By Aman Ullah
Channels of Communication and public mobilizations
At the heart of the Ma Ba Tha’s power is its highly effective communications apparatus, which is one of the most powerful mobilizing forces in the country today. In 2014, the first petition by the Ma Ba Tha in support of the Race and Religion bills, which was sent to President Thein Sein, was reported to have 1.3 million signatures. By February 2014, the Ma Ba Tha claimed an additional 3 million signatures in support of the laws, or nearly 8 percent of the country’s population. To engage and maintain this large base of support, the Ma Ba Tha uses a variety of dissemination channels, both online and offline.
Among these are a range of publications, including a magazine that is likely to have one of the largest circulations of any such publication in the country; a cable TV deal to broadcast sermons throughout the country on Myanmar’s largest television provider, SkyNet and a vast array of social media accounts, both directly and indirectly connected to the organization and to individual monks on the Central Committee.
A major reason for the Ma Ba Tha’s success has been its willingness to shape its outreach to best engage the masses. For example, Chairman Ashin Tiloka is well known for his teaching style that simplifies traditional Buddhist teaching methods; he distils complex philosophies into easy to understand lessons, and uses tables, charts, and common language instead of complicated scripture. He is also known for his humility and willingness to communicate with junior monks and laypeople on equal terms. This is often in stark contrast to the reputation of senior monks on the State Sangha, who are seen as having been corrupted by the trappings of wealth and privilege. Today, many Ma Ba Tha monks engage followers with the same pragmatism, employing a range of innovative sermonizing tactics. For example, one video shows a 969 monk standing on a table in front of a crowd, singing and clapping with the audience to a catchy song in a manner more reminiscent of a concert than a sermon.
The song, which was the 969’s unofficial anthem and often accompanies Ma Ba Tha videos, is titled, ‘We will Fence the Country with Our Bone.” One verse mentions “infidels” (i.e. Muslims) who, “drink our water… break our rules… suck our wealth… insult us the host… destroy our youth…Alas, they are one ungrateful creature.”
Newspapers and Magazines
The Ma Ba Tha publishes a wide range of literature that is both low cost and widely circulated. These include Aung Zeyathu, a weekly newspaper that is available at most tea shops for 1,000 kyat (US$ 0.78); Atumashi, a magazine for Upper Burma; and a bi-monthly magazine, Tharkithwe or “Royal Blood,” that is reported to have a circulation of around 50,000. This number may appear low compared to international standards, but is much higher than the circulation of even The Irawaddy, the highly respected and largest Burmese independent media organization, at 30,000 readers.
In addition, the Ma Ba Tha publishes a periodical journal called Myittatagun, which sells for 500 kyat (US$0.39). Given the print quality, all of these publications are remarkably inexpensive, even by local standards. The hardcopy Myittatagun is a glossy print and bounded publication, and self-reports on the inside cover to have an extensive production staff, including consultants, legal advisors, graphics designers, editors, and a newsroom with reporters in at least three states. Many of these magazines appear to have come a long way in professionalism; for example, the first copy of Tharki-thwe from July 2013 is an amateurish black and white production, but the 2015 publication is a professionally designed color edition, as seen in authors’ copies. Finally, Ma Ba Tha monks also publish a wide range of books and other literature, many of which are available in major bookstores throughout Myanmar, as seen by authors’ field visit in September 2015.
The Central Committee appears to run a significant, but frugal, operation to maintain these publications. Reuters imagery from September 2015 shows bulk copies of magazines, including Aung Zeyathu and Tharki-thwe, being packed for distribution at the Ma Ba Tha head office in Chairman Ashin Tiloka’s Insein monastery. What is described in captions as a “warehouse” appears to be little more than a room located within their headquarters. The publications are believed to be shipped to local chapters, who distribute them through their own networks, but the magazines themselves are printed in Yangon; Myittatagun is published at Myin Chan Press in Kyauktada Township. It is likely that the revenue from sales helps offset the costs of publication, but it is believed that donors may defray at least some of the cost. For example, one post from July 5, 2015 on a pro-Ma Ba Tha Facebook page, noted that Tharki-thwe publications had been donated by an affiliated monk-teacher community association, and were available at no cost in all Mawlamyine monasteries.
TV and Radio
In addition to its publications, the Ma Ba Tha has aggressively pushed to expand into radio and TV to broaden its reach. During its June 2015 conference, a Thai delegation pledged funding and the donation of equipment worth at least $35,800 to fund the construction of two radio stations. Pornchai Pinyapong, the owner of a Thai private hospital and president of the World Fellowship of Buddhist Youth, was reported to have brokered the deal. The deal was blocked by the government, which cited a current law that requires a partnership with the state-linked TV broadcaster. The ruling has stalled the project, but the Ma Ba Tha has vowed to mobilize support behind the upcoming Broadcast Bill to reform the law. Meanwhile, Pinyapong has also continued his patronage in Myanmar, despite some condemnation in Thailand, including a strong Bangkok Post editorial criticizing his activities.
Despite setbacks on its radio stations, the Ma Ba Tha has experienced significant success on the TV front. In September 2015, it signed a licensing deal with Skynet, the country’s largest cable news provider to broadcast its sermons. Skynet is owned by U Kyaw Win, the owner of Shwe Than Lwin, an entity that was formerly sanctioned by the European Union. According to imagery from 2015, SkyNet camera crews have been widely seen at Ma Ba Tha events and Ma Ba Tha monks appear to have received significant airtime. In the few months since the formal deal, social media posts show that even smaller Ma Ba Tha aligned fringe activist groups appear to be gaining national airtime.
Many Ma Ba Tha monks are tech-savvy. Many junior monks maintain large and active online presences, including social media accounts, blogs, and other websites. Even 77-year old Ashin Tiloka is known to text, and is seen clutching his Smart phone in at least one image on a social media post. The most popular is Wirathu, with a primary Facebook account that boasts 117,000 followers as of November 2015, but another representative example is Ashin Sopaka, who operates at least four Facebook accounts. Many of these accounts release nearly identical content, and are high-volume feeds that post a large amount of information and imagery multiple times a day.
The content on these accounts is typical of the younger generation of networked monks, who post a high volume of content with detailed coverage of their sermons, events, travels, and personal thoughts on major news items. While Wirathu and Ashin Sopaka are both believed to personally manage and post on their accounts, they are also assisted by ‘media teams,’ often comprised of laypeople and junior monks armed with smart phones, cameras, and computers, as seen on various social media posts. In fact, computer literacy and training has become an important priority for many monks. Ashin Sopaka recently held a free two-month computer literacy training event for laypeople at his monastery. Available imagery from a social media account apparently controlled by Ashin Sopaka, shows a well organized operation with textbooks produced by the monastery and instructors in well-stocked classrooms.
(To be continued…)
Mr. Aman Ullah, a Rohingya historian based in Bangladesh and he was a former school teacher in Ann township and the southern part of Maungdaw, Arakan State, Myanmar, who has contributed in the field of Rohingya history and humanitarian stance.