Ma Ba Tha in Myanmar: Contesting and Shaping Modern Buddhist Subjectivities

Tuesday, 28 March 2023 | 10:00 to 12:00 EST
Room 857, Eighth Floor, Kaneff Tower, York University & virtually via Zoom

With Matthew J Walton, University of Toronto

While Ma Ba Tha is commonly described as a “Buddhist nationalist” movement, public and scholarly analysis of its Buddhism-oriented activities was often (understandably) overshadowed by its implication in anti-Muslim violence. As part of its repertoire, the network explicitly engaged in educational activities, tried to influence politicians and religiously-oriented legislation, took stances on questions of monastic political and social conduct, and generally sought to position Buddhists in relation to domestic and regional co-religionists and religious Others. In doing so, it implicitly identified certain areas of anxiety and contestation regarding the idealized Buddhist subjects it aimed to create. Some of these areas have been persistent throughout the history of the sāsana, while others have emerged or become more acute in response to particularly modern dynamics. In this paper, I argue that focusing on the shaping of modern Buddhist subjectivities in Myanmar as a primary aspect of Ma Ba Tha’s project helps to reveal both spaces where its efforts were strongly resonant with concerns shared more widely across Buddhist communities, and those spaces where Ma Ba Tha’s particular interventions were contested, both by its opponents and by its putative allies.

Matthew J Walton is Assistant Professor in Comparative Political Theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Previously, he was the inaugural Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, with a special emphasis on Buddhism in Myanmar. Matt’s first book, Buddhism, Politics, and Political Thought in Myanmar, was published in 2016 by Cambridge University Press. He is currently working on a comparative study of Buddhist political thought across the Theravada world. His articles on Buddhism, ethnicity, politics and political thought in Myanmar have appeared in Politics & Religion, Journal of Burma Studies, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Journal of Contemporary Buddhism, Buddhism, Law & Society, and Asian Survey. Matt was principal investigator of a two-year, ESRC-funded research project entitled “Understanding ‘Buddhist nationalism’ in Myanmar” and is a co-founder of the Myanmar Media and Society project and of the Burma/Myanmar blog Tea Circle.

For Zoom attendees, please register at this link.

This event is part of the Burma Past and Present: Religion, Ethnicity and Power, a series of readings and discussion of works in progress. We will be reading and discussing work in progress with the author. Please email to receive a copy of the reading.