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ICC Note: This article details the growing political power of Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar, and what it may mean for other religious or ethnic minorities.

By Oren Samet

07/24/2015 Myanmar (Democratic Voice of Burma)

July was a good month for the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (commonly known by its Burmese-language acronym Ma-Ba-Tha). Formed in the aftermath of deadly interreligious violence in Arakan State in 2012, this group of nationalist monks has been a fixture in the Burmese political scene as the country has struggled to sustain momentum in its ongoing democratic transition.

Along with associated Buddhist-extremist group 969, the Ma-Ba-Tha’s main contribution to the political debate since its formation has been its effective fomentation of anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide. At the helm of the movement is prominent monk Wirathu, famed for his rabid anti-Muslim tirades, who has amassed a sizable following as the group has ratcheted up its xenophobic rhetoric.

While Buddhist monks are constitutionally barred from voting in Burma, they still wield immense political influence in the conservative majority-Buddhist country. In scoring two major victories on 7 July, the Ma-Ba-Tha made clear its capacity to influence Burmese politics as the 2015 general election approaches.

The first of these victories was the Burmese parliament’s decision to pass the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill, a law which restricts a Buddhist woman’s ability to marry a man of another religion, and requires interfaith couples to seek permission from local authorities in order to wed.

The Ma-Ba-Tha had been promoting this bill for years as part of a series of legislation, officially termed the ‘Race and Religion Protection Laws’, designed to “protect” the status of Buddhism in Burma. Earlier this year, the Population Control Health Bill also passed, stipulating women must wait three years in between births.

Despite outcry from prominent international voices denouncing the Marriage Bill as an affront to women’s and minority rights, the bill was passed by an overwhelming margin—524 votes to just 44 in parliament. The lopsided tally demonstrated that few national politicians are willing to cross the powerful Ma-Ba-Tha lobby on issues the Buddhist coalition views as its core priorities.

The Ma-Ba-Tha secured its second major victory when the government signed an order backing down from plans to build a series of new high-rise developments near the revered Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.

In the preceding months, the Ma-Ba-Tha had led the charge against the projects, which critics argued would obstruct views of the famed pagoda and possibly disrupt the foundations of the sacred site. Just before their cancellation, Ma-Ba-Tha had threatened to lead nationwide protests if the government moved ahead with the development project.

Authorities in February had temporarily suspended the projects, but until recently they had been hesitant to scuttle plans entirely, having already inked agreements with developers. The ultimate decision to cancel them for good after the Ma-Ba-Tha began their aggressive ‘Save the Shwedagon’ campaign therefore proved to be an impressive achievement for the hardline monks.

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