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Intrepid candidate bids for Mandalay

U Khin Maung Thein is one the few candidates who openly state that he isn’t afraid of Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha. It’s quite an assertion for the only Muslim candidate running in Mandalay’s five urban townships, and one of just a handful in the whole race.

U Khin Maung Thein discusses his hopes for a federal union from his home and campaign headquarters in Mandalay on November 4.( RJ Vogt/The Myanmar Times)U Khin Maung Thein discusses his hopes for a federal union from his home and campaign headquarters in Mandalay on November 4.

When the two largest parties, the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the National League for Democracy, released their candidate lists in August without any Muslim contenders, experts and media outlets focused on the absences.

Most assumed the religious minority was omitted as parties cowed to the powerful anti-Muslim lobbyists at Ma Ba Tha, fearing they would wield their significant influence against any party supporting Muslim contestants. The NLD lent credence to the argument by admitting that such fears prompted the absence on its lists. The move didn’t necessarily help: It was labelled a “Muslim party” by some nationalist monks anyway.

But 71-year-old United National Congress (UNC) candidate U Khin Maung Thein isn’t particularly concerned about Ma Ba Tha, the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion.

A self-identifying Pathi Muslim – a generic word for a Bamar Muslim that is believed to derive from a Persian term – U Khin Maung Thein has been campaigning door-to-door, handing out explanatory leaflets to spread his primarily Muslim party’s message – “From Nationalism to Internationalism” – and rouse support across religious boundaries.

“Mandalay Buddhist people are polite,” he said November 4, in an interview with The Myanmar Times. “I am not worried about Ma Ba Tha violence.”

But not all in Mandalay take the same attitude toward a movement known for hate speech against Muslims. The group’s members have been accused of fomenting violence that resulted in the deaths of two people in Mandalay in 2014. At the time, the Human Rights Watch officials attributed the unrest, at least in part, to a Facebook post made by prominent Ma Ba Tha monk U Wirathu.

The imam of one downtown mosque, who requested not to be named, pointed to the women walking around the courtyard and said they had been advised to eschew the hijab, at least until after the election was over.

Other members declined to answer questions because they were wary of saying anything that might provoke a response from Buddhist nationalists.

One day after the 2014 clashes, the UNC sent an open letter to President U Thein Sein calling for investigation into the matters and compensation for those who lost their property to the attacks and protection.

Despite the events of 15 months ago, however, U Khin Maung Thein said he and his party support a multiparty democracy, including all student unions, teacher unions, farmer unions and monk unions, such as Ma Ba Tha.

In May he even sat for an interview with Ma Ba Tha, later published in the Atumashi Journal, edited by U Wirathu himself. U Khin Maung Thein proudly offered a CD of the videotaped interview and explained what he had told the Ma Ba Tha interviewers – that his primary goal is the creation of a federal union.

“I want ethnic peoples to govern themselves,” he said.

The stance is echoed in UNC campaign materials, which focus on human rights, federal government and more affordable education opportunities. The last of these hits home for U Khin Maung Thein, as he had to stop attending school in the ninth grade.

“[The] NLD can make reform,” he said.

For his part, U Khin Maung Thein knows the odds are stacked against him, and put his odds of winning at less than those of the NLD but better than those of the USDP. If he does win the seat, he said he would ally with any party that supported a federal union.

“The NLD has a lot of support,” he said. “My reason to compete is to represent my ethnic identity.”

The Pathi ethnic group is one of several Myanmar Muslim factions, along with the Kaman and the Rohingya. The latter are officially denied by the government as citizens.

Though few Muslim candidates passed the Union Election Commission’s candidate scrutiny process, the religion is considered the second-largest in Myanmar. Based on decades-old figures, Muslims officially account for 4 percent of the population, but most estimate the current figure to be closer to 8pc.

U Khin Maung Thein estimated that there are 6 to 7 million Pathi in Myanmar, though official figures are impossible to gather because the census does not offer “Pathi” as an option in its identity assessment, because the group is not officially recognised. This is another issue he would like to tackle.

The UNC is running 10 candidates in this year’s election. It had intended on fielding a larger crew but six UNC members were among almost 100 Muslims disqualified by the UEC, mostly on citizenship grounds. One week after the disqualifications, and with international pressure mounting, the committee reversed 11 of the decisions, including four UNC candidates.

Note: Changes have been made, MYANMAR TIMES is not responsible for these.