NAYPYITAW — U Than Htay, chairman of the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said his party did not mind being labeled “nationalist” because it was dedicated to protecting national interests.
The chairman made the remark at an event honoring former party chairman and Union President U Thein Sein in Naypyitaw on Sunday.
“Every citizen must protect his religion, race and faith. We are not liberal. You can label us as nationalist. Our party has to protect and promote the interests of 135 ethnic groups living in the Union of Myanmar,” said U Than Htay.
He said the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, which started the independence struggle after Myanmar lost its independence in 1885, and the General Council of Burmese Associations strived for independence as nationalist organizations.
“We never betray [the national interests]. Liberal democracy preaches co-existence, but we can’t allow the loss of our sovereignty because of it. We can’t let our race be harmed. But this remark is not racial or religious instigation,” he said.
At a press conference on Friday, a USDP spokesman denied recent claims that the party was inciting religious feelings to foment political unrest, insisting that it never used religion to further its interests.
The spokesman also said that the USDP was changing its flag — which features a white star in a red square on a green background — because the party felt it was being surrounded by red, an apparent reference to the dominant color of the ruling National League for Democracy.
Former President U Thein Sein and some senior leaders of the USDP’s Central Executive Committee retired from their posts of their own volition, said U Than Htay, adding that U Thein Sein was no longer involved in the party’s decision-making.
“After their resignation, U Thein Sein no longer comes to the party. When I heard he was looking for a venue for this ceremony, I offered him this place,” he said.
The chairman compared himself to a substitute on a losing football team, saying he accepted the party chairmanship without any hope of victory.
But he boasted of making the party stronger since taking the reins in August 2016 and of increasing party membership.
The USDP says membership has increased by some 30,000 since 2015, and it now claims a membership of more than 5 million across the country.
The military originally formed the USDP to be a government-led social organization, but it was transformed into a political party for the 2010 general election. It is still led by former military officers.
At Friday’s press conference, USDP spokesman U Hla Thein said retired military officers currently account for only 0.02 percent of party members. He added that the proportion of military officers would gradually decrease if the party won the general election in 2020.
“Regarding the role of the military in the party, the relationship will remain unchanged because it was founded by the military,” said U Hla Thein.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.