NAYPYITAW—The chairman of Myanmar’s opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), U Than Htay, called on Saturday for Myanmar citizens to support and defend the integrity of their country amid growing security threats.
“[Myanmar citizens] must be patriotic. There is an urgent need to take care of the race,” he said in a speech at the opening of the USDP’s fifth Central Executive Committee meeting in Naypyitaw.
U Than Htay said that today Myanmar’s defensive forces are restricted and have been “entrapped.” He did not explain the statement but it appeared that he was referring to allegations of human rights violations committed by the Myanmar military.
He claimed that people around the country are paying for this with their lives and property, referring to recent attacks by ethnic armed groups on civilian areas in Shan State.
“It is time for every real Myanmar citizen who is truly patriotic to put Myanmar above all else, both inside the country and on the international stage,” said U Than Htay.
Last year on Armed Forces Day, military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing preached a similar message, emphasizing the importance of “Myanmar spirit,” meaning love for and pride in being a Myanmar citizen, as well as a willingness to defend the country as a whole. “The country will progress only when all ethnic races enjoy equality under the Constitution and they adopt Myanmar spirit regardless of their race and religion,” he said.
Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing recently donated to Muslim and Christian religious organizations for the second time. Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said the move was aimed at building political, social and religious cohesion in the country.
Some politicians have voiced concerns about this type of nationalist rhetoric.
“What do they mean by nationalism? We have to question their definition of nationalism. Opposing whatever the government does and playing into religious or racial sentiments is not in the nationalist spirit,” Monywa Aung Shin, information officer of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), told The Irrawaddy.
U Than Htay also said in his speech that Myanmar is facing great economic uncertainties. Monywa Aung Shin contested the claim, saying that Myanmar’s economy is picking up and the country’s GDP has improved. According to the World Bank, Myanmar’s GDP growth rate has seen slight declines in recent years but is set to accelerate slightly from 6.5% in 2018 to 6.8% this year.
Political analyst U Ye Htun said the NLD, as a liberal democratic party, tries to avoid mixing religion into its politics.
“The question is whether we will raise a Bamar nationalist banner or a multi-ethnic banner in Myanmar, which is a multi-ethnic country. The NLD, I think, should strongly embrace the existence of a multi-ethnic country,” said U Ye Htun, who is also a former Lower House lawmaker.
The USDP has positioned itself as a protector of race and religion. After the 2010 general election, the USDP-led government adopted a package of four controversial race and religion laws. The now-defunct Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha, applauded the USDP’s laws as a success for nationalism.
When the NLD came to power in 2016, it took only three months for the new government to declare Ma Ba Tha an “unlawful association.” Though the announcement drew criticism from nationalists, the association and its lay supporters have since kept a low profile. Their warnings of public upheaval never materialized, apart from a few small sit-ins in Yangon and Mandalay that were largely denounced by the public.
In 2017, Ma Ba Tha changed its name to the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation after the Sangha Maha Nayaka, the country’s leading state-backed clerical organization, decided to ban the nationalist association. Ma Ba Tha’s headquarters in Yangon and some of its chapters elsewhere changed their signs to reflect the change but some chapters in Karen State and Mandalay Region have kept the old name and signs, insisting that they do not violate Sangha laws or procedures and that they conform with the Constitution and the Association Registration Law.
Article 364 of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution forbids the abuse of religion for political purposes.
Additional reporting by Moe Moe. Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.
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