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