MANDALAY — Thousands of Buddhist monks, nuns and laypeople marched through downtown Mandalay on Thursday afternoon to demand that the government take action on a set of highly controversial and currently stagnant interfaith bills.
Organized by the upper Burma chapter of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, locally referred to as the Ma Ba Tha, the rally was joined by sympathizers from several nearby townships including Sagaing, Myingyun and Mandalay’s immediate surrounds.
Columns of demonstrators, some of them women, held flags and posters reading: “The aim of this demonstration is the immediate implementation of the nationalities protection bills.”
A legislative package comprising four bills, all premised of preserving the majority Buddhist identity in Burma, was created earlier this year at the request of the Ma Ba Tha. The package is commonly referred to as the Interfaith Bills, though translations vary.
The bundle of bills, which includes new regulations for interfaith marriage, religious conversion and population control, has come under immense criticism by rights groups both in and outside Burma.
In a three-point statement released by Ma Ba Tha on Thursday, the association demanded immediate passage of the Interfaith Marriage Bill, which they themselves proposed in 2013.
“The nationalities protection bills are meant to support peace, and they are not against human rights,” the statement read. The document also included an invitation for anyone who opposes the bills to discuss the matter directly with members of the Ma Ba Tha.
At a press conference following the rally, nationalist monk U Wirathu, who is also one of the leaders of the Ma Ba Tha, said that he and the association are committed to passing the package into law.
“If the government and the Parliament do not respond, we will keep pushing,” he said.
No one has yet been arrested for their involvement in the demonstration, as it was permitted by local authorities. The permit, however, granted assembly rights for around 200 people, far less than the event’s actual turnout.