RANGOON — A senior member of Burma’s union level election body said the organization has no authority to prevent religious figures or organizations from speaking out on politics.
Union Election Commission (UEC) official Win Ko said Buddhist monks’ exhortations on political affairs were not a matter the election body could police as its mandate did not extend to the clergy.
“We are only responsible for preventing any abuse of religion for political purposes by a party or candidate,” he said to media Wednesday on the sidelines of a forum on electoral conflict.
“If it is monks [involved], we can do nothing. Only the Sangha Mahanayaka [the Sangha Council] or the Ministry of Religious Affairs can handle them.”
His comments come on the back of concerns aired by Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), that influential Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha is behind a push to defame the party and influence the electorate.
The NLD, chaired by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, filed a number of complaints earlier last month alleging that the Buddhist hardline group had distributed print materials and delivered public sermons urging supporters not to back the party on the ground that its members did not have Buddhism’s best interests at heart.
The NLD has been referred to derisively in various speeches made during a series of recent rallies organized by Ma Ba Tha to celebrate passage of the controversial Race and Religion Protection Laws. The group, also known in English as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, was the principal proponent of the legislative package that was opposed by NLD lawmakers.
NLD spokesperson Nyan Win told The Irrawaddy on Friday the party would soon meet with the UEC to discuss concerns over the Ma Ba Tha’s politicking and to offer “a thorough explanation of their case.”
“Although the Ma Ba Tha is branded a religious association, they are intervening in politics. It is difficult to view them only as a religious association,” he said. “We think the Ma Ba Tha should not take part in politics.”
Nyan Win said the party would also seek talks with the State Sangha Council or officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs if necessary.
“We think the body most responsible is the UEC as they have kept insisting on a free and fair election,” he said.
Representatives of the Sangha Council and the religious affairs ministry were not available for comment on Friday.
Burma’s election law prohibits persons from seeking to influence the electorate on the grounds of race and religion, with offenders punishable by up to one year imprisonment.