More than 10,000 Buddhist monks and nuns rallied recently to celebrate Burma’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 Burma’s commercial capital, was a dramatic display of a rising force in Burma’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 Burma, or Myanmar, 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 Burma’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 labor, 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.”