RANGOON — The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion kicked off celebrations this week to mark a successful push into Burma’s politics that last month saw passage of the last of four controversial pieces of legislation known collectively as the “race and religion protections laws.”
The Buddhist nationalist group, better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, plans to celebrate the legislative victory nationwide over 14 days, commencing with a prayer ceremony at Rangoon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda on Monday. The group on Tuesday organized events in Mon State, and will next take its victory tour to Karen State.
U Wirathu, an outspoken nationalist monk, said the commemorations were intended to show the strength of Ma Ba Tha, a movement that officially began just over two years ago.
“Our victory will be written in the country’s history,” he told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “With our victory celebration, we want to show our strength, and that our laws will likewise strongly exist in the country.”
The influential monk took note of the controversy surrounding the laws, which critics at home and abroad have said infringe on women’s rights and could be used to discriminate on the basis of religion.
“We faced many challenges from the international [community], and even in the country, in passing these laws. If there are people who remain against these laws, we want to give warning: You will face punishment from the people, including the country’s monks.”
Wirathu said he had worked 30 years to see the laws realized, adding that he “didn’t have words to describe” his happiness over the legislative triumph. International opposition came from voices seeking to “meddle in our internal affairs,” he said.
The laws ban polygamy, create restrictions on interfaith marriage and religious conversion, and empower authorities to impose birth spacing requirements. Human rights concerns have been raised by foreign governments, local women’s rights groups and the UN envoy for human rights in Burma. The legislation is described by both its opponents and advocates as measures to counter a perceived threat posed by Muslims to Burma’s Buddhist majority.
Passage of the last of the four laws came in August during the final parliamentary session before a high-stakes Nov. 8 general election. Wirathu took the opportunity on Tuesday to tie the nationwide vote to the stated aims of the laws, encouraging people to elect candidates who would protect the country’s majority-Buddhist character, in remarks echoing a speech he made in Rangoon on Sept. 9.
The comments from the monk, who has been accused of fomenting religious intolerance with frequent tirades against Burma’s Muslim minority, are consistent with an effort by some members of Ma Ba Tha to inject religious identity into the upcoming poll.
A leading Ma Ba Tha member in June told members of the clergy to encourage voters to support the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) over the political opposition, saying the latter did not have the necessary experience to govern. He added that voters should be told not to vote for sitting parliamentarians or aspirants to the legislature who opposed the race and religion laws.
In making such declarations, Ma Ba Tha and its followers are skirting the edge of—if not clearly violating—an election law prohibition on “making speeches, making declarations and instigating to vote or not to vote on grounds of race and religion.”
Members of religious orders, including the Buddhist clergy, are not allowed to stand for election or vote, but Ma Ba Tha’s less direct venture into politics perhaps helped prompt nine foreign embassies to release a joint statement on Tuesday, saying the signatories were “concerned about the prospect of religion being used as a tool of division and conflict during the campaign season.”
The foreign missions, including the British and US embassies, called on “all stakeholders—the Government, Union Election Commission, political parties, civic and religious leaders, and citizens alike—to promote a spirit of tolerance, mutual respect, and equality under the law to ensure the elections are peaceful and inclusive.”
Apparently undeterred by the separation of religion and politics laid out in Burma’s election laws, Wirathu on Tuesday went on to urge people to vote with their heads, not their hearts, in the November poll, choosing those candidates who would best work to protect Buddhism and the country.
“It is a loss for our country if our people only elect people who they love. Our people should consider who can protect our country and religion. If not, they will be the people who destroy the country,” he said.
Asked if he was concerned about running afoul of election law, Wirathu demurred, saying he was merely “educating the people about how to elect their leaders.”
Those prospective leaders too are getting the Ma Ba Tha treatment, he added, with members of the nationalist group sitting down with some candidates in Mandalay to interview them about what they planned to do if elected. Wirathu said the interviews would be aired on radio or TV to educate voters on the contesting candidates.