One such recent ceremony convened in Mandalay drew massive crowds and earned the ire of local residents who accused the monks of trying to enflame religious tensions in a township already haunted by intercommunal violence.
Over 3000 witnesses gathered to watch 71 people convert to Buddhism in Meiktila on May 6, according to ceremony leader U Aggadaja.
The senior Ma Ba Tha monk said his event was the largest religious conversion ceremony held yet in Myanmar. “I never persuade them,” he told The Myanmar Times. “This ceremony is meant to express welcome to those who want to enter Buddhism.”
But for some religious minorities, the ceremony came off as an attempt to marginalise. U San Win Tun, secretary of the Interfaith Association in Meiktila, said the ceremony was unlike anything held in the town before.
Almost all the participants converted by the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion – as Ma Ba Tha is called in English – were Muslim. The event also included eight Christians and five Hindus.
Most of those who converted said they had Buddhist partners. But Daw Khin Than Myint, 52, was born as a Buddhist. She said she converted to Islam before marrying her husband.
She said she knew she wanted to convert back as soon as her family was pushed into a refugee camp following violent riots that erupted in the township in 2013. The conflict, prompted by a shop dispute and fanned on anti-Muslim sentiment, left more than 40 people dead and 12,000 displaced. The two main Muslim communities in the township were razed.
Daw Khin Than Myint said her family stayed at the camp for one month and three days. “Fifteen days after we arrived back home my eldest son entered into the monkhood. And then the whole family, including my husband, entered into Buddhism,” she said.
With tears in her eyes she told The Myanmar Times that her in-laws will no longer speak to the family. “For that loss I feel sad. Since we re-entered Buddhism we stopped having any contact with them,” she said.
Her daughter, Ma Phyu Hnin Thwe, said it was only when the entire family eagerly pressed the conversion that her father agreed to join them in the ceremony. “When we got back from refugee camp we didn’t have even a penny, but had a gold bracelet. We sold it, and with the money we made a Buddhist altar,” she said.
Ma Ba Tha monk U Aggadaja said that so many people wanted to convert in Meiktila because there are many Muslims in the township. “After the ceremony, 22 more people came up to us and told us they also want to convert,” he said.
U Aggadaja said he has no intention of inciting conflict as the previous riots hurt “both sides”.
“On April 27, a rumour came out that unofficial mosques would be repaired and opened. The nationalist youths became quite intense, so we tried to control the situation by making sure the unofficial mosques did not open,” he said by way of explaining his peace-making abilities.
But residents in the community were not impressed by the monk’s fanfare and accused him of trying to alienate, if not provoke, the township.
“This is a personal affair. We never hold a ceremony like this for religious conversion,” said U San Win Tun from the Interfaith Association. He added that the conversion ceremony also appeared to go against Ma Ba Tha’s own law, which makes conversion a legal and administrative affair.
“They announced they would hold a ceremony, but it is not official. Myanmar has ‘race and religion protection’ laws now, so religious conversion requires the involvement of the ministries for religious affairs and home affairs,”U San Win Tun said.
But Taung Thar Lay Meiktila Sayadaw said the ceremony had been held according to the Religious Conversion Law, and that necklaces with religious pendants had already been given to all those converted. They would also be handed religious books soon, he said.
The Religious Conversion Law was one of four legislative pieces backed by Ma Ba Tha and quickly signed into effect by then-president U Thein Sein. The law requires that a Myanmar citizen wishing to switch religions must obtain prior approval from a township religious conversion registration board. The conversion process also requires an interview and set period of study.
Rights groups, interfaith networks and the international community slammed the bill as a major setback for religious freedom and tolerance in Myanmar. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom said the legislation risks inciting further violence against religious minorities by enflaming already pervasive discrimination.
The International Crisis Group called the monks fomenting the nationalist agenda a “populist political force that cloaks itself in religious respectability and moral authority”.
But the group has also proven itself a political force to be reckoned with, and has threatened to make life difficult for the National League for Democracy if the new government shows any sign of repealing the controversial laws.
The other arms of the “race and religion” package appear to have failed to gain much traction, or, in the case of the Monogamy Law, largely backfired against the stated purpose of protecting Buddhist women from polygamous Muslim spouses and instead struck largely among Buddhist households, providing legal recourse for cheated spouses. But the Religious Conversion Law seems to have hit closer to the intended mark.
Most locals were hesitant to comment on the ceremony out of fear of stirring conflict. U Min Aung, a Muslim leader in Meiktila, said the violence of 2013 had such a big impact on the community that it was still recovering from the recent trauma. He added that changing one’s religion would not alter bloodlines or reverse the fact that there are many interfaith families in Meiktila.
A well-known political activist, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said most participants in the recent religious conversion ceremony had come from outside the town. He said he feared it was meant to stir religious tensions.
“I know everyone can change their religion if they desire to do so. Some of our friends also change their religion. But they held a big ceremony this time, like they were celebrating a victory. It is not the right time. It seems they want to pick a fight,” he said.
But U Aggadaja called the criticism an assault on Buddhism and said it won’t stop him from holding more ceremonies. “I don’t worry because the religion law indicates we could sue those people,” he said.