A hugely influential Buddhist nationalist organisation gathered tens of thousands of supporters at a stadium in Yangon yesterday in the grand finale of a weeks-long celebration of the passage of "protection of race and religion" laws that it was instrumental in proposing to Myanmar's Parliament.
Buddhist nationalism has surfaced with renewed strength since the country's transition in 2011 from decades of stifling military rule to a calibrated experiment with democracy.
Tapping a deep vein of Islamophobia, it has emerged as a potent political force in the new space offered by reforms, and raised concerns about interfaith friction in an ethnically diverse country of some 50 million, especially ahead of a watershed election on Nov 8.
Yesterday, the Thuwunna indoor stadium, booked by the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, better known by its Myanmar acronym Ma Ba Tha, was packed with nearly 30,000 people. At least a few thousand more milled outside.
Ma Ba Tha, which has been holding parades and meetings around the country, initially had trouble finding a venue for its final event, finding itself blocked by the Yangon administration on grounds that the stadium was only for sporting events.
But the Myanmar Times quoted U Parmaukkha, a monk from Yangon's Magwe monastery, as saying that "permission was granted only after we requested directly to (President Thein Sein)".
The Bills celebrated include a Buddhist Women's Special Marriage Law and a Population Control Law, and laws mandating monogamy and restricting religious conversion. The Ma Ba Tha has spent 70 million kyat (S$78,000) on the celebrations across the country.
On Sept 16, The Irrawaddy journal quoted Mandalay-based monk U Wirathu, a prominent spokesman for the Ma Ba Tha, as saying: "I am especially grateful to the President, who has enacted the race and religion protection laws despite international pressure.''
Coming about a month before the general election, the gathering was an exercise in right-wing triumphalism. The Ma Ba Tha, which claims to have about 20 million supporters, has enjoyed free reign and growing political clout, which it has used to attack the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) among others that it sees as appeasing minority Muslims.
"NLD people are so full of themselves. They don't have a high chance of winning in elections," U Wirathu was quoted as telling Reuters at the celebrations.
The NLD has pushed back, complaining last month to the Union Election Commission (UEC) that the Ma Ba Tha was interfering in politics. But UEC official Win Ko told journalists last Wednesday that the commission is "responsible only for preventing any abuse of religion for political purposes by a party or candidate".
"If it is monks... we can do nothing. Only the Sangha Mahanayaka (Sangha Council) or the Ministry of Religious Affairs can handle them."
No political party can afford to antagonise the Ma Ba Tha, whose rhetoric has charged the atmosphere ahead of the election. It appears to have at least the tacit support of the army-backed government.
"That's very clear, everyone knows it," former monk Ko Chanda, who is now running for election for the small New Democracy Party, told The Straits Times.
This article was first published on October 5, 2015.
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