WHAT NEXT?

As monk U Wi­rathu raps Suu Kyi’s party, Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ists muddy Myan­mar’s elec­tion cam­paign

Mizzima Business Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - Marc Ja­cob, Mark Yang & Jaiden Coo­nan

As monk U Wi­rathu raps Suu Kyi’s party, Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ists muddy Myan­mar’s elec­tion cam­paign

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is caught be­tween a ‘rock and a hard place’, as the say­ing goes. On the one hand, her Na­tional League for Democ­racy party has been crit­i­cized by Myan­mar’s most prom­i­nent Bud­dhist monk, U Wi­rathu, 47, who claimed in a widely pub­li­cized in­ter­view last week with Reuters news agency that “NLD peo­ple are so full of them­selves” and that “they don’t have a high chance of win­ning in the elec­tions.”

And on the other hand, lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional rights groups have crit­i­cized her for not stand­ing up for the coun­try’s in­creas­ingly pres­sured Mus­lim mi­nor­ity and for her party not field­ing a sin­gle Mus­lim can­di­date in the race for the 2015 elec­tions to be held on Novem­ber 8.

Hard­lin­ers gun for rul­ing USDP

As the clock ticks down to the cru­cial polls, Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ism is be­ing used to muddy the elec­tion race. Lead­ing the drive is the monk-led Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Pro­tec­tion of Na­tion­al­ity and Re­li­gion (Ma Ba Tha), which di­rectly, or of­ten more sub­tly, is call­ing on the elec­torate to re­ject the NLD and vote for Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein’s rul­ing Union Sol­i­dar­ity and De­vel­op­ment Party (USDP).

The USDP, Myan­mar’s army-backed rul­ing party, is grow­ing des­per­ate, given the ap­par­ent pop­u­lar sup­port for the coun­try’s democ­racy icon Suu Kyi and her NLD party, a party that has, in ef­fect, been wait­ing 25 years for an­other shot at power fol­low­ing the elec­tion vic­tory stolen from them in 1990 by the mil­i­tary gen­er­als.

An­a­lysts claim the sup­port of the Ma Ba Tha rep­re­sents the USDP’s best chance to hang on to power in th­ese watershed elec­tions, an in­jec­tion of sup­port for the gen­er­als prob­a­bly un­fore­seen back in 2003 when then coun­try’s leader, Gen­eral Khin Nyunt ,first un­veiled the mil­i­tary-writ­ten “Roadmap to Dis­ci­pline-flour­ish­ing Democ­racy”.

There is lit­tle doubt that back then the gen­er­als, in­clud­ing Se­nior Gen­eral Than Shwe, en­vis­aged a more man­aged tran­si­tion from dic­ta­tor­ship to democ­racy that would see them still hold­ing the reins of power.

Now, in the run-up to th­ese cru­cial elec­tions, re­li­gion, specif­i­cally a fear-mon­ger­ing call to pro­tect Myan­mar Bud­dhism from “Mus­lim ex­pan­sion” and “sui­cide bombers” is be­ing used to try to rally the elec­torate to, in ef­fect, vote for the party of the gen­er­als.

And the crit­i­cisms, threats, and bad lan­guage used by sup­port­ers of Ma Ba Tha at some ral­lies, in press con­fer­ences, and spread around so­cial me­dia, is an in­di­ca­tion of how bit­ter the bat­tle has be­come.

Mixed mes­sages

De­spite a con­sti­tu­tional ban on the clergy tak­ing part in pol­i­tics, hard­line monks have grown in­creas­ingly vo­cal in their at­tacks on the NLD which op­posed the four so-called Pro­tec­tion of Race and Re­li­gion laws that are seen as tar­get­ing women and the coun­try’s Mus­lim mi­nor­ity, ap­prox­i­mately 5 per­cent of Myan­mar’s 51 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion.

Yet lis­ten­ing to voices of monks in­volved in the Ma Ba Tha move­ment, there is a sense of mixed mes­sages be­ing con­veyed.

Prom­i­nent monk Sayadaw Ashin Nyanis­sara, com­monly known as Sitagu Sayadaw, told an Oc­to­ber 4 gath­er­ing of tens of thou­sands of Ma Ba Tha fol­low­ers in Yan­gon, cel­e­brat­ing the pass­ing of the four Pro­tec­tion of Race and Re­li­gion laws, that the Sangha should “not in­ter­fere in pol­i­tics.”

