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U Wirathu ‘surprised’ by strong NLD victory

After throwing his support behind President U Thein Sein and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, a figurehead of the powerful Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha could only express shock yesterday at reports of a landslide National League for Democracy victory.

“I never thought that the NLD would win this many townships,” U Wirathu said during an interview at his Masoe-yin monastery quarters in Mandalay. “I expected many parties to enter into the hluttaw. I am very surprised.”

He added that he is not mad that the NLD won, though he is “worried”.

“If the NLD forms the government and they do good things, I will be happy. If they attack the race and religion laws, I will speak out.”

The four “protection of race and religion” laws, passed in September 2015, served as the primary wedge between U Wirathu and NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The monk says he admired the Nobel laureate for many years as she fought for democracy, and he even hung a large poster of her on a building just outside the front door of his living area.

But she and her NLD opposed his controversial and internationally criticised legislative package, which strictly regulates matters of interfaith marriage, population control and monogamy. The laws were deemed discriminatory on gender and religious grounds, and were perceived as being largely targeted against Muslims, who Ma Ba Tha members consider a dangerous threat to Myanmar’s traditionally Buddhist culture.

Despite their opposition to the laws, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party failed to stop the USDP from pushing them through parliament and only antagonised the powerful nationalist group. U Wirathu said his long-time support of the NLD ended with the party’s opposition to what he believes is a vital defence against an imminent threat of Islam.

“Now, I have antipathy to the NLD,” he explained in an interview with The Myanmar Times in October.

Days before the election, U Wirathu swapped his poster of the Lady with one that explained the race and religion laws. But as the NLD victories continue to pour in from around the country, U Wirathu appeared to retract his hardline stance yesterday. He denied ever saying that he hated Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

“In person, I like her,” he maintained. “But I will fight her over the race and religion laws.”

During the weeks leading up to the election, the fight was in full swing. At a September “victory commemoration” touting the passage of the race and religion laws, Ma Ba Tha leading monk Myataung Sayadaw openly told the crowd not to vote for the NLD.

U Wirathu himself created videos, posted to social media, that accused the NLD of lobbying for votes in the Muslim community. “This type of campaigning doesn’t match the doctrine of the Buddha,” he said in one such video.

As recently as November 5 – just three days before the vote – chair of NLD’s Mandalay organisation U Thin Htun Oo showed The Myanmar Times a poster that a party campaigner had discovered in three urban townships. It depicted a frightened Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in one corner, with the party’s emblem, a large fighting peacock, being devoured by crows in the center. The slogan at the top stated, “The crow pretends to be the peacock” – an insult to the NLD leader’s authenticity and credibility.

U Thin Htun Oo alleged that Ma Ba Tha supporters had hung the posters in an attempt to quell NLD support ahead of the vote, though he admitted no one could be certain who was behind the smear campaign.

“Ma Ba Tha is a problem, but not a big problem,” he said at the time, conceding that the NLD did bend to nationalist pressure by excluding Muslim candidates from its rolls.

“Ma Ba Tha is strong, but the NLD has the most support among the common people.” The prediction appears to be true – the NLD has swept over 90 percent of the results announced so far – but U Wirathu denied the allegation.

“I made an announcement to Ma Ba Tha followers to stop distributing anti-NLD material because it was harmful to our dignity,” he said. “Some people may have been using the name of Ma Ba Tha to cause trouble.”

U Wirathu also countered claims that the USDP was a driving factor behind Ma Ba Tha’s creation in 2014.

In October, the Al Jazeera documentary “Genocide Agenda” provided testimony from four leading clerics who said that after they were pardoned from prison, government ministers personally offered them money and jobs in 2011 if they would preach publicly against the influence of Islam. The documentary alleges that monks who accepted the offer went on to form Ma Ba Tha, which is formally known in English as the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion.

“People say the USDP is behind Ma Ba Tha. But the USDP is losing – if Ma Ba Tha continues, how could that be true?” U Wirathu said, adding that he was preaching anti-Muslim sentiments in defence of Buddhist interests as early as 1997 – more than a decade before the USDP existed. U Wirathu was also imprisoned in 2003 for allegedly inciting religious hatred, before being pardoned in 2010.

Despite all the controversies, U Wirathu said he is prepared to work with an NLD-led government, hinting at plans to propose further laws to preserve race and religion in Myanmar.

“Ma Ba Tha supports democracy and accepts that [the NLD] is the choice of the people,” he said.

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