MOULMEIN, Mon State — The chairman of the National Development Party (NDP) came out firmly in support of controversial race and religion protection laws passed earlier this year and went one step further on Monday by suggesting Burma should consider enfranchising monks, who are constitutionally barred from voting.
The NDP chief, former presidential adviser Nay Zin Latt, made the party’s stance known in the Mon State capital Moulmein at an event held to introduce its regional candidates for Burma’s November general election.
“We fervently support the race and religion protection laws,” Nay Zin Latt told a crowd of several hundred people that included Buddhist monks. “Other countries also stand by the interests of their own races and nationals, and we have no reason to be afraid of standing by the interests of nationalism and race and religion.”
The legislative package known as the race and religion protection laws includes restrictions on religious conversion, polygamy and interfaith marriage, and also allows authorities to impose birth spacing requirements on a regional basis. Critics have derided the laws for impinging on the rights of women and religious minorities, particularly Muslims.
Pinna Sara, a monk from Moulmein’s Ye Monastery, told The Irrawaddy: “We should support the race and religion protection laws if they serve national interests and the interests of citizens.”
When asked what the NDP’s position was on whether Buddhist monks and other religious leaders should be granted suffrage, Nay Zin Latt said he would be open to the possibility.
“Democracy is based on freedom of expression, freedom of speech, equality and justice. There should be equality in a country that has transformed into a democracy and is practicing democracy,” he said.
“When our party’s representatives get into Parliament, we’ll ask the representatives of other parties this question: How are other religions, matters related to race and religion like these, protected in other countries? In our country, can the spiritual leaders of other faiths vote?” he continued, in apparent reference to the omission of some religions from this prohibition.
In Burma, “members of religious orders” are barred from casting a vote, but related election laws only cover three religions—Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism.
“If they can, why shouldn’t our spiritual leaders, monks, have the vote? The code of conduct [of the Buddhist Order] does not concern me, but if I ask what equality and justice is, I think it will be a very difficult question to deny,” the party chairman said.
Lawyer Ko Ni said the prohibition does not affect Muslim religious leaders known as Mawlawi because they are not religious clergy.
“Mawlawi are like ordinary people. They are not religious clergy. They can marry and have children,” Ko Ni, himself a Muslim, told The Irrawaddy.
Nay Zin Latt’s remarks come amid a rising tide of Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment that has coincided with the lead-up to Burma’s landmark general election. The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, a Buddhist nationalist group better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, is made up of both monks and laypeople, and was one of the leading proponents of the race and religion laws.
Any effort to enfranchise members of religious orders would require a constitutional amendment. Granting suffrage to the Sangha, as the Buddhsit monkhood is known in Burma, would politically empower a sizeable demographic, with estimates putting the number of monks in the country at about 500,000.
A total of 18 political parties will contest the November election in Mon State. The NDP will run for 17 seats in Mon State across the Union Parliament and regional assembly—six in the Lower House, five in the Upper House and six in the Mon State legislature.
The NDP is a relative newcomer to Burma’s political scene, having been registered only in July of this year. Nay Zin Latt resigned from his post as an adviser to President Thein Sein shortly after making his intention to help set up the party known.
In terms of candidates fielded, the NDP is Burma’s fourth biggest party in this year’s election, contesting 353 seats nationwide.
The Union Election Commission (UEC) has set a Nov. 8 date for the election, though on Tuesday commission chairman Tin Aye indicated that the poll might not go ahead on time, citing the disruption that widespread flooding in the country has caused to livelihoods and electoral preparations.
Translated by Thet Ko Ko.