John Zaw and Simon Lewis, Yangon
Updated: June 21, 2015 11:00 PM GMT
Radical monk U Wirathu speaks to reporters during a conference of the Ma Ba Tha group in Yangon (Photo by Simon Lewis)
Myanmar’s radical monks this week staked a claim as a political force, pledging to urge the public to vote with a “nationalist spirit” as the country enters the final months before all-important elections.
The monk-led Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, has grown in influence since it was formed two years ago this month, an anniversary marked by a conference this weekend at a monastery in northern Yangon’s Insein Township.
Large video screens showed supporters the face of Myanmar’s best-known nationalist monk, U Wirathu as he delivered a speech. Books by the monk were on sale alongside other nationalist literature, and copies of a news journal published regularly by Ma Ba Tha.
U Wirathu told the crowd of at least 1,300 monks — plus scores of lay people — that the group would continue to lobby the Myanmar government to protect Buddhism and Buddhists against a perceived threat of expansionist Islam.
The government must not allow people rescued from the Bay of Bengal in the past month to stay in the country, he said.
Following international and regional pressure, Myanmar rescued two boats carrying in total more than 900 people, some from Bangladesh but many thought to be Rohingya born in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The government has deported more than 150 people to Bangladesh, but it is not clear what will happen to the rescued Rohingya, who are not Myanmar citizens and are labeled “Bengalis”.
“They might let them just go into the villages,” U Wirathu warned. “If they do that, then they will launch a jihad against the local Rakhine Buddhists.”
U Wirathu’s brand of extreme Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim rhetoric are growing forces in the country’s politics, with monks treated with deference by the Buddhist majority. Myanmar is expected to vote in November in what could be its freest elections in decades, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s popular opposition, the National League for Democracy, expected to compete.
At the end of its conference, Ma Ba Tha issued a 12-point policy statement, which addressed the approach the group will take to the elections.
It called on the government’s Union Election Commission to hold free and fair polls, and insisted that Ma Ba Tha will not throw its support behind a particular political party. But Ma Ba Tha will encourage the public to consider alleged threats to race and religion when voting, it said.
Ma Ba Tha will “urge the people to vote for MPs who protect race and religion, instead of emphasizing a particular party or people,” the statement said, adding that the highly controversial amendments to the country’s 2008 constitution should also take into account the group’s goals.
“It [constitutional amendments] needs to be done with national security in mind, instead of looking at one particular person and particular party.”
The current charter, drafted under military rule, bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because her two sons are British citizens. It also guarantees the military a prominent role in national politics, with a quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for uniformed officers.
Ma Ba Tha also pledged to step up its lobbying to have a set of laws on race and religion passed.
Four such laws — on population control, interfaith marriage, religious conversion and polygamy — have been drafted by the government at the monks’ behest, with only the population control law so far passed.
Buddhist monks shop for nationalist literature at a Ma Ba Tha conference in Yangon (Photo by Simon Lewis)
In a separate set of recommendations issued by Ma Ba Tha on Sunday, the group also called for a ban on schoolgirls wearing Islamic headscarves and the ritual slaughter of cows during the Eid al-Adha festival.
Ma Ba Tha said it will “urge parliamentarians to enact quickly the important laws for the security of Myanmar people such as interfaith marriage, religious conversion and polygamy”.
Asked about how Ma Ba Tha would act during the election campaign, Yangon-based monk U Pamaukkha told ucanews.com that he would talk politics to his followers as the elections approach.
"Personally, I will urge the people to vote [for] the MPs who have the spirit of nationalism and protect race and religion through preaching sermons, instead of making a particular campaign,” he said.
He also insisted that such preaching would not be party-political, and that Ma Ba Tha and its supporters would judge each candidate by their individual record on race and religion.
“Personally, I would support Aung San Suu Kyi if she has a spirit of nationalism,” he said. “As a leader of the country, he or she needs to have nationalism, political will and maintain the rule of law.
“We need to protect our race and religion as some religions attempt to swallow the country and its people. That’s why we are promoting nationalism in the country.”