“When monks cam­paign to pro­tect race and re­li­gion, peo­ple say they are do­ing pol­i­tics,” he told the crowd. “Some say monks cross the line. Don’t get ir­ri­tated by those dec­la­ra­tions. If you are ir­ri­tated, you will get into trou­ble, you will lose. How­ever, I don’t mean monks should get in­volved in pol­i­tics. I mean we monks should watch the con­di­tion of this coun­try with pa­tience and care. We should help in chang­ing so­cial in­jus­tice to so­cial jus­tice. We should also help in so­cial wel­fare. But we should avoid pol­i­tics. This I re­quest re­spect­fully to all of you.”

Sitagu Sayadaw stressed that monks should do more than fo­cus on reli­gious is­sues, putting more ef­fort into so­cial wel­fare, while adding there should be a bal­ance be­tween the two.

While monk Sitagu Sayadaw teetered on the line be­tween the Sangha’s devo­tion to spir­i­tual and so­cial sup­port and pol­i­tics, prom­i­nent Man­dalay monk U Wi­rathu, no stranger to con­tro­versy, has rapped the NLD and openly en­dorsed Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein’s party.

“If we have to choose the best, it is Pres­i­dent Thein Sein’s gov­ern­ment,” U Wi­rathu told Reuters, just be­fore the Oc­to­ber 4 rally. “They could open the doors and work

step by step for peace and de­vel­op­ment.”

Stir­ring up fears

Re­li­gion is be­ing used as a po­tent force to at­tempt to sway vot­ers. And it is prov­ing tough if not im­pos­si­ble for any politi­cian to counter the rhetoric. The 10,000 or more sup­port­ers of Ma Ba Tha who crammed into Yan­gon’s na­tional sta­dium on Oc­to­ber 4 were en­cour­aged to sup­port ef­forts to pro­tect Bud­dhism in Myan­mar and to be wary of the dan­gers posed by those who don’t ad­here to the faith.

The use of the sta­dium was re­port­edly agreed af­ter the in­ter­ven­tion of Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal me­dia. The pres­i­den­tial in­ter­ven­tion over­ruled a Min­istry of Sports edict that blocks sta­di­ums from host­ing non-sport­ing events.

The Ma Ba Tha had spent two weeks tour­ing al­most ev­ery state in Myan­mar in their cel­e­bra­tion of the four laws. Mem­bers of po­lit­i­cal par­ties, ac­tivist groups in­clud­ing the 88 Gen­er­a­tion Peace and Open So­ci­ety, and diplo­mats were in­vited to the grand fi­nale at the sta­dium. But most of the re­served chairs re­mained empty.

Sitagu Sayadaw was at pains to point out that there should be no reli­gious in­ter­fer­ence in pol­i­tics and ap­peared to cau­tion jour­nal­ists, blog­gers, and those who take to so­cial me­dia to re­port his words cor­rectly.

“Those who write in blogs and also so­cial me­dia, Face­book and also who write in jour­nals and mag­a­zines, just write the ex­act words we say,” he said. “Don’t write the words we do not say.”

Yet the un­der­ly­ing nar­ra­tive is one of Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ism be­ing used to un­der­mine the po­lit­i­cal process and of­fer guid­ance to vot­ers.

Even within the Ma Ba Tha, there is a sense of a split be­tween the more “hot-headed younger monks” and the calmer words of the older, sea­soned Sangha lead­er­ship.

Sit­ting in on the rally, but not mak­ing a speech, was U Wi­rathu. The monk re­cently granted an au­di­ence to U Tin Oo, 88, founder and pa­tron of the NLD, a former po­lit­i­cal pris­oner and a former com­man­der in chief of the Myan­mar army. As U Tin Oo pros­trated him­self at the monk’s feet, U Wi­rathu pub­licly crit­i­cized him for the NLD’s fo­cus on “chang­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion rather than win­ning the elec­tion,” while non­cha­lantly scrolling through mes­sages on his smart­phone.

