Yangon: Myanmar’s minister for religion on Thursday warned ultra-nationalist monks to avoid hate speech, in a rare government rebuke to Buddhist hardliners behind bilious anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The warning came after a firebrand monk from the Ma Ba Tha movement on Wednesday decried Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi as a “dictator” intent on bringing down the Buddhist group.
Anti-Muslim tirades by the monk-led group are blamed for a surge in sectarian hatred across the country which has seen repeated bouts of religious violence.
The group’s rise to power under the former military-backed government went virtually unchecked, with its leaders organising mass rallies and social media vilification of Muslims.
But their star has waned in recent months.
Myanmar’s ruling council of monks has formally distanced itself from the group for the first time, raising speculation the network could be disbanded.
On Thursday Myanmar’s new religion minister Aung Ko added a warning against “people spreading hate speech”.
The Ma Ba Tha’s “future may be uncertain if they spread hate speech to create conflicts between religions… and among races,” he said, adding the “the government is trying to create stability.”
It was the first time a top minister from Suu Kyi’s administration has publicly tackled the group, whose influence was credited with swaying the Nobel laureate against fielding any Muslim candidates in November’s polls.
Suu Kyi has hitherto disappointed rights groups during her first few months in power for failing to strongly condemn religious intolerance including the recent destruction of two mosques by Buddhist mobs.
She has faced acute criticism for not throwing her moral weight behind the Rohingya — a Muslim minority denied citizenship and targeted by waves of violence in 2012.
The Ma Ba Tha have in recent weeks revived their campaign against the persecuted group, who they insist are illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Last month Suu Kyi sought to placate hardline Buddhists by ordering officials to avoid the term Rohingya and refer to the group as “Muslims of Rakhine State” instead.
But the Ma Ba Tha rejected that phrase and organised protests demanding the group be referred to only as “Bengalis”.
Myanmar is set to release census data next week and analysts are concerned Buddhist hardliners may whip up discontent if the figures show the country’s Muslim minority is larger than expected.