Nationalist monk U Wirathu, known for his unique brand of fundamentalist and often anti-Muslim rhetoric, has become a force to be reckoned with in the political arena as Burma closes in on a general election in November. While the Buddhist clergy traditionally occupies an apolitical space in Burmese society, the movement he is part of—the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known locally as Ma Ba Tha—has blurred those lines in recent years by advocating for legislation and now, it seems, advising the public on how they should vote.
Labeled abroad as a “firebrand,” Wirathu’s support base at home is gargantuan. His public sermons are regularly well-attended, and his Facebook account has a reach of nearly 100,000 followers. On Tuesday, the monk mobilized his Rangoon supporters for a celebration of the passage of four so-called “race and religion protection laws,” which were first envisioned by the Ma Ba Tha. He plans to take his merriment to the road, touring the country for a series of such events.
Also on Tuesday, a group of nine embassies present in Burma co-signed a statement expressing concern about the potential use of religion to cause unrest during the pre-election period. The United States has also vocalized concerns about “the growing infusion of religion in the political arena.”
The Irrawaddy spoke with Wirathu on Wednesday about his views on politics and the newly passed legislation. What follows is a translation of the full interview, originally published in Burmese.
We have learned that Ma Ba Tha is conducting a survey on profiles of political parties and candidates. What is it for?
Mainly we intend to inform people of the qualifications of candidates in their constituencies so that they can choose who deserves to win.
Will the survey be conducted only in Mandalay or nationwide?
We can’t do it nationwide. Even in Mandalay, we can only analyze the profiles of candidates for the Upper House and the Lower House. We still can’t even do it for the divisional parliament candidates.
What type of people does the Ma Ba Tha want people to vote for?
Our policy is that we want people to cast votes without love, hate, fear or unawareness. People should not cast a vote overwhelmed by love. It is fortunate if he [the candidate] is competent, but if he is not, it is a loss for the country. If people do not vote for the competent one because of hate, this is also a loss for the country.
Again, it is not good for people to cast a vote based on fear, especially the civil servants. In the past, they did not have the right to choose they party they support. Therefore, it is important that people choose without fear. Again, it is not good that people are unaware and do not know who to vote for, then they cast a vote at random.
We urge the people to avoid these four things and choose respected, reliable and knowledgeable candidates without the cult of personality and partisanship for their hometowns or villages.
Does Ma Ba Tha urge people to choose those who protect race and religion?
Yes, we do. We urge the people to choose anyone, either from big parties or small parties or independents, who are reliable and can be trusted in their own towns, their own villages and their own religion.
The four “race and religion laws” have been enacted in the time of President U Thein Sein. What would you like to say to the Parliament and the President who enacted those laws? Do you want to see U Thein Sein run for a second term?
Firstly, we are grateful to the lawmakers who had a heated debate [about these laws] in the face of opposition. Secondly, the thing is that all governments want a [good] reputation. They do not want to see opposition and objection. The government was bound to be applauded by the international community if it did not accept these bills; U Thein Sein would have had greater support. But it would have put the country’s security at risk, it would have put the country in harm’s way.
I am especially grateful to the President, who has enacted the race and religion protection despite international pressure. I heartily welcome President U Thein Sein if he runs for a second term.