Influential group of monks also plans to encourage people to vote for candidates who ‘will not let our race and religion disappear’ in this year’s elections
Simon Lewis in Rangoon
Monday 22 June 2015 09.39 BST
An influential group of Buddhist monks in Burma is proposing to ban Muslim schoolgirls from wearing headscarves, in the latest sign of growing religious tension in the country.
The Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion, a panel of monks known locally by the acronym Ma Ba Tha, said the headscarves were “not in line with school discipline”.
Ma Ba Tha held a conference in Rangoon at the weekend. Some 1,300 monks from monasteries around the country gathered to discuss plans to promote a nationalist agenda as the country heads toward landmark elections later this year.
In a list of recommendations released late on Sunday, Ma Ba Tha told its members to lobby the government to put further restrictions on the country’s beleaguered Muslims, and included references to the wearing of either headscarves or burqas.
“We will demand seriously for the government to ban Muslim students wearing the burqa in government schools and to ban the killing of innocent animals on their [Muslims’] Eid holiday,” it said, referring to Muslim cultural practices that Buddhist nationalists believe go against the culture of Buddhist-majority Burma.
Explaining the move, Ma Ba Tha monk U Pamaukkha said: “When they [Muslims] live in Myanmar, they need to obey the law and regulations of the country. We are not targeting or attacking their religion.”
The group also said it would “show the people the right track” when it came to the elections, expected in November, encouraging people to vote for candidates who “will not let our race and religion disappear”.
The group would keep monitoring “crimes by non-Buddhists” and using Facebook to spread news about alleged threats to Buddhism in Burma, its statement said.
Ma Ba Tha was officially formed in June 2013, when bouts of inter-communal violence were spreading around the country, with Buddhist mobs targeting members of the Muslim minority. Riots have been triggered by social media posts reporting alleged rapes of Buddhist women by Muslims.
Inter-communal violence in western Burma’s Rakhine State the previous year displaced some 140,000 people, mostly stateless Muslims identifying themselves as Rohingya, who have since taken to the sea in their thousands fleeing oppressive conditions, sparking a regional human smuggling crisis.
The monks have already proved their ability to wield influence over Burma’s quasi-civilian government, which replaced a military junta in 2011. After a Ma Ba Tha signature campaign, president Thein Sein’s administration drafted four laws restricting interfaith marriage and religious conversion, banning polygamy and limiting population growth.
While the laws have met with little resistance in a parliament dominated by former and serving military officials, so far only the population control law – which enables officials to restrict women to one child every three years – has been passed.
The prominent nationalist monk U Wirathu spoke at the conference on Saturday, pledging that Ma Ba Tha would increase its pressure on the government to pass the remaining laws.
The monk also extolled the growth of Ma Ba Tha in its first two years. “It’s as if we’ve come from the sky,” he said.
The group of monks is at the vanguard of a nationalist movement that threatens to overshadow gains made by Burma’s reformers, with many suggesting it has the backing of an anti-reform faction in the ruling elite.
David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch, said: “The Ma Ba Tha have become an unaccountable and arrogant political force based on extremist religious and social views, like a fifth column using Buddhism to serve shady political and economic interests.”