RANGOON — With just 40 days until Burma’s Nov. 8 general election, a senior member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) has accused the Union Election Commission of bias and criticized its chairman Tin Aye for failing to promptly address a handful of complaints filed by the party.
The list of grievances from the country’s main opposition party include the commission’s struggle to amend a slew of errors to eligible voter lists, alleged defamation of the NLD and its chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, and a claim accusing the rival Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of unlawful campaigning.
Since the election’s official campaign period began on Sept. 8, the NLD says it has been increasingly targeted by Buddhist nationalists in speeches and through leaflets discouraging the public from voting for the party, with one pamphlet purportedly from the group and obtained by The Irrawaddy warning that “the party’s victory will do unimaginable harm to the country’s race and religion.”
Last week the party confirmed that it had filed a complaint against the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, a nationalist group led by Buddhist monks and better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, which the NLD accuses of violating an election law prohibition on using religion in an attempt to sway voters.
The alleged defamation by Ma Ba Tha members has dovetailed with a series of events organized by the group to celebrate passage of a set of controversial Race and Religion Protection Laws that critics say are infused with religiously discriminatory intent. Ma Ba Tha was one of the principle proponents of the legislation, and has attacked the NLD on the grounds that the party’s members would seek to repeal the laws if elected.
On Monday, Win Htein, an NLD central committee member, told The Irrawaddy that the party’s complaints had not been resolved to date.
He said he had raised the issue again during an elections workshop last week, making a case for the NLD as a party assailed by opponents on religious grounds, and accusing election authorities of inaction.
“The UEC officials at the meeting didn’t respond to it,” he said. “The reason they have turned a blind eye on Ma Ba Tha is that the more the NLD is attacked, the better for the USDP and the government.”
In addition to his complaints over Ma Ba Tha’s conduct, Win Htein criticized the commission for failing to sanction ruling party members in Naypyidaw that the NLD filed formal complaints against, alleging pre-campaign electioneering and vote-buying. Retired generals Hla Htay Win and Wai Lwin, and Agriculture and Irrigation Minister Myint Hlaing, were among the accused.
“U Tin Aye is taking sides, because we filed the cases to the UEC but have seen no action so far,” Win Htein said.
He added that the NLD had plans to put more pressure on the UEC to address the party’s grievances, including its complaint—shared widely with the dozens of political parties contesting the November poll—that eligible voter lists have been riddled with errors even in a final nationwide display of the rosters that began earlier this month.
“They have government funding as well as from international [donors]. Why are there errors even though they have spent so much?” he questioned.
“I think they did it intentionally. If people don’t have a chance to vote, we [the NLD] will suffer.”
Tin Aye, a former USDP member who officially shed his party affiliation upon taking the helm of the election commission in 2011, is traveling this week in Shan State, and the UEC’s spokesperson Thaung Hlaing was not available for immediate comment on Tuesday.
With Ma Ba Tha ramping up to a culmination of its Race and Religion Laws celebrations on Oct. 4 in Rangoon, the group is likely to continue to be a factor on the campaign trail in the days to come.
If the UEC appears reluctant to take action against Ma Ba Tha, perhaps the Burmese public’s own mixed views on the group’s increasingly political rhetoric are a factor.
In explaining his support for Ma Ba Tha’s anti-NLD message, writer Maung Thway Chun cited fears that the opposition party would be too sympathetic to Burma’s beleaguered Rohingya Muslim minority if it takes power. That concern has been one part of a two-pronged attack on the NLD by nationalists who have in recent weeks also sought to frame the party as weak advocates of the country’s ethnic Burman Buddhist majority.
“The NLD has a history of standing by Bengalis. If it comes to power and grants Bengalis citizenship, or annuls the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, it will put Buddhism and Arakan State at risk,” Maung Thway Chun said, using the government’s term for the group, which primarily resides in western Burma’s Arakan State.
Others, even from within the ranks of the monkhood, view Ma Ba Tha’s politicking unfavorably.
Khemar Nanda, a monk from Mandalay who writes religious articles under the pen name Moe Thu (Mandalay), said Ma Ba Tha’s involvement in politics was not good for the religion the group sought to represent and was “in violation of the code of conduct of the Buddhist Order.”
For former political prisoner and well-known writer Ma Thida (Sanchaung), Win Htein’s highlighting of the UEC’s inaction pointed to a broader arbitrary application of the law in Burma.
“If we say there should be rule of law and there should not be such things, [authorities] would say they do not take [punitive] action because no one has complained,” she said. “In some cases, [authorities] take actions aggressively, even when nobody complains.”
Additional reporting by Htet Naing Zaw.