Buddhist monks' bid to ban Muslim headscarves heightens Myanmar tensions

(Photo: REUTERS / Soe Zeya Tun)Ashin Wirathu (C), Buddhist monk and leader of the 969 Movement, takes part in protest against visiting United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, in Yangon January 16, 2015. Rakhine activists and hundreds of Buddhist monks demonstrated against the United Nations for urging Myanmar's government to give Rohingyas citizenship, local media reported

Tensions between Myanmar's ruling Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority are simmering again after an influential group of hardline monks pitched for a ban on headscarves worn by Muslim schoolgirls at schools.

Monks from the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, locally known as the Ma Ba Tha, insisted that schoolgirls who wear headscarves do not comply with school regulations.

Some 1,300 monks affiliated with Ma Ba Tha converged on Yangon over the weekend as it mapped out a nationalist agenda, which it wants implemented after elections scheduled for later this year.

"We will demand seriously for the government to ban Muslim students wearing the burqa in government schools, and to ban the killing of innocent animals on their [Muslims'] Eid holiday," the group said in a list read out.

It argues headscarves contradict the local culture, The Guardian reported.

"When they [Muslims] live in Myanmar, they need to obey the law and regulations of the country," said Ma Ba Tha monk U Pamaukkha, as they are a minority in Myanmar, and should conform to the majority, instead of practicing their faith.

"We are not targeting or attacking their religion," he said.

Ma Ba Tha was formed in 2013 during rising Buddhist-Muslim tensions and it pledged to campaign for candidates espousing similar principles which would "not let our race and religion disappear."

At the same time, the Buddhist extremist organization backed vigilance against "crimes by non-Buddhists," and to use social media to publicize incidents deemed as a threat to the majority.

They have used social media to make accusations of rape and inter-communal violence, with mobs sparking riots in Muslim areas, particularly in Myanmar's western Rakhine state where Rohingyas live.

Persistent riots have encouraged Rohingya Muslims to try to flee Myanmar and seek asylum in neighboring countries only to be turned away. Worsening conditions in Myanmar for Muslim minorities triggered a regional human trafficking crisis.

Separately New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned Ma Ba Tha remarks, saying its campaign against Muslims threatens their existence in the country.

"The Ma Ba Tha have become an unaccountable and arrogant political force based on extremist religious and social views, like a fifth column using Buddhism to serve shady political and economic interests," said senior researcher David Mathieson.

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