By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express 31 May 2019
The Aung San Suu Kyi government in Myanmar has issued an arrest warrant against the radical Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, for alleged sedition.
As on date, the monk is evading arrest. But even if arrested, the punishment is expected to be light. This is so for two reasons: (1) he is close to the military, which is the dominant player in Myanmar’s politics. (2) he and his nationalist organization, the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, popularly known by its Burmese acronym “Ma Ba Tha”, is the voice of the majority Buddhist community in Myanmar.
Many strongly disapprove of Wirathu’s hate speech against other religious groups, especially the Rohingya Muslims. But at the same time, they feel that he and Ma Ba Tha are needed to protect the “Buddhist character” of Myanmar against Westernization, secularism and liberalism.
Though Myanmar has an elected government, and its head is a civilian, Aung San Suu Kyi, the military, collectively called “Tatmadaw”, enjoys a superior and entrenched position in the country’s constitution passed in 2008.
But Suu Kyi is trying to modify the constitution through a number of amendments. On February 19, the Union Parliament approved the formation of a 45-member committee to draft a bill to amend the constitution. The committee is to submit the constitutional amendment bill to Parliament by July 17.
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has been allocated 18 MPs while there will be eight military MPs and two each from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the Arakan National Party and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) alongside others from other ethnic parties.
But the military has warned against any drastic change. The “Ma Ba Tha” Vice Chairman, monk Ashin Wirathu, is not only supporting the military in this matter, but is also going hammer and tongs against Suu Kyi even abusing her with filthy insinuations.
There is a move to amend Art 59 (f) of the constitution which bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming President of the country as she had married a foreigner, and also because her sons are British nationals. The nationalists and the military are against the amendment of Art 361 which gives a special position to Buddhism as the “faith of the great majority of citizens.”
Senior military leaders told reporters at a press conference in Yangon on February 23, that they are opposed to the formation of a joint committee to consider constitutional changes because it breaches parliamentary procedure. This despite the fact that the committee has military MPs on it.
Brig. Gen. Than Soe, a military MP (a Tatmadaw representative in parliament) said that the Tatmadaw will oppose changes to the “essence” of the constitution. Maj. Gen. Tun Tun Nyi said the make-up of the committee is not fair. Army chief, Aung Hlaing, told Ashahi Shimbun that he is for constitutional amendments but insisted that “no amendment should harm its essence.”
The previous military regime had drafted a constitution in 2008, which reserves 25 percent of seats in parliament for the military and gives them control of the key portfolios of home affairs, defense and border security. Military MPs also have the power to veto any proposed charter changes, especially provisions that would curb their political power.
The 2008 constitution also bars Suu Kyi from becoming Myanmar President because she married a foreigner. However, she was allowed to lead the country via the specially created post of State Counselor.
On February 23, hundreds of nationalists took to the streets in Yangon to protest against amending the constitution. Wirathu took part in the rally.
On May 6, Wirathu told a rally in Yangon that the military MPs ought to be worshipped as the Buddha is worshipped.
“They (the military MPs) don’t get the salaries of lawmakers but only the soldiers’ salaries. They should be worshipped for protecting the country despite their poor salaries. But today you loathe them as enemies. This is not the time to amend the constitution,” the firebrand monk said.
Turning the heat on Aung San Suu Kyi on April 5, Wirathu said: “She only knows how to put on makeup and walk in high heels.What’ more, she likes to shake her ass when she sees foreigners. I don’t see why people want to elect someone who is lecherous as the President. We will be doomed to become the one that General Aung San predicted.”
Wirahu’s reference was to Gen.Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father and freedom fighter. Gen.Aung San had warned that Myanmar would have to earn from prostitution if the people did not work hard.
“The General risked his life for independence because he didn’t know about his daughter,” Wirathu added.
Ma Ba Tha and its leaders, may be despicable in many respects, but they enjoy considerable public support, many Myanmarese would say. But others dispute this assessment saying that Ma Ba Tha and Wirathu use intimidation to secure “compliance” which is not the same thing as “support.”
Since the start of the political liberalization in 2011, Myanmar has been troubled by an upsurge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and deadly communal violence, not only in Rakhine state against the Muslim Rohingyas ,but across the country.
The most prominent Buddhist nationalist organization is the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (commonly referred to by its Burmese-language acronym, Ma BaTha), made up of monks, nuns and laypeople.
Governments, both military and civil, have made considerable effort on curtailing this group and pushing the traditionally top Buddhist authority or the Sangha to curb and control it. Yet these efforts have been largely ineffective. Besides, governments have, from time to time, needed Buddhist radicals to help them face challenges.
The nature of Ma BaTha and the extent of its popularity are widely misunderstood. Far from being seen as an organization narrowly focused on political or anti-Muslim goals, Ma Ba Tha is viewed by many as a broad-based social and religious movement dedicated to the protection and promotion of Buddhism at a time of unparalleled change and uncertainty.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party do command enormous support in the political realm. But there is also a widespread nationalist perception that the leader and her party have a Western liberal outlook that privileges minority rights and diversity (including religious diversity) over the protection of Buddhism.
Efforts by the government to crack down on Ma Ba Tha have amplified the popular perception that it is not fully committed to protecting Buddhism. If the government take severe action aginst Wirathu, or declares Ma BaTha an unlawful organization, there might be severe reverberations across the country, some reports warn.
(The featured image at the top is that of Ma Ba Tha Vice Chairman U.Ashin Wirathu)