Proximity with USDP but Hostile to NLD
By Aman Ullah
Proximity with USDP
Through 2015, the USDP and Ma Ba Tha appeared to have closely aligned interests, with the Ma Ba Tha pushing forward its ideological agenda and the USDP garnering political support from the powerful monkhood. As such, ratification of the Race and Religion Laws earned President Thein Shein and the USDP significant support from prominent Ma Ba Tha monks. Many of these monks were vocal in 2015 in their preference for the USDP as stewards of ‘race and religion’ in Myanmar, especially as compared to the NLD. Prominent Ma Ba Tha monks were clearly taken by surprise by the extent of the USDP’s defeat. Some have sought to rationalize it in various ways, alluding to the idea that the election was a referendum on the USDP’s past failings, and not on race and religion issues. The level of USDP support for the Ma Ba Tha has been a matter of significant debate inside Myanmar.
Laws delineating religion and politics are severe. Article 12 (A4) of the Political Parties Registration Law, for example, is quite specific in mandating that any political party using religion for political means shall not have the right to exist. As such, any overt high level USDP and military support has been muted; nonetheless, there is a body of evidence that shows several rank and file USDP politicians and leaders making donations and articulating public support for the Ma Ba Tha. It is difficult to determine whether this rises to the level of institutional support, but it is more certain that government officials at the highest levels have favored policies that are in line with Ma Ba Tha narratives and disadvantage the rights of Muslims and other minorities. The government has allowed Ma Ba Tha mass rallies and activities to occur without any interference, in stark contrast to the lack of freedom afforded to other pro-democracy and human rights activists. Additionally, several significant USDP politicians are online consumers and disseminators of Ma Ba Tha content. Win Wunna, a Deputy Director with the Ministry of Immigration, often re-posts Ma Ba Tha statements and content on what appears to be his personal Facebook page, including the Ma Ba Tha’s criticism of the draft National Education Bill that claims, “Legal loopholes that could allow Islamic schools.”
The Ma Ba Tha has publicly stated that it sees the USDP’s non-interference as a sign of tacit support. As early as 2013, Ashin Wimala addressed the issue by telling a journalist that, “By letting us give speeches to protect our religion and race, I assume they [the government] are supporting us.” A year later, at a ceremony to launch the Mandalay chapter of the Ma Ba Tha in January 2014, Chairman Ashin Tiloka voiced precisely the same sentiment. A social media post quotes Ashin Tiloka saying, “Fellow monks don’t fear of what you are doing. The government hasn’t objected to what we have been doing, and the leaders have allowed us as to do what we are doing. Keep striving for the Ma-Ba-Tha cause.”
However, as the Ma Ba Tha has grown more powerful, monks have grown more aggressive. Ashin Wimala politically threatened politicians who were thinking of voting against the Race and Religion Bills at the June 2015 Ma Ba Tha convention, stating, “I want to know which representative turn down the law… I will make it so that they get no votes in 2015.” This was echoed by Ashin Vimala, a Central Committee leader who said, “We need to note their names, those who did not support our proposal. I told our followers not to give votes to those lawmakers in the upcoming election.”
The ratification of the Race and Religion Bills between May and August 2015 significantly improved the relationship between the USDP and the Ma Ba Tha. During the keynote speech at the grand celebration rally in Yangon in October 2015, Chairman Ashin Tiloka publicly voiced gratitude for the personal efforts of President Thein Shein, while others had stated their gratitude several months earlier. In June 2015, after the ratification of one of the four bills, Ashin Vimala addressed a public event of over 1,000 monks saying, “We all should forget the bad that [the USDP] have done in the past. They are doing good things for us now. We should support them now.” This surge in support behind the USDP and Thein Shein was particularly evident online. After Thein Shein was summoned by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in October 2015 “to respond to allegations of human rights violations committed against the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority,” there was an outpour of support on social media. A significant proportion of monitored and observed profiles, including those of Ma Ba Tha monks, changed their profiles to sport a photograph of President Thein Sein on a black backdrop with the slogan “I’ll be with you Mr. President.”
While USDP-Ma Ba Tha relations have evolved over the past year, there have been persistent allegations that the nexus is far deeper. Some imply that the government is responsible for having created and nurtured the Ma Ba Tha. Many of these allegations center on the now deceased former key regime crony and Minister of Industry, Aung Thaung who is alleged to have closely supported the 969 and Ma Ba Tha. There is little available evidence for these specific allegations. However, in one video posted on YouTube, Wirathu is seen meeting with Aung Thaung. In the video, Wirathu appears deferential to Aung Thaung and appears to be lobbying for the release of his comrades still imprisoned by the regime. An investigative documentary aired by Al Jazeera dived further into such allegations, quoting several interviewees who claimed first-hand knowledge of Wirathu’s close relationships with the security services. It included at least two sources claiming that during the 2012 visit, Aung Thaung also met with Wirathu privately, after which his attitudes towards Muslims drastically changed. Wirathu denied having a close relationship with Aung Thaung or his followers. That being said, the Aung Zeyathu issue released after Aung Thaung’s death on July 23, 2015 featured the banner headline “We are All Aung Thaung.”
Hostile towards NLD
As the Ma Ba Tha grew increasingly positive towards the USDP through 2015, its messaging toward the NLD grew increasingly hostile. Various Ma Ba Tha monks and supporters sought to portray the NLD as unsympathetic to issues of ‘race and religion’ and “pro-Muslim,” with NLD members finding themselves directly and indirectly targeted in Ma Ba Tha affiliated campaigns. The Ma Ba Tha allegedly constituted a significant worry to NLD strategic and electoral planners in the run-up to the elections.
A senior member of the NLD admitted in an Irrawaddy article from August 2015 that the party decision not to field a single Muslim candidate in the elections was a result of fear that the Ma Ba Tha would use it to label them a ‘Muslim party.’ In hindsight, it appears to the researchers that the Ma Ba Tha significantly overreached in its deliberate provocations of the NLD, which is now likely to lead the country. However, the NLD’s cautious attitude towards the Ma Ba Tha appears to indicate its understanding of the resonance of the Ma Ba Tha’s populist anti-Muslim message, and its recognition of the Ma Ba Tha as a significant political player.
Many of the Ma Ba Tha’s supporters were much more outright in their hostility towards the NLD. One of the most common ‘viral’ images that regularly circulate in pro-Ma Ba Tha forums is an edited picture of Aung San Suu Kyi in a hijab that even Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledged as a political liability. She complained that, “They took a photograph, cut out the monks and put the photograph on the Internet and said I was paying obeisance to the Muslims. And what was worse was, when I went to the Mon state recently, they distributed this photograph to make the Monks think that I was pro-Muslim or anti-Buddhist.” Additionally, various social media posters are often openly derogatory of Aung San Suu Kyi, labeling her a foreigner and Muslim sympathizer, while others disseminate pieces of misinformation that misrepresent or discredit her positions and leadership. A prominent example came in September 2015, when an email allegedly written by Aung San Suu Kyi was “leaked” and circulated on the Internet. The email, which was addressed to a Rohingya rights activist in the U.K., claimed that the NLD would support and focus on the equality and rights of Rohingyas if they won the November elections. The email was widely disseminated through pro-Ma Ba Tha social media channels, even though Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD quickly moved to deny its authenticity.
(To be Continued…)