PATHEIN & MANDALAY — Buddhist nationalists have used celebrations commemorating the so-called “race and religion protection laws” to urge crowds not to vote for the National League for Democracy (NLD), claiming that the opposition party is being backed by ‘Islamists’ and foreign countries.
At festivities organized in Pathein on Sunday by the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, also known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, a roster of speakers warned that the hard-won legislation would be abolished if a “political party supported and backed by Islamists and foreign countries” won the election and came into power.
U Kumara, an abbot from the Mya Taung Monastery in Pantanaw Township and a leading Ma Ba Tha member in Irrawaddy Division, expressed gratitude to President Thein Sein for signing the four laws and stressed the need to safeguard the legislation, saying that Burma would suffer under the rule of political parties that would seek to “destroy the race and religion”.
At one point, U Kumara asked the audience of more than 10,000 if they knew which party was supported by the “Islamists,” to which the crowd responded, “NLD.”
He then asked if the audience would vote for a party “supported by Islamists,” to which the crowd shouted back an emphatic “No.”
The four race and religion laws, sponsored by Ma Ba Tha, are widely seen as intended to target Burma’s Muslim minority. Together, the measures make it more difficult for people in Burma to undergo religious conversion and marry into a different faith, in addition to criminalizing polygamy, introducing severe criminal penalties for adultery, and giving regional governments the power to implement some population control policies.
Among the audience at Pathein’s Ko Thane Stadium were more than 3,000 monks from across Irrawaddy Division’s 26 townships. Aung Tin Myint, secretary of the Irrawaddy Division Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), also attended the ceremony and sat on the dais alongside leading local Ma Ba Tha figures.
Last week, it emerged that Irrawaddy Division Chief Minister and USDP member Thein Aung had offered discount licenses to Ma Ba Tha members in order to allow them to take over and shut down Muslim-owned slaughterhouses in the region.
A civil servant told The Irrawaddy that the divisional government had also provided logistical assistance for Sunday’s gathering.
“Some 20,000 plastic chairs were provided by the Irrawaddy Division General Administration Department and arrangements such as laying out chairs and the dais were done by staff of the Pathein municipal government,” said a departmental staff member, who requested anonymity.
In a message to the Pathein event, Ovadacariya Sayadaw U Ti Lawma Bhivunsa, a member of Ma Ba Tha’s central committee, said that those who objected to the race and religion laws in the Union Parliament would annul the laws when given a chance, and urged those in attendance to vote for those who would protect the measures. (Ovadacariya is a religious title conferred upon senior monks by the Burmese government.)
“[People] should be aware of those who would annul the hard-won race and religion laws enacted for the people: those employed by foreigners and those who are conferred titles by people of different races and religions, and those who are already acting as authoritarians before they actually get power,” the message said. “It is of dire importance that such people are not elected.”
Celebrations continued in Mandalay on Monday, with a crowd of around 30,000 participating in a march from a sports ground near Masoeyein Monastery.
Carrying banners that read “women’s security is assured only if national protection is safeguarded” and “the national protection laws are a triumph,” the crowd shouted slogans and sang songs as they proceeded to Mandalay’s famed Mahamuni Pagoda, where they were addressed by firebrand monk U Wirathu.
“The national protection law is meant to protect the Burmese citizens from Islamic jihad,” he told the audience, before launching into a discussion of the large stateless Rohingya Muslim community in northern Arakan State.
“Half of Arakan State, especially in the Buthidaung and Maungdaw areas, is being Islamicized. …The Bengalis come into the area and impregnate the Arakan women,” he said, using the pejorative word for the state’s Rohingya community. “This is one way to occupy the region, by increasing the Islamic population. This is one kind of jihad.”