Buddhist Nationalists Urge Voters to Shun NLD at Ballot Box

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 18 June 2019

YANGON—Myanmar’s leading Buddhist nationalist group has urged voters to shun Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) in next year’s general election, accusing the party of damaging the “country, race and religion”.

Nearly 1,000 Buddhist monks and their followers from across the country gathered at the headquarters of the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation in Yangon’s Insein Township on Monday for their annual meeting. Formerly known as Ma Ba Tha (the Burmese-language acronym for the Association to Protect Race and Religion), the foundation adopted the new name in May 2017 after the government banned the use of the former title.

Founded in 2014 and led by senior Buddhist monks, Ma Ba Tha and its successor organization have been the most prominent nationalist groups in Myanmar, setting up subchapters across the country to spread their primarily anti-Muslim message. They claim that the foundations of Buddhism, Myanmar’s majority religion, are under assault and urge Buddhists to be vigilant against the influence of other “fundamentalist” religions.

After the meeting on Monday, the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation released a seven-point statement condemning the NLD-led government and Parliament for such steps as approving the Child’s Rights Law, which the foundation fears will enable the children of illegal immigrants to become Myanmar citizens. It also alleged that the government’s repeal of various security-related laws and restrictions, including the Emergency Provision Act and measures relating to overnight guest registration and state surveillance—all of which were used by the previous military government to oppress democracy activists—have led to illegal immigration by Rohingya.

The nationalist group also condemned the government’s recent decision to prosecute ultranationalist monk U Wirathu as “a lawless action by the current democratic government”. The government’s lawsuit against the monk under Article 124(a) of the Penal Code accuses him of sedition. In speeches, the monk has ridiculed and attempted to undermine the government and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for their attempt to amend the country’s undemocratic constitution, which was drafted by the military.

If convicted under Article 124(a), U Wirathu faces seven to 20 years in prison, or a fine. He has been on the run since an arrest warrant against him was issued late last month. Buddhist monks and laypeople have staged rallies in Yangon and other areas to show support for U Wirathu and denounce the prosecution.

“We, the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation, which has been safeguarding race and religion, seriously urge fellow monks and people to oppose by all means—including refusing to vote for—those who are responsible for the above-mentioned actions, which could ruin the country, race and religion,” the statement reads.

Though the foundation didn’t mention any names, it’s clear the target of the message was the NLD, as the laws and restrictions cited in the statement were either approved or repealed by the NLD government and the Parliament, which it controls, from 2016 onwards. The party came to power in 2016 after winning the 2015 general election. Myanmar’s next general election is due next year.

NLD spokesperson U Myo Nyunt said he had seen the statement and didn’t have any direct response to the foundation.

“They [the nationalists] did the same thing before the 2015 general election. Our voters are aware of what politics is and what religion is. The record shows what we are doing for the country; we don’t need to defend it,” he said, referring to the NLD government’s efforts to advance the peace process, tackle corruption and amend the Constitution.

During the 2015 election campaign, U Wirathu and other nationalist monks went on tours across the country denouncing the NLD while supporting right-wing political parties. Their efforts failed to dent the NLD’s overwhelming popularity at the ballot box, however.

On Sunday, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture released a public statement denouncing any monk who gets involved in social and political activities in order to instigate community destabilization, saying they are not entitled to the status of “cleric”.

“They are just bogus monks who are damaging the dignity of Buddhism through their actions across the country,” it said.

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