MANDALAY — After Burma’s president signed off on the last of four controversial bills collectively known as the “race and religion protection laws” last month, Ma Ba Tha, the Buddhist nationalist group that first introduced the legislative package, has announced plans for a nationwide celebration.
According to an official announcement attributed to the group’s central office in Rangoon, celebrations will begin on September 14 in Burma’s commercial capital and continue across almost all states and divisions until September 28.
“The celebration is to tell the world that we have such laws and that many people are welcoming and agree with the laws. [We will] celebrate the enacting of these laws after [they have] been opposed and critiqued widely by many people,” said U Wirathu, a well-known nationalist Buddhist monk and among the most prominent supporters of the laws that were first put to Parliament in late 2014.
The four bills, which set new regulations on interfaith marriage, birth spacing, religious conversion and monogamy, have been roundly criticized by rights groups as discriminatory on religious grounds and possibly in violation of Burma’s human rights obligations.
Although Bhaddamta Tiloka Bhivunsa, a prominent monk in the Ma Ba Tha movement, warned against demonstrations that may stoke community tensions, a large parade is expected in Mandalay on September 21, with a march to the city’s famous Maha Muni Pagoda.
“Since the celebration will be organized and led by Buddhist monks, I believe the parade will be in control and will not affect stability,” U Wirathu told The Irrawaddy, adding that the group will seek permission to march under Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law and that hundreds are expected to join.
“We are fully aware of the election campaigns and will not let this affect it because [the election] is very important for the country. Hopefully local authorities will take care of the situation,” he said.
Campaigning for Burma’s November general election officially began on Tuesday, with major players such as the country’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi expected to drum up support at rallies across the country.
In recent months, Ma Ba Tha has been accused of taking political sides ahead of the November vote, with the group’s secretary, Bhaddamta Vimala, telling his fellow clergyman at a conference in Rangoon in June to rally support for the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party.
According to Ma Ba Tha, initial funds of 700 million kyat to hold the celebrations have been donated by Moehti Moemi Golden Mountain Buddhist Mission Group, backed by gold mining firm Myanmar National Prosperity Public Company.
Since the funding source was announced, many Burmese have taken to social media to speculate which other well-known businesspersons or companies are supporting the Buddhist nationalist organization.
“This is not the first time the company chief Soe Tun Shein donated to Ma Ba Tha. He already donated 1 billion kyat to the group for the flood victims. And he also donated to a school which will be run by the group and which will open very soon,” U Wirathu said.
“We have to accept any type of donation from any kind of donors, since it is to support the group’s work of protecting race and religion, and other development works,” he added.
Some Mandalay residents, who recall violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the city in July last year, are concerned that the upcoming celebration could reignite religious tensions, particularly during the sensitive campaigning period.
“We are worried that their parade might trigger hate between the two [Muslim and Buddhist] communities again,” said a member of Mandalay’s interfaith group. “Since most of the members of Ma Ba Tha have accused the National League for Democracy of being an Islamic party, we are afraid our city’s stability could be affected.”