RELIGION

Nationalist Buddhist group gathers in Myanmar despite ban

Thousands of Buddhist monks, nuns and supporters of an ultranationalist Buddhist group gathered at an annual conference on the outskirts of Myanmar's biggest city on Saturday despite being banned by the government.

The State Sangha Maha Nayaka, the country's highest Buddhist institution, officially banned Ma Ba Tha for motivating riots largely targeting Myanmar's Muslim minority. The group was ordered to stop its activities and to take down its signboards nationwide by July 15.

"According to their terms, our group is called an unlawful association, but we want you to know that our group will not be abolished," a senior monk from the group told the audience at the conference.

Ma Ba Tha and its high-profile leading monk, Wirathu, have been accused of summoning anti-Islamic preaching and stirring up mob violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, causing deaths of Muslims and destruction of their property. Most of the victims are from the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state.

"We just wanted to save our people, but maybe many people just want to die like dogs and pigs in the hands of the enemy," the monk said.

The government's ban came after Buddhist hard-liners forced local authorities to shut down two Muslim schools in April and later confronted Muslim neighborhoods claiming to search for illegal Rohingya hiding in the area. It was the latest manifestation of years of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar.

"Even if we are banned, that doesn't mean we will disappear," the monk said Saturday. "We will continue to do what we can to protect our race and religion."