Fear and loathing in Yangon

On the eve of the Eid festival for Myanmar’s minority Muslims (Note: Eid is marked on June 26 in Myanmar), a crowd gathered in front Yangon’s city hall to demand the removal of religious affairs minister for Aung Ko. He was siding with the Muslims to the detriment of Buddhism, they alleged.

The rally on Sunday (June 25) came one month after Myanmar’s top religious authority banned the ultranationalist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its acronym “Ma Ba Tha”.

Ma Ba Tha’s firebrand monk U Wirathu, known for stoking fears of Muslim dominance, was earlier (March) slapped with a one-year preaching ban.

“Buddhism will last till the end of the world”, declared the flapping canvas signs strung up to cordon off a corner by Maha Bandoola Park. Over 100 people sat down on hot tarmac inside the designated area. 

Huddled under his umbrella just beyond the cordon, 62-year-old retiree Thame Zaw listened intently.

He was keeping a distance so that the authorities could not fault the protest organisers from overcrowding the site, he told The Straits Times. “But if they need help, I will help,” he said.

Just a few steps away were two monks who had travelled for four hours from the Bago region to attend this event. Like Mr Thame Zaw, they stayed outside the cordon.

Ma Ba Tha similarly obeys the letter of the law. Banned from having any activity take place under its name, it has adopted a new name - the Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation.  

On Sunday, several people sporting Ma Ba Tha cloth bags mingled with the protestors chanting that they had a duty to protect Buddhism.

An eagle-eyed usher followed this reporter around to stop any interviews with supporters. Mr Thame Zaw was more forthcoming.

“How would you feel if you are prohibited from loving something that you love?” he said, when this reporter asked him about the Ma Ba Tha ban.

Ma Ba Tha, he says, “prevents Islamisation, for national security and national interest”.

Some 4 per cent of Myanmar’s population is Muslim. Discussion about this minority tends to coloured by the situation in Rakhine state, where Rohingya Muslims are rejected as “Bengali” migrants and live in apartheid-like conditions.

Insurgents claiming to fight for Rohingya rights attacked Myanmar border policemen last year, sparking a military crackdown that some allege amounted to ethnic cleansing.

Over in Yangon, Buddhist nationalists forced authorities to close two Muslim schools in the city’s Thaketa township in April, removing much needed prayer halls for the holy month of Ramadan. It is very difficult to get approvals to renovate religious buildings in Myanmar – let alone construct new mosques.

Not everybody who turned up at Maha Bandoola Park on Sunday were there for the protest. Some, like 22-year-old university student and media researcher Aung San Lin, lingered under the nearby shade to shoot the breeze.

“I don’t think Buddhism is being oppressed,” the Rakhine native said.

“Muslims should have their own space to pray, just like Buddhists have temples and Christians have church,” he said. “But they should be legal spaces.”

Asked if he would support the building of new mosques though, he paused.

“It is not easy to give an answer as I am Buddhist,” he finally said.