Southeast Asia

Organized Panel Session

1 - Myanmar's "Buddhist Nationalist" Movement: A Challenge to Religious Authorities?

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Marriott Balcony A, Mezzanine Level

Myanmar’s formal religious authority, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na), was formed in the 1980s, as part of the military government’s efforts to centralise religious control. However, even with this reorganisation, monks retained significant autonomy in their activities and particular charismatic monks cultivated alternative centres of religious influence. Popular opinion sees Ma Ha Na as the tool of previous military governments, a view boosted by its stance against monastic involvement in past anti-government protests.


The contemporary “Buddhist nationalist” movement is led by the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation (until recently known as Ma Ba Tha), a group that has had an increasingly contentious relationship with Myanmar’s formal political and religious authorities. While Ma Ha Na leaders explicitly praised Ma Ba Tha when it was first formed, some of them have become more critical, resulting in a May 2017 order prohibiting the group from operating under that name.


Often portrayed simply as a xenophobic, anti-Muslim movement, we argue that Ma Ba Tha can instead be understood as a group that many of its members and leading voices see as a vehicle to challenge the formal religious hierarchy, viewed by many monks as undemocratic and rigid. This struggle over spiritual authority is usually missed in analyses of pro-Buddhist “nationalist” activism in Myanmar. Yet, this perspective can help explain the group’s persistent and widespread popularity and also portends a more divisive conflict brewing in the country, between formal religious authorities and a growing alternative centre of spiritual influence.

Matthew J. Walton

University of Oxford, England, United Kingdom

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Khin Mar Mar Kyi

University of Oxford, England, United Kingdom

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Aye Thein

University of Oxford, England, United Kingdom

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