Yangon (AFP) - Myanmar's top Buddhist body has banned hardline group Ma Ba Tha, according to a document sent out on Tuesday, a move aimed at curbing the movement's influence amid rising Islamophobia.
Myanmar has been gripped by deepening religious tensions that have repeatedly spilled into violence, partially attributed to anti-Muslim rhetoric spread by nationalist groups like Ma Ba Tha.
The Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, Myanmar's highest Buddhist authority, sent a letter to government ministries on Tuesday ordering the group to cease all activities by mid-July or face prosecution.
"People, either as individuals or as a group, cannot take any actions under the name of Ma Ba Tha," said the letter, which was seen by AFP and carried the signature of several monks including senior figures from Ma Ba Tha.
"Ma Ba Tha signboards across the country are to be taken down completely by July 15 at the latest," the Sangha committee added, warning any infractions would be punished under both Buddhist and civil law.
But Ottama, a Ma Ba Tha monk in Yangon, said the group still planned to hold its annual meeting this weekend despite the ban.
"The most certain thing is that we will hold the Ma Ba Tha conference on the 27 and 28 of this month," he told AFP.
A statement from the group said the official conference would be cancelled, but there would now be a meeting to discuss the Sangha committee's decision instead.
The Sangha's sanction comes just weeks after the same committee, which represents the upper echelons of the clergy, banned the country's most notorious monk Wirathu from preaching for a year.
Once dubbed "the face of Buddhist terror," the Mandalay-based monk has led calls for restrictions on the country's Muslim minority and frequently spews vitriol online warning of an Islamic takeover.
Wirathu has since made several public appearances with his mouth taped shut to symbolise how he has been silenced by the authorities, and this month made a provocative visit to the north of Rakhine State.
Religious tensions have soared since a group of Rohingya Muslims attacked police posts on the border with Bangladesh last October, sparking a bloody military crackdown that has drawn widespread international condemnation.
Since then nationalists in Yangon have held protests, stopped Islamic religious ceremonies and most recently forced two schools to shut their doors over accusations they were illegally doubling as mosques.
Police have arrested five people this month after a fight broke out in a Muslim neighbourhood of Yangon when dozens of hardliners raided a house believed to be hiding Rohingyas.