RANGOON — With just 29 days to go before a Nov. 8 poll, Burma’s election fever is now in full pitch. Even on a short walk around downtown Rangoon, it’s clear which party is most popular. Miniature red flags bearing a fighting peacock and a white star—the insignia of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)—fly from taxi antennae and on nearly every trishaw passing by. Car windshields are emblazoned with the same logo.
In other cities and towns, and in other parts of the country, people poured out into the streets to greet Suu Kyi on the campaign trail. Pumped their fists in the air, villagers across the country cheered when she belted out her party’s slogan: “Time for change.”
Because of this outward popularity, an NLD victory is generally taken for granted.
On the ground, however, the party is facing multiple challenges. The NLD headquarters in Rangoon are flooded with complaints about pre-electoral fraud, misconduct and pre-campaign vote-buying by the party’s primary rival, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Complaints are still pouring in from regional NLD offices across the nation.
The USDP’s alleged offenses vary from bribing villagers to vote a certain way, to extreme scenarios of physical assault and intimidation of opposition supporters. Suu Kyi has been publicly bad-mouthed by opponents, and the party has been targeted by campaigns capitalizing on religious fervor. Evidently, the USDP will allow any and every means to make things harder for the NLD to win, even through tacit acceptance of Buddhist monks affiliated with the nationalist Association for the Protection of Race and religion, known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha.
Even more significant is that these offenses aren’t limited to low-level party officials. Union ministers, the party’s de facto leader, even the nation’s vice president—all have been implicated in dubious activities that some opposition members believe violate the law by blurring the lines between political and religious influence.
Case in point, just after Vice President Nyan Tun’s recent visit to a monastery in his Bago Division constituency, local monks began distributing leaflets encouraging people not to vote for the NLD on the basis of their opposition to the recently enacted “race and religion protection laws.” Religious figures delivered public speeches claiming that an NLD victory would usher in the spread of Islam in the predominantly Buddhist country.
Again, during a commemoration ceremony held with the support of the Irrawaddy Division government to celebrate the above-mentioned laws, a leading monk openly implored voters not to support the NLD, asking the audience whether or not they would vote for a party that supports Islam. During the ceremony, divisional Chief Minister Thein Aung, a member of the USDP contesting the November poll, earned praise from the monks because of his support for Ma Ba Tha.
Despite the group’s denial that that Ma Ba Tha endorses the ruling party, such moments of public camaraderie deal a big blow to the opposition; these monks are highly revered and powerful among the deeply Buddhist majority, especially in rural areas where clerics have a lot of influence over laypeople’s lives.
To date, Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) has been mostly inactive in response to complaints made by the NLD, particularly with regard to cases related to the interference of monastics in the political sphere. UEC official Win Ko said earlier this month that the monks’ exhortations on political affairs were not within the election body’s mandate. The NLD has requested a meeting with the commission to further examine the issue, but no date has yet been set as the clock ticks on toward election day.
The UEC has yet to come up with a proper solution for the issue, but it must if it is committed—as Chairman Tin Aye has repeatedly professed—to ensuring a free and fair poll. If he can find a solution for resolving these disputes, it would be a quick fix for the commission’s already tarnished reputation. The chairman himself has faced much criticism over his former affiliation with the military, calling the UEC’s independence into question. The best scenario at this juncture would be for Tin Aye to intervene and encourage USDP officials—especially those now contesting seats in the new legislature—to abstain from using religion as political tool and to play a fair game. Whether he will take up the task is the lingering question of the month to come.