8 Nov 2015

‘Muslims are dangerous’: Myanmar Buddhist monks threaten democracy with support for anti-Muslim laws

 More than 10,000 Buddhist monks and nuns rallied recently to celebrate Myanmar’s restrictive new race and religion laws, packing themselves into an indoor soccer stadium to cheer and chant nationalist slogans.
The event, held last month in Myanmar’s commercial capital, was a dramatic display of a rising force in Myanmar’s political landscape — a group of ultra-nationalist Buddhists called the Ma Ba Tha, whom analysts say could pose a threat to the country’s shaky hopes for democracy.
Voters in Myanmar, or Burma, head to the polls Sunday in a landmark election that is the first since the military junta eased their control and began democratic overhauls in 2010. Reliable polling is scarce, but Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s Nobel laureate, has been drawing large crowds as she campaigns across the country for her National League for Democracy party.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Ma Ba Tha, which translates to the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, have thrown their support to President Thein Sein, the former general, and his military-backed ruling party. The movement’s growing influence and its support for laws restricting religious freedom have troubled Myanmar’s advocates in the United States, who saw the country as a potential model for democratic overhauls and an Obama administration success story.
Tom Malinowski, assistant U.S. secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, said there were two narratives in the election.
“There is the narrative of democracy vs. dictatorship and then a competing narrative which aims to convince voters this is an election about protecting the vast majority of Burmese who are Buddhists against what has been characterized as an existential threat from a tiny minority that is Muslim,” Malinowski said. “That gives rise to worries many people have about potential violence down the road. You can’t invent such a narrative for an election and then forget about it the day after.”
Ashin Wirathu, the firebrand Buddhist monk who is a leader in the Ma Ba Tha, said that the group is supporting Thein Sein because his government passed the legislation governing interfaith marriage, family size and religious conversion that many say targets the Muslim minority.
“As President Thein Sein implemented the race and religion protection laws without caring about international pressure, we see him as a special one,” Wirathu said in an interview. If Suu Kyi and her party come to power, he said, Myanmar would have “female dictatorship.” Suu Kyi is technically barred from the presidency by a constitutional provision, but she has said she will lead the country anyway if her party wins a majority.
“The way she behaves, the way she treats the people inside the party and the audience, and the small parties, she has more percentage on the authoritarian side,” the monk said. “So, if she is in power, I can imagine that a female dictatorship country will emerge in the world.”
Ashin Wirathu, 47, is one of the Ma Ba Tha’s most outspoken advocates. He has called Muslims mad dogs and the United Nations envoy for human rights a “bitch” and a “whore.” He has been dubbed the “Burmese bin Laden,” a label he once rejected but says no longer troubles him.
“About the election,” he says. “Ma Ba Tha just hopes for security and peace.”
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country of 51 million, was under military rule for more than a quarter-century until Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government released Suu Kyi from house arrest, freed other political prisoners and relaxed censorship. The actions paved the way for the United States and other countries to ease sanctions and resulted in millions in foreign investment.
Analysts say that lifting controls allowed some free speech for the first time in decades, but also permitted radical monks such as Ashin Wirathu to flourish on Facebook and elsewhere. Ashin Wirathu began advocating avoiding Muslim businesses as part of the “969 Movement,” a precursor to Ma Ba Tha.
Radical monks have been accused by human rights organizations of hate speech that fomented violence in Rakhine State in 2012, which left more than 200 dead and displaced more than a quarter-million. Many were the stateless Rohingya Muslims. About 140,000 Rohingya continue to live as virtual prisoners, ostensibly for their own safety, in fetid camps. They were stripped of voting rights earlier this year.
On a recent campaign swing through Rakhine State, Suu Kyi did not speak directly about the plight of the Rohingya but was peppered with questions from local Buddhists asking if Muslims would have greater power if her party ran the country. Her party has not fielded any Muslim candidates, in part to avoid criticism from the Ma Ba Tha.
“If we choose Muslim candidates, Ma Ba Tha points their fingers at us so we have to avoid it,” NLD leader Win Htein told UCA news, the Asian Catholic news agency.

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