RANGOON — Burma’s main opposition party has filed an official complaint with authorities about potentially unlawful use of religion to influence an upcoming general election, in an early test of the polling commission’s power and impartiality in the lead-up to the Nov. 8 vote.
The National League for Democracy (NLD), chaired by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, filed a number of complaints earlier this month alleging that the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha had distributed print materials and delivered public sermons that defame the NLD and attempt to influence the electorate.
While the claims have now been outstanding for more than a week, a senior party official told The Irrawaddy that they have not seen any response from the government despite lodging the claim though official channels and in accordance with election law.
“All we can do is complain to the UEC [Union Election Commission], that’s all,” said NLD central committee member Win Htein, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “We have not yet heard a response.”
The complaints in question were related to paper pamphlets distributed at a number of rallies held by Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, in celebration of the recent passage of four controversial laws restricting interfaith marriage, childbirth, polygamy and conversion of faith.
Win Htein further suggested that the members of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) were present at several of the rallies and helped to dispense the leaflets, claiming he had photographs clearly identifying them as party affiliates.
A copy of one such pamphlet, obtained by The Irrawaddy, urges the public not to support the “big group that is against nationalism,” later referring explicitly to Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD.
“[The big group] focuses on the human rights of other religious groups, only pointing out corruption of the government, the country’s poverty and the national education law. It is trying to canvass the public with the photo of patriotic leader General Aung San,” the pamphlet reads.
“‘The party’s leader is the daughter of General Aung San,’ and unexpected risks will enter the religion and the country [if the party is elected].”
Win Htein said the materials, which go on to portray the NLD as an existential threat to the national identity of Buddhist-majority Burma, were distributed in several parts of the country including Sagaing and Irrawaddy divisions.
The movement, which has grown exponentially over the past two years, may have risen above the law and beyond the control of its own leadership.”
U Pamoukka, a senior monk and spokesperson for the Rangoon Division chapter of Ma Ba Tha, told The Irrawaddy that the pamphlets were not made or distributed on the order of the group’s central authority, but that it was possible that members at the regional level had taken it upon themselves to print and share them. Ma Ba Tha’s central committee had already issued a public statement calling the election “crucial” and “sensitive,” he said, hence the organization has urged its members not to interfere with politics.
“But one thing we do distribute as the message of the leading Ma Ba Tha monks that is quite clearly political,” Pamoukka said, “is that a person who is focused on the Buddhist religion is more appropriate to choose [as an elected official].”
Though Ma Ba Tha has publicly distanced itself from the materials in question, the case underscores concerns that the movement, which has grown exponentially over the past two years, may have risen above the law and beyond the control of its own leadership. The group is associated with the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, which was marred by several rounds of deadly ethno-religious riots since 2012, and some members have publicly decried the NLD as “the party of Islamists.”
The Irrawaddy Division election sub-commission, the highest polling authority in the delta region, confirmed on Wednesday that it had received a formal complaint from the NLD and would refer them to Union-level mediators, though it did not elaborate on the nature of the claim or venture an estimate on when it might be adjudicated.
Sub-commission member Maung Maung told The Irrawaddy that he knew of at least one such complaint filed “about 10 days ago,” but he wasn’t sure exactly when or what would happen next. The UEC could not be reached for comment.
The complaint would likely be considered under Chapter XIII, Article 58(c) of the parliamentary election laws, pertaining to election offenses and penalties, which stipulates up to one year in prison for “uttering, making speeches, making declarations and instigating to vote or not to vote on the grounds of race and religion or by abetment of such acts.”
A guide on election dispute resolution issued by the UEC in July provides little additional clarity on what to expect. The booklet, which is available online in Burmese and English, says such a complaint can be filed by voters, candidates, election officials or police officers to relevant authorities, but does not detail what follows its receipt.
The section titled “What should I expect after I file an objection or report?” vaguely states that an investigation will be conducted “promptly, efficiently and impartially and a decision will be issued within a specified period.”
Regardless of what follows, Win Htein said the NLD is confident that it will survive the alleged slander.
“The manipulation of Ma Ba Tha will not have a big impact on the NLD,” he said. “Some people will believe them, but many people are more knowledgeable now.”