Supporters from the ultra-nationalist Ma Ba Tha group formed a convoy of trucks and buses that snaked through the main city of Yangon on September 14 to welcome the introduction of four Race and Religion Protection Laws, which the group drafted itself. "If necessary we must erect a fence with our bones," boomed a song from a truck-mounted speaker. Ma Ba Tha's senior monks have been accused of stoking anti-Muslim violence with sermons preaching that Buddhism, the majority religion, is under threat from Islam.
Human Rights Watch has said the bills, the last of which was signed into law late last month, place "unlawful" restrictions on people wishing to change religions, and could be used to force mothers to wait three years between each birth. The laws also outlaw extra-marital affairs and place restrictions on marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women.
A joint statement by Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists warned earlier this year that another of the four laws, the Population Control and Healthcare Bill, could lead to authorities carrying out forced abortions and sterilisation. The law aims to control populations in certain areas with "birth spacing", though the wording is unclear on whether this would be compulsory. It has nonetheless raised fears for Rohingya Muslim couples in northeastern Rakhine state, who have in the past been barred from having more than two children.
The celebrations show Ma Ba Tha "asserting themselves and their newfound clout", said Khin Zaw Win of the Tampadipa Institute, a think-tank based in Yangon. Hard-line Buddhist groups have taken advantage of “liberalization” to gain more and more influence in the country's politics.A joint statement from nine embassies in Myanmar, including the US and Japan, warned against "religion being used as a tool of division and conflict during the campaign season".
Muslim candidates have been largely excluded from the upcoming election, in what also appears to be an attempt to assuage hardliners. The opposition National League for Democracy, widely expected to win the poll, failed to field a single Muslim candidate. Myanmar's election commission has rejected dozens of Muslims on citizenship grounds. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were disenfranchised earlier this year when the government withdrew the temporary citizenship cards that allowed them to vote.