Plans to hold a nationwide conference this week for members of Burma’s Muslim community have been scrapped after the government refused to allow the gathering, which it said risked destabilizing the country.
The organizing committee of the Union Muslims Nationwide Conference said that permission to hold the three-day event on May 23 in Thanlyin, located in Rangoon’s Southern District, had originally been sought last year.
“The district administration office called us on Friday and explained that the conference cannot be held because it might affect the peace and stability of the country. They gave a rejection letter as well,” said Ohn Maung, general secretary of the organizing committee.
“The conference was initially planned to be held in September 2014. But it was postpone to May 23 this year, and again the permission was rejected,” he added.
According to the organizing committee leader, the request for permission was sent to President Thein Sein and his Union government, after initially being denied by authorities at the township level last year.
“Since the Union government has denied permission, we will not hold the conference,” Ohn Maung said.
Organizers had hoped that the conference would be the first of its kind since 1946, when a similar gathering was called at Pyinmana in central Burma by U Razak, who would later become one of eight martyrs assassinated alongside Gen. Aung San on the eve of Burma’s independence.
The Rangoon Southern District administration office confirmed that permission to hold the conference was denied by the Union government.
“The sensitive situation of the country is not suitable yet for such a conference, where disagreements and conflicts could occur and could affect the country’s peace and stability as a consequence,” said Kyaw Win Oo, an administrative officer for Rangoon’s Southern District.
“We’ve already explained this and gave the letter from the Union government to the organizing committee members. They said they understood and they’ve accepted it,” he added.
It was not clear whether the Upper Burma and Northern Shan State chapters of the influential Association for the Protection of Race and Religion played a role in the conference’s cancelation. The two chapters, part of a Buddhist nationalist group known locally as Ma Ba Tha, had issued statements opposing the religious gathering that circulated widely on social media.
The separate statements voiced strong opposition to the conference and said the nationalist groups would not allow such a gathering to take place anywhere in Burma.
Calling Burma’s Muslims “foreigners who migrated to the country for various reasons,” Ma Ba Tha’s Upper Burma chapter said it further took issue with the conference’s title because it included the words “Union Muslims.”
“The country is a Buddhist country so the Muslim conference must not be allowed. If the conference were to be held, there would be violence and it would affect the peace and stability of the country, which is why the association strongly opposes it,” read the statement.
The rise of Ma Ba Tha has come amid a climate of growing nationalistic fervor in Burma, where several bouts of intercommunal violence between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims have marred Burma’s transition to quasi-civilian rule. More than 250 people have been killed since fighting between the two religious communities first broke out in Arakan State in mid-2012.
Asked whether Ma Ba Tha’s opposition was a factor in the government’s refusal to allow the event, Kyaw Win Oo said he was not aware of the statements in question.
Ohn Maung told The Irrawaddy that the main purposes of the conference were to speak out against extremism and violence, maintain societal harmony and participate in the development of the country.
“The conference is not organized by a religious group or political party but rather by civil society, only to maintain the peace and stability,” he said. “We fully understand what they [Ma Ba Tha and the government] are worried about. That’s why we’ve postponed the conference.
“We will explain this to everyone and will try to get the permission from the government, at a suitable time, in accordance with the law,” he added.