Nationalist monk U Wirathu, known across the globe for his fundamentalist and often anti-Muslim rhetoric, was among a small group of Buddhist leaders to meet with a major figure of Burma’s opposition party this week in Mandalay. Tin Oo, patron of the National League for Democracy (NLD), visited Burma’s second largest city on Wednesday to introduce the party’s candidates in advance of a Nov. 8 general election. While in town, Tin Oo visited the Kantatkone Masoeyein Monastery, where he met with a selection of the city’s religious leaders to pay his respects and discuss topical matters.
Wirathu is a central figure of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, an organization that has been accused of manipulating the electorate and casting the NLD as a threat to the predominantly Buddhist identity of Burma. He has been known in the past to speak freely and openly about his views on Muslims, women and the international community. In light of recent accusations against him and in tandem with the popular acceptance of the group’s ideology, his recent public appearances have become markedly less spirited and egregious.
Speaking with The Irrawaddy’s Zarni Mann shortly after his meeting with Tin Oo, Wirathu touched on a broad range of issues including his views on the forthcoming election.
Could you tell us about the purpose of your meeting with Tin Oo?
Kantatkon Sayadaw said he had asked U Tin Oo, and that he would invite me and U Eaindasattka, and he accepted [the meeting with us]. We talked after the meeting with the other monks, as I arrived late. I told him that I don’t want the NLD party to change from an amiable party to a hostile one.
Did Tin Oo say anything to you, or did you have a discussion?
No. Since he was there to listen to briefings from the senior monks, he didn’t ask any questions about political issues, regarding Ma Ba Tha or our recent celebrations [over the passage of four ‘race and religion protection laws’]. He just said he always pays respect to senior monks and abbots. He listened to us humbly and respectfully.
Have you spoken with him about confrontations between NLD and Ma Ba Tha supporters over their different views on the race and religion laws?
Yes, of course. This fight has been going on for about two years. There are people using the picture of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, General Aung San and the logo of the NLD on their Facebook profiles. They accuse, criticize and spread false information about Ma Ba Tha members and Buddhist monks. On the other hand, there are also people using Ma Ba Tha logos, 969 logos and pictures of Buddhist monks, attacking the NLD. I told U Tin Oo that all of us, as the leaders of those groups, need to address this matter to clear up the misunderstandings.
Do you think this meeting will result in a solution to these matters?
Yes. If we could meet like this frequently and discuss our views, there will be no misunderstanding and we will have constructive criticism and suggestions. Moreover, there will be no temptation and threats from third parties. So I want to have future meetings like this.
What do you think about accusations that Ma Ba Tha members have slandered, attacked or urged people not to vote for the NLD?
Both in Ma Ba Tha and 969, we have no principle about forcing anyone to vote or not to vote for this party or that person. We only suggest that people choose the future leader of our country wisely and without bias. So people who are urging others not to vote or attacking parties or individuals are not representative of Ma Ba Tha or 969. Their words are not the opinion of Ma Ba Tha and 969.
What are your personal views on the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi?
We are sons of Buddha. We can’t just support a party. We have to choose the best person from a party. For example, there are five candidates in Mahaungmyay Township, where I live. So out of those five, if the person who will serve the people best is from the NLD, we have to choose him. If he is from another party, we will choose him.
We have supported many things led by the NLD in the past. In 2012, during our sermons, we told the people that soldiers should only be in the army, not in the administrative departments. We delivered our sermons accordingly with the teachings of Buddha on such matters. We have supported the NLD’s cause on eliminating the system of giving [25 percent of parliamentary] seats to the military. We have supported attempts to amend Article 436 of the Constitution, as well.
But Article 59(f) [which effectively bars Suu Kyi from the presidency because her two sons are British] is like a national fortress for the country, which is why we opposed amending it. Our actions are not a personal attack on anybody, but we have been accused by the political community of being lobbyists and the government’s men.
Do you mean that you still support the NLD, or not?
Whether or not to support the NLD depends on the political weather. For example, we had high hopes that they would work in balance on issues of democratization and nationalism. However, after the communal conflict in Arakan State in 2012 [during which some 140,000 people were displaced, mostly the stateless Rohingya Muslim Minority], we rarely found that they were supporting nationalism. They are only focused on democratization. Since then, we have drawn further away from them.
I have criticized the NLD since 2012, and people started to hate and misunderstand us over our different views and criticisms of the NLD.
However, we want a fully elected civilian parliament. We want [political parties] to produce super qualified candidates. We want them to produce qualified new generations that can take over the party. If one cannot be elected as the president, there should be another qualified candidate. But they [the NLD] are only trying to amend the Constitution and not thinking about winning the seats. That’s why we feel discontent toward them.
If you could vote, who would you vote for?
My principle, which I would like to suggest to voters, is to choose and vote for the most qualified person who will surely work for the benefit of your community and your city. And to choose them without bias, fear, like or dislike, whoever or whether he or she is from a small party or an independent one. If such person is from a big party like the NLD, there’s nothing to say.