Myanmar nationalist monks protest Thai crackdown on sect

Yangon, Myanmar - A Buddhist nationalist group that has been accused of stirring up religious tensions in Myanmar demonstrated Friday outside Thailand's embassy in Myanmar to protest the Thai government's siege of the temple headquarters of a controversial Buddhist sect.

The peaceful protest by more than 100 monks and supporters was organized by the Association of the Protection of Race and Religion — also known as Ma Ba Tha — a group that has been criticized for pushing an anti-Muslim agenda in mostly Buddhist Myanmar.

Thai authorities are seeking to arrest the monk who heads the Dhammakaya sect in Thailand because he allegedly accepted millions of dollars of embezzled money as a donation. Thailand's military government is believed to be hostile toward the Dhammakaya sect because it believes it supports former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by an army coup in 2006.

"We are requesting the Thai government not to violently crack down on the Dhammakaya temple and we are doing it as we love our religion," said Win Ko Ko Latt, the leader of the Myanmar Buddhist National Network.

The protesters presented the embassy with a letter for Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha saying they wanted to show the unhappiness of Myanmar citizens about the crackdown on the Dhammakaya temple. It also asked Thai authorities to lift an emergency order allowing them to blockade the temple. The sect's leaders have tried to mobilize their followers around the world to support their position.

"We are not interfering in Thailand's situation but we have to love our religion and protect the temple," said Wuntha, a Ma Ba Tha monk at the protest.

Last year, the Dhammakaya temple hosted one of Ma Ba Tha's top leaders, the monk Wirathu, for a religious event. Wirathu on Thursday led a pro-Dhammakaya demonstration in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay.

Some Dhammakaya supporters share the Buddhist fundamentalist positions espoused by Ma Ba Tha, lobbying last year for Thailand's constitution to declare Buddhism the state religion. Thai supporters of Wirathu in 2015 contributed money to have his group build a radio station in Myanmar, and in 2016 arranged for Ma Ba Tha to receive an honorary "World Buddhist Outstanding Leader Award" for safeguarding the religion.