Support Incumbents, Ma Ba Tha Leader Tells Monks

By Lawi Weng 23 June 2015

RANGOON — A senior monk from the Buddhist nationalist organization Ma Ba Tha has urged his fellow clergymen to rally support for the incumbent government instead of Burma’s political opposition in the upcoming general election, beseeching thousands of the group’s members at a conference in Rangoon.

Criticizing the opposition as too inexperienced to lead the country, the politically outspoken monk Bhaddamta Vimala also railed against lawmakers opposing a controversial package of legislation currently making its way through Parliament.

The four “Protection of Race and Religion” bills are at various stages of the legislative process, and have been criticized by some as an assault on women’s rights. Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, has been a major proponent of the bills, saying the legislation is necessary to preserve Burma’s majority-Buddhist character.

“We need to note their names, those who did not support our proposal,” he told the gathered monks on Sunday. “I told our supporters not to give votes to those lawmakers in the upcoming election.”

More than 1,000 Buddhist monks attended the two-day conference to mark the organization’s second anniversary in Rangoon’s Insein Township.

Bhaddamta Vimala, who serves as secretary of Ma Ba Tha, said his remarks were a call for voter education ahead of the election, which is expected in early November. Monks in Burma are constitutionally barred from voting.

“We want to inform our supporters about who to give your vote to, who is the right person. Those who are against our proposal, this means they are people who are failing to protect our religion. If we do not inform our supporters … [they] will not know about it,” he said.

Though the Ma Ba Tha leader did not mention it by name, the National League for Democracy (NLD), as Burma’s main opposition party, would appear to be the target of his disfavor. NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi is believed to oppose the Protection of Race and Religion bills.

Bhaddamta Vimala on Sunday encouraged his fellow clergymen to forgive the past transgressions of the current Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government, which is stacked with generals from Burma’s former military regime.

“We all should forget the bad that they have done in the past. They are doing good things for us now. We should support them now,” he said.

“Do not look at the party. We only need to care about who will take care of our religion, who will care about the development of our community. This is just my personal opinion. I want this government to have one more term to run this country because I do not want our immature democracy to be damaged,” he said, raising the specter of a coup d’état if Burma’s opposition takes power and fails to “control the situation.”

The monk appeared to be referencing the potential for religious conflict in Burma, which has grappled with violence between Buddhists and Muslims in recent years.

Ma Ba Tha hardliners have frequently voiced anti-Muslim sentiment since its founding two years ago, and Bhaddamta Vimala on Sunday said he feared the opposition, if victorious, could not be trusted to control the spread of Islam in Burma, a prospect often raised by the group.

The senior monk’s remarks come in a sensitive election year environment colored by ethnic and religious tension, and widespread expectation that political power is likely to shift if the poll is carried out credibly.

In a report in April, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group wrote that interreligious tensions “could resurface in the politically charged atmosphere of an election.”

Asked if Bhaddamta Vimala’s views represented the position of Ma Ba Tha, the influential monk U Wirathu said they did not, and that the organization did not have a policy of attempting to influence how the electorate votes.

But U Wirathu, a firebrand cleric in his own right, did not hesitate to indicate that he shared Bhaddamta Vimala’s approval of the ruling USDP and apprehension at the prospect of an opposition victory.

“I’ve found that the current momentum from the government is good,” he said. “The political way they [opposition voices] are going is too fast, and it is dangerous for the people.”

The weekend remarks are not the first time that a member of Ma Ba Tha has made overtly political remarks, citing the need to protect Buddhism. As The Irrawaddy reported earlier this month, the group’s increasingly assertive foray into politics could eventually see its members run afoul of election law.