PATHEIN — Two senior leaders of the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, also known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, have presided over the opening of a political party office they say was founded on the Buddhist nationalist group’s principles.
U Wirathu and U Pamaukka attended the Sunday opening ceremony for an office of the National Prosperity Party (NPP) in the Irrawaddy Division capital of Pathein. U Wirathu told The Irrawaddy he was there to show his support for the party, which was founded on his recommendation and is campaigning on issues popularized by Ma Ba Tha.
“[Its] leaders suggested establishing a party particularly for nationalism,” he said. “I agreed. So, those youths established the party to focus on nationalism…This small party is a nationalist party. If it is given support and if it grows bigger, it can become a party which can be relied upon for [safeguarding] nationalism and religion.”
The NPP is contesting three seats in Irrawaddy Division. Its Lower House candidate for Pathein, Mya Han, said the party was focused on ensuring that the recently enacted Race and Religion legislative package would not be repealed by a future Union government.
“We’re nationalists and we will run for the election because we think the parliament needs lawmakers who will support nationalism,” he told The Irrawaddy. “If we win the election, we’ll strictly protect the race and religion protection laws. And we will try to help poor citizens attain middle-class status and become rich.”
Advocacy from Ma Ba Tha led to the drafting and passage of the four laws through the Union Parliament, which place criminal prohibitions on adultery and give the Burmese government sweeping powers over interfaith marriage, religious conversions and birth control. The laws are widely perceived to be directed against Burma’s Muslim minority.
U Wirathu and other senior members of Ma Ba Tha have in recent weeks lent vocal support to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and President Thein Sein, despite Burma’s election laws mandating a separation between the country’s religious orders and political campaigning.
During public rallies organized by Ma Ba Tha to celebrate the passage of the laws, Ma Ba Tha monks have urged crowds to support the USDP and warned that the laws may be repealed if the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is able to form government after the Nov. 8 election.
Soe Hlaing Oo, a member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, asked whether the NPP had been established to allow senior Ma Ba Tha members an eventual route into parliament.
“The emergence of this party raises suspicions as to whether Ma Ba Tha will enter parliamentary politics,” he said. “But when parties get into parliament, only those that prioritize national development and equality of all 50 million people of this country will survive in the long term. The rest will only survive for a while.”
Irrawaddy Division is seen as a stronghold of support for Ma Ba Tha, which has held a number of high profile rallies and demonstration marches in the region in recent months. The NPP, whose chairman Win Khant claims has a membership of 5,000 people, has also opened an office in Kyaunggon Township, 60 kilometers northeast of Pathein.
Wunna Shwe, a member of the Myanmar Interfaith Group, told The Irrawaddy that the NPP’s goals were divisive and would pit different religious communities in Burma against each other.
“Doing things that can undermine unity among citizens is unacceptable,” he said. “There is not only one religion in this country. There are religions followed by the majority and those followed by minorities. While political parties should be attentive to the concerns of the majority, they should not ignore minorities. They should also understand the spiritual and physical needs of minorities.”
Additional Reporting by San Yamin Aung