RANGOON — Three activists in Burma, including a leader from the influential 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, were prevented from appearing at a public event in Mandalay over the weekend, after dozens of Buddhist monks protested their inclusion on the roster of scheduled speakers.
The three activists had planned to give remarks at a literature discussion in Mandalay’s Mye Par quarter on Saturday, but about 40 monks approached organizers in advance of the event and demanded that the trio be removed from the list of speakers. The event was ultimately cancelled.
The activists—Mya Aye, who is a leader from the 88 Generation, Ko Ni, a High Court attorney, and Ma Thida, a well-known writer—told The Irrawaddy that the monks’ stated objection to the three speaking at the event was their Muslim affiliation. Two of the three activists are practicing Muslims.
Despite the monks’ ostensible reason for protesting, the activists said they suspected a “hidden political agenda” was behind the incident.
Mya Aye, a Muslim who has campaigned for democracy in Burma as a member of the 88 Generation for more than 20 years, said the weekend confrontation in Mandalay could tarnish the image of Burma as a country increasingly open to freedom of expression. The monks’ ability to force the event’s cancelation was indicative of the fact that rule of law remained a distance reality for Burma, he said.
The activist linked the monks’ unruly behavior to a recent joint statement by Aung San Suu Kyi, chairwoman of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and 88 Generation members, who pledged to cooperate in pursuit of amending the 2008 Constitution.
“Behind this is a hidden political agenda because there are people who want to create religious problems to get political power as our country prepares for elections,” Mya Aye said.
Burma is slated to hold national elections in 2015.
The weekend incident follows a similar cancellation last week in Rangoon. In both instances, it was monks objecting to Muslim speakers who disrupted the planned events. Ko Ni and Mya Aye were also scheduled to speak at a Rangoon literature discussion that was called off under similar circumstances on Wednesday of last week.
The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society released a statement on Tuesday saying a total of four literature events, including the ones in Mandalay and Rangoon, have been cancelled this year.
“We issued this statement to protect the right of writers who want to have democracy in this country and an end to the military system,” the statement said.
The activists who were denied the chance to speak on Saturday called on all people of Burma’s varied religious affiliations to work together for peace in the country and in support of religious freedom.
Ma Thida is a writer and activist who is not a Muslim, but previously served as a doctor at Rangoon’s Muslim Free Hospital.
“This action could disturb peace in the country. It is sad to see this,” she said, adding that opposition to the country’s ongoing political reforms was likely a motivating factor.
Anti-Muslim violence has broken out in several states and divisions in Burma, much of it blamed on instigators who adhere to the so-called 969 Buddhist nationalist ideology. The 969 movement, led by the Mandalay-based monk U Wirathu, has become increasingly controversial in the last two years after the campaign—claiming that Burma’s Muslims are threatening the Buddhist majority—gained traction nationwide.
The 969 movement calls on Buddhists to shun Muslim communities and buy only goods from Buddhist-owned shops. Critics of the movement say 969 sermons constitute hate speech and can be linked to outbreaks of Buddhist mob violence against Muslim communities throughout Burma.
Since 2012, such violence has left more than 200 people dead and displaced more than 140,000 people, most of them Muslims. Northern Arakan State has been the worst-affected after long-standing tensions between Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority exploded and mob attacks led to the death of 192 people in June and October of 2012.
“They cannot force people to believe only one religion,” said Ma Thida. “All Burmese are not Buddhists … It is not appropriate in a democratic system to force a religious belief on someone. They should not act similarly to the [former] military dictatorship.”