With just over a month until Myanmar’s landmark elections, there are rising concerns over the use of religion to stoke fears and marginalize minorities.
On Sunday, thousands of monks and supporters of a nationalist Myanmar Buddhist group held a rally in Yangon celebrating “victory” in the passing of four controversial race and religion laws.
The Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, better known by its Myanmar acronym Ma Ba Tha, has held events in almost all of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions in recent weeks to celebrate parliament's passing of the bills, with the support of the military-backed ruling party.
The laws, which include Buddhist women having to register with local authorities if they want to marry a non-Buddhist, and punishment for those living with an unmarried partner, were signed into law this year by President Thein Sein.
In searing heat at an indoor sports stadium in eastern Yangon, thousands of monks and laypeople in t-shirts bearing the Ma Ba Tha logo clapped and cheered as prominent monks spoke of the importance of the laws in protecting Buddhist identity.
Much of the perceived threat is seen as coming from the Muslim community, with senior Ma Ba Tha figures regularly criticizing Muslim groups.
In August, Human Rights Watch said the laws will “entrench discrimination based on religion, and also violate internationally protected rights to privacy and religious belief.”
Asked what would happen if a Buddhist woman who had married a non-Buddhist wanted to return to the religion but was prevented from doing so by her husband, Ashin Dhammapiya, a spokesperson for Ma Ba Tha said, “Now we have this law, we have solved this problem.”
The event, which attracted considerable media attention, came just over a month before the country’s landmark election, and there have been concerns that Ma Ba Tha is attempting to use religion to influence politics.
‘Tool of division and conflict’
The group has regularly criticized leading opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD), which had opposed the passage of the race and religion laws.
Neither the NLD nor the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party have fielded any Muslim candidates. NLD authorities have admitted they succumbed to pressure from the Buddhist hardline group in excluding Muslim candidates.
Last month, the Union Election Commission reinstated 11 Muslim candidates who had previously been disqualified from running in the election on citizenship grounds. Dozens more, the majority Muslims, were not reinstated.
The move followed increased international pressure after nine embassies, including those of the United States, Japan and Britain, released a statement expressing concern about the prospect of “religion being used as a tool of division and conflict” during the election campaigning period.
“Here in Myanmar we have two big political parties. These parties have a policy of premeditated exclusion of Muslims,” said Khin Maung Cho, who is running as an independent candidate in downtown Yangon and was one of the 11 candidates reinstated.
“There are laws not to mix religion, not to misuse religion in politics, but there are some issues. Like the Ma Ba Tha, they don’t want to see any Muslims in parliament.
“It is a religious organization but it must be confined only to religion. They cannot mix with politics,” he said.
While Ma Ba Tha has been criticized for its anti-Muslim stance, the group maintains that it is working towards a peaceful resolution in the country’s religious tensions and that the recently passed four laws are one step towards that.