MOULMEIN, Mon State — Community leaders in eastern Burma’s Mon State said that monks are reaching too deeply into the political sphere as a Nov. 8 general election nears, claiming that the clergy has endorsed a number of ethnic candidates competing against the nation’s two dominant parties.
In some cases influential monks have publicly backed independent candidates that are also competing against the state’s two main ethnic parties—the Mon National Party (MNP) and the All Mon Regions Democracy Party (AMRDP)—causing concern that their activities risk further splintering the state’s already fractious politics.
A senior monk told The Irrawaddy that the clergy decided to canvass on behalf of its preferred candidates to ensure that the state’s votes are solidly supportive of ethnic candidates capable of winning over the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
“Our votes will be scattered a lot on election day, which is why we need to do this,” explained May Htay Wi, an ethnic Mon monk from Ye Township. “Otherwise, our Mon candidates will lose to other parties. We need to get all our votes in one place in order to win.”
In his constituency, the Buddhist clergy has backed five candidates: two each from the MNP and the AMDP, and one independent. May Htay Wi’s peers in other parts of the state, including Thanbyuzayat and Mudon, have also selected their desired contestants and plan to rally their support.
In Thanbyuzayat, for instance, monks selected two independent candidates to throw their weight behind, after determining that the runners for the MNP and the AMRDP were unlikely to win against the national parties. In this township the monks have endorsed Nai Tun Ya and Nai Ba Maung.
When determining who to endorse, the May Htay Wi said, a council of clergymen investigated each candidate’s background and personal history, as well as inquiring about how long each had been “working for Mon affairs.” The clergymen also gauged community support for the parliamentary hopefuls.
It is very hard to tell them not to [get involved in politics]. Firstly, they invited us to talk about this and asked for our input. When we told them not to do this, they didn’t accept our suggestion.”
Community consultations have already been held in several of state’s nine townships, attended by Mon youth, village heads and other community members, the monk said. Attendees were asked which candidate they liked, and the results were factored into the decision made by the monks.
“Our work is just based on national affairs; it’s not based on the interest of any one party,” May Htay Wi said, “that’s why our people continue to support what we are doing.”
Not everyone does, however. According to Nai Mann, a senior reporter for the Moulmein-based Guiding Star news agency, the intervention of monks into the state’s politics has upset both Mon politicians and community leaders at the local level. Despite the displeasure of the community, many people “dare not challenge” the powerful religious figures.
“It is very hard to tell them not to [get involved in politics]. Firstly, they invited us to talk about this and asked for our input. When we told them not to do this, they didn’t accept our suggestion,” Nai Mann said.
Nai Soe Myint, secretary of the MNP, said he also did not agree with the clergy’s intrusion into the political fray, as members of the Buddhist Sangha are traditionally apolitical and are not eligible to vote. While some monks did seem to be working with party leaders to select and endorse candidates that would advance the rights of their people, he said, the activities are viewed by many as an unfair use of religious influence that could ultimately be damaging to small ethnic parties trying to stake out a legitimate claim in Burma’s changing political environs.
May Htay Wi defended himself and his fellow clergymen, claiming that they are acting in a non-partisan manner and in the interest of the ethnic Mon minority.
“We intend for our Mon people to win this election,” he said. “We don’t feel sorry for the other candidates that we have not endorsed, because those are the guys who mixed up Mon politics in the first place.”