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. Popular opinion sees Ma Ha Na as the tool of previous military governments. The contemporary “Buddhist nationalist” movement is led by the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation (formerly known as Ma Ba Tha), a group that has had an increasingly contentious relationship with Myanmar’s formal political and religious authorities.
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.