Nationalist Group Members’ Bid to Form Political Party Rejected

By Htet Naing Zaw 6 December 2017

NAYPYITAW — The Union Election Commission (UEC) has rejected an application to form a political party filed by a group of laypersons belonging to the ultranationalist Buddhist association Ma Ba Tha.

The UEC rejected the application at its meeting on Nov. 23, saying some of the group’s members were not in compliance with the Political Parties Registration Law.

“We’ll ask [the UEC] what ‘not in compliance with the Political Parties Registration Law’ means. The UEC said some [members] are not in compliance. So, we’ll ask who they are. For example, if there are three members who are in violation, can we replace them and resubmit the application? We’ll ask it for clarification within a few days,” Maung Thway Chon, one of the leaders of the proposed party, told The Irrawaddy.

Maung Thway Chon accused the UEC of discriminating against Ma Ba Tha, which has locked horns with the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government several times over the past year.

“Their denial of our request to form a party, before we have had a chance to act [as a party], is a suppression of nationalism and goes against democratic norms,” Maung Thway Chon said.

Ma Ba Tha grew out of 969, a nationalist movement established in 2012 to organize boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses. In 2013, 969 members rebranded the group as the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha.

The row between Ma Ba Tha and the government erupted when Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein described the group as “unnecessary” while addressing a gathering of Myanmar residents of Singapore in June 2016.

Ma Ba Tha demanded that President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi take action against the chief minister over the criticism. Their demand was ignored and the state-backed clerical organization Ma Ha Na announced that Ma Ba Tha was not a “lawful monks’ association” as “it was not formed in accordance with the country’s monastic rules.”

Ma Ba Tha has since accused the government of favoring Muslims and failing to protect Buddhism. Some of its leading members, including U Wirathu, have preached anti-Muslim sermons, while Ma Ba Tha has produced a number of publications, overseen by Maung Thway Chon, that regularly feature anti-Muslim articles.

In May, Ma Ha Na banned Ma Ba Tha from operating under its current name and ordered that its signboards be taken down across the country by July 15. Since then, Ma Ba Tha has rebranded itself as the Buddha Dhamma Charity Foundation.

In late May, as Ma Ba Tha celebrated its fourth anniversary, Maung Thway Chon unveiled a plan to form a political party that he said would work for the national interest, unity and sovereignty.

He said Ma Ba Tha had 10 million members in nearly 300 townships across the country.

“It doesn’t mean they all have to be members [of the new party]. If they want to protect race and religion, they are welcome. Non-members are encouraged to join as well,” he told The Irrawaddy in May.

He said the party would work separately from Ma Ba Tha, and would be a distinct entity engaged solely in politics.

“If the UEC rejects us again, we will submit a writ,” he said.

U Ye Htun, a former Lower House lawmaker representing Shan State’s Hsipaw Township, said the UEC might be concerned that the party intends to exploit religious feelings for political purposes, which is banned under the 2008 Constitution.

“I don’t know which provisions their members are not in compliance with. The UEC needs to clarify this. At the same time, political parties must steer clear of religion,” said U Ye Htun.

Asked about the reason for the rejection, UEC chairman U Hla Thein referred The Irrawaddy to the agency’s letter to Ma Ba Tha and declined to comment further.

Lower-ranking UEC officials said the decision was made by the UEC leadership, adding that they did not know the reason for the rejection.

There are currently 95 political parties in Myanmar, according to the UEC’s website.