U Wi­rathu has made no se­cret of where his sym­pa­thies lie, chang- ing his Face­book pro­file pic­ture to an im­age that sup­ports Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein.

Just how much in­flu­ence Ma Ba Tha has over the rul­ing party is un­clear, as is how much sup­port it is of­fer­ing. As one in­de­pen­dent Mus­lim elec­toral can­di­date quipped to BBC News, the Ma Ba Tha “are the teacher of the pres­i­dent.”

Also un­clear is what the Ma Ba Tha and other Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ists plan to do next.

NLD warns of dirty tricks

While floods of sup­port­ers turn up at Suu Kyi’s cam­paign ral­lies, sport­ing red NLD stick­ers and flags, in the hard­scrab­ble fight for the fu­ture lead­er­ship of the coun­try the gloves are off and many op­tions are on the ta­ble – le­gal, ques­tion­able or il­le­gal.

The po­ten­tial for more trou­ble looms.

The NLD is warn­ing of dirty tricks be­ing used against the party. On Septem­ber 30, the NLD is­sued a state­ment call­ing on their party can­di­dates to deal with ha­rass­ment through le­gal chan­nels. The NLD also filed a com­plaint with the Union Elec­tion Com­mis­sion claim­ing the Ma Ba Tha has vi­o­lated elec­tion laws pro­hibit­ing the use of re­li­gion to in­flu­ence vot­ers.

How­ever, Suu Kyi was a lit­tle

ham­strung over how much she could pub­licly com­ment on the is­sue of reli­gious in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tions. When asked in a re­cent in­ter­view with In­dia To­day she said,

“Of course it wor­ries me and there isn’t an easy an­swer. You know what reli­gious pas­sions are. It is dou­bly dif­fi­cult for us be­cause the Con­sti­tu­tion for­bids us from mix­ing re­li­gion with pol­i­tics. So I have to be very care­ful with what I say. And the NLD has to be very care­ful. Per­haps there are in­di­vid­u­als and or­ga­ni­za­tions that are al­lowed to get away with it. But it is very, very dif­fi­cult for us to make any com­ments about th­ese mat­ters with­out the dan­ger of in­fring­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion,”

She con­tin­ued, “And then, of course, I am a Bud­dhist but I can’t go around say­ing ‘I am a Bud­dhist’ be­cause that is against the Con­sti­tu­tion. There are oth­ers who do it. But we want jus­tice for ev­ery­body. Ob­vi­ously democ­racy has to be based on jus­tice for ev­ery­body, re­gard­less of race, re­li­gion etc.”

Suu Kyi said the gov­ern­ment should be asked about this reli­gious in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tions.

“This gov­ern­ment has not taken much ac­tion against those who are us­ing re­li­gion to at­tack the NLD, al­though that is against the law,” she said

As to the ques­tion posed by In­dia To­day as to whether monk U Wi­rathu was the “face of Bud­dhism in Myan­mar,” Suu Kyi was dis­mis­sive of the idea, not­ing he was just one in­di­vid­ual.

“And don’t for­get there are many, many revered monks in this coun­try, and you should talk to them if you want to find out what the real face of Bud­dhism is,” she said.

“He’s one Bud­dhist monk,” Suu Kyi said, re­fer­ring to U Wi­rathu, “That’s all.”

With less than four weeks to go to the elec­tion, the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the two main par­ties - the NLD and the USDP field­ing a to­tal of 2,000 can­di­dates – is heat­ing up.

Just how much re­li­gion will be used to sway the masses, has yet to be seen.

Monk U Wi­rathu says he is try­ing to pro­tect Bud­dhism in Myan­mar. Photo: EPA

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says she is con­cerned that re­li­gion is be­ing used to cor­rupt the Myan­mar’s elec­tion race. Photo: EPA

Monk U Wi­rathu’s Face­book page shows where his loy­al­ties lie.

Sitagu Sayadaw says monks should not in­ter­fere in pol­i­tics. Photo: Mark Yang

. A cul­mi­na­tion of two week’s of cel­e­bra­tion of the race and re­li­gion laws ended in a sta­dium in Yan­gon. Photo: EPA

Many lay peo­ple joined the cel­e­bra­tions of the laws. Photo: Jaiden Coo­nan

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