February 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Yet it is also necessary to better understand what animates these fears that continue to drive the popularity of Ma Ba Tha and other groups, and to encourage monks and other Buddhist leaders to articulate peaceful and inclusive narratives about the protection of Buddhism. The indiscriminate and blanket use of incendiary descriptors such as “extremist” or “ultranationalist” only serves to obscure a complicated set of motivations and actions.

Thinking beyond support motivated by fear, analysis of Ma Ba Tha continues to ignore what is probably the most important aspect of the group’s existence. Alongside a narrative of external threats to Buddhism exists a sentiment among many Buddhist leaders that weaknesses in Buddhist belief and practice have also rendered the religion vulnerable.

As has often occurred in the country in the past, this has prompted a range of prescriptions that look internally to strengthen and deepen Buddhist faith and institutions. While the international community sees the group through the lens of its attention-grabbing, hate-spewing proxies such as U Wirathu, many (perhaps most) people across Myanmar understand Ma Ba Tha through the lens of its local activities and affiliates.

As anti-Rohingya protests and campaigns in favor of the four “Race and Religion” laws have dominated Ma Ba Tha-related English language news over the past few years, the organization has built up its base of support through aligning with Buddhist Sunday Schools, volunteer groups, legal clinics, relief campaigns, donation drives and other community-oriented activities.

Buddhist monks who support Ma Ba Tha sit as they attend a celebration of the recent establishment of four controversial bills decried by rights groups as aimed at discriminating against the country's Muslim minority, with a rally in a stadium at Yangon October 4, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTS2XTP
Ma Ba Tha supporting monks at a rally in a stadium in Yangon October 4, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

In many cases, these aren’t necessarily official Ma Ba Tha activities, but rather they are organized locally and feed back into Ma Ba Tha’s broader branding and agenda of protecting and propagating Buddhism. Not only are many of these activities welcome in the eyes of Myanmar Buddhists, they are the kinds of things that any social service-oriented group ought to be encouraged to do.

Sadly, some of Myanmar’s political elites persist in believing that support for Ma Ba Tha comes through nefarious nationalist leaders’ manipulation of ignorant, self-interested rural pawns. In response to the May 20 protest organized against him in Naypyitaw by a collection of nationalist groups, religious affairs minister U Aung Ko said dismissively, “Money is the only motivation for people—especially at a grassroots level—to participate in such a demonstration.”

If this is the attitude of Myanmar’s leadership, no wonder the current government has yet to find an effective way to respond to this phenomenon. The swift action taken by Yangon police to arrest people connected with the vigilante actions in May was a welcome change.

But broader policy responses must also find a way to engage productively with those groups interested in the protection and propagation of Buddhism while making clear that certain violent, discriminatory or lawless actions will not be tolerated.

And it does seem that navigating a path through the thicket of distinct yet overlapping nationalist groups is absolutely essential to dealing effectively with these persistent tensions. Ma Ba Tha’s leadership appears to have taken the message from the public rebuke it received indirectly through the November 2015 election.

Novice Buddhist monks wait for Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to arrive in Mandalay March 3, 2012.  REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun (MYANMAR - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR2YRR3
Novice Buddhist monks wait for Myanmar’s then pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the campaign trail. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun 

Even though at the time its official spokespeople were careful to avoid explicitly endorsing candidates or parties, the statements of prominent affiliated monks were enough to dampen some people’s support for Ma Ba Tha as an appropriate vehicle for the protection of Buddhism, even as they continued to endorse its broader aims.

The recent creation of the Dhamma Wunthanu Rakita organization, as a lay ally of Ma Ba Tha (that will take on tasks seen as inappropriate for monks, such as filing lawsuits), and the subsequent formation of the 135 United Patriots Party, demonstrate a further disaggregation and specialization on the part of a movement that emerged in a relatively undifferentiated religio-political landscape but has been adapting effectively to changes in Myanmar’s political opportunity structures.

There is an aspect of Ma Ba Tha’s official position on its members’ and affiliates’ statements and actions that is disingenuous. That is, the group wants to claim for its own any monks or laypeople who are working “sincerely” for the protection of race and religion.

Yet when members and affiliates go too far, as in the vigilante attacks several weeks ago, Ma Ba Tha is quick to try to distance itself from their words or actions. It can’t have its cake and eat it too.

But in blithely painting Ma Ba Tha in broad “ultra-nationalist” brushstrokes and automatically associating every anti-Muslim action in Myanmar with the group, politicians, journalists and analysts are missing an opportunity to hold Ma Ba Tha’s leadership accountable to its own claims of being an organization committed to peace and to protecting the religious beliefs of all of its citizens.

Buddhist monks protest alongside activists (not pictured) against United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon for using the term Rohingya during the Asean summit in Yangon November 29, 2014. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Buddhist monks protest alongside activists against United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon for using the term ‘Rohingya’ during the Asean summit in Yangon November 29, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

If that may seem like a naïve prospect, it is the only way to make progress on the very real and troubling violence faced by religious minorities in Myanmar today.

The current government is hesitantly and inconsistently taking steps to try to change the enabling environment that the previous government created for consequence-free anti-Muslim violence, but it needs to sincerely engage with these complex feelings of Buddhist vulnerability (without sanctioning violence or discrimination) if it hopes to facilitate reconciliation and peace.

Alongside a narrative of external threats to Buddhism exists a sentiment among many Buddhist leaders that weaknesses in Buddhist belief and practice have also rendered the religion vulnerable.

Similarly, if Ma Ba Tha’s leadership wants its group to be seen as distinct from the more radical statements and actions of the Patriotic Monks Union, or even U Wirathu, then it must do more than just claim not to have been involved.

It must condemn particular instances of hate speech, violence and lawless actions (especially by its members), and not just make general superficial statements regarding peace. And if journalists and other commentators want to play a productive role, they need to honestly seek to understand the dynamics of this phenomenon, even as they preserve space for critical investigation.

This article is not an attempt to defend Ma Ba Tha, its actions or the rhetoric and actions of those monks associated with it. Instead, it is a call to recognize Myanmar’s “Buddhist nationalist” movement as complicated, dynamic and populated by multi-faceted individuals and groups operating in an opaque environment that blurs religious and political motivations.

Vulnerable religious minorities must be defended vigorously, but reporting, analysis and policy-making must also acknowledge the nuances of this phenomenon, or risk further alienating Buddhists who already see their religion as under siege. Myanmar’s religio-political situation needs to be better understood if efforts to curtail religious violence and discrimination are to succeed.

Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Anthony’s College, Oxford University. His book Buddhism, Politics and Political Thought in Myanmar was recently published by Cambridge University Press.