Myanmar Buddhist monks participate in an anti-Muslim demonstration in Sittwe, Rakhine State on July 3, 2016. Sectarian violence has left scores dead since 2012. Photo: AFP / Win Moe
Myanmar Buddhist monks participate in an anti-Muslim demonstration in Sittwe, Rakhine State on July 3, 2016. Sectarian violence has left scores dead since 2012. Photo: AFP / Win Moe

Ma Ba Tha, a Buddhist fundamentalist group that has promoted violence against minority Muslims in Myanmar, announced on January 27 that it would organize national protests against proposed amendments to race and religion laws. The four laws – The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Act, The Population Control Law, The Monogamy Law, and the Religious Conversion Law – were first proposed by Ma Ba Tha and made into law by the previous military-dominated government.

The laws have been widely criticized by rights groups for restrictions they impose on minority Muslims, including over marriage and reproductive rights. Since the National League for Democracy won election in November 2015, Ma Ba Tha – also known as the Association for Protection of Race and Religion – had scaled back its rhetoric and actions after overtly campaigning for the military-aligned United State and Development Party, which lost the polls in a landslide.

Now, the Buddhist nationalist group appears to have regained its footing after an ethnic Rohingya insurgent attack on a police border post in Rakhine State in October sparked new rounds of anti-Muslim violence, including widespread allegations of military abuses against Rohingya civilians during sweep-up operations in the area.

Ma Ba Tha has played an incendiary role in sectarian violence that flared up across the country during the previous Thein Sein government. The radical monk-led group is now on a collusion course with the NLD, with potential grave implications for stability in the months ahead.

Poor peace conference prospects

With the government’s second 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference set for new meetings in February, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a coalition of 11 armed groups, held an emergency meeting last week to clarify its joint position.

The coalition’s members include armed groups who have not signed a ceasefire with the government, including the Kachin Independence Army, the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and maintain hostilities with government forces.

Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi (C), flanked by government peace negotiators Kyaw Tint Swe (L) and Tin Myo Win (R), at a meeting to prepare for a peace conference attended last year by representatives of ethnic armed organisations, members of parliament and military officials. Photo: AFP/ Aung Htet

The peace process, spearheaded by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, will likely not progress unless the country’s autonomous military, known as the Tatmadaw, allows these excluded groups to join the talks. The UNFC, which also includes major ceasefire groups, said the Tatmadaw’s persistent refusal to include all insurgent organizations in the peace process is still a major impediment to achieving national peace.

The UNFC’s joint statement also called for a stop to the military offensives now underway in northern Kachin and northeastern Shan States. Military aerial bombardments in Kachin State are contributing to an emerging humanitarian crisis, as civilians attempt to flee the intense fighting across the border into China.

The government is also hardening its legislative position and pumping up its propaganda. The Shan State Parliament recently passed a resolution to brand insurgents as “terrorists”, while the Tatmadaw has sponsored recent events to drum up public support for their “just war.”

New restrictions on used car imports

In a move aimed to boost local production, entice foreign investment and at least temporarily alleviate traffic jams, Myanmar imposed new restrictions on used car imports. The once sleepy streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, are now famously clogged with second hand automobiles imported from regional countries.

The traffic flow could change soon as the National League for Democracy-led government aims to attract foreign automakers to establish production facilities in the country. Despite Yangon’s traffic jams, Myanmar has an underdeveloped automobile market, with only a small percentage of the population owning cars.

Since the country implemented liberalizing economic reforms in 2011, second hand Nissans and Toyotas, most imported from neighboring Thailand, a major regional production hub, have come to dominate the roadways. While Myanmar’s uppermost classes have been able to afford the ticket price of used cars, it’s not clear if local spending power is high enough yet to support a foreign-invested new automobile industry.