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Ethnic parties, conservative Buddhists obstruct Suu Kyi's path to victory

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi seeks to win over ethnic minority voters. © AP

By Motokazu Matsui
Nikkei Asian Review
October 10, 2015

YANGON -- With just one month remaining until Myanmar's Nov. 8 general election, the opposition National League for Democracy faces two tough hurdles: ethnic minority parties siphoning support, and attacks from an influential Buddhist group.

Speaking in Kachin State Monday, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi said the area has been unable to escape poverty despite its wealth of natural resources, and claimed that will change if her party wins. Kachin, situated on the Chinese border, is a major source of jade and high-quality lumber. But its economic development has lagged amid clashes between the military and the ethnic minority Kachin.

Suu Kyi also campaigned last month in Shan State, on the Thai border, and the eastern state of Kayah. She will visit Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, later this month. In addition to the Burman ethnic group, which makes up 70% of the population, Myanmar is home to more than 130 ethnic minorities. Some 60 parties representing those groups will take part in the election. All the aforemention campaign stops are strongholds of support for these parties.

The NLD boycotted the November 2010 election, held while Suu Kyi was under house arrest and unable to participate, as undemocratic. After the start of Myanmar's transition to democracy, the party won the bulk of the seats up for grabs in an April 2012 by-election. Of the 664 seats in the legislature, 498 are in play, which excludes the quarter set aside for military personnel. Though the NLD now holds only about 6% of seats, it seeks to add to that figure, fielding candidates in more than 90% of districts.

Ethnic minority districts, which account for 30% of the total, will be key. The NLD will need to win more than two-thirds of open seats to meet its objective of a parliamentary majority, which would let it name the president.

A Taiwan-based group released in August the results of a poll putting NLD support at 24%, the highest among the parties. But the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which has roots in the former junta, was unexpectedly close at 16%.

The NLD is gaining support in urban areas with large Burman populations, but in outlying areas, it lags behind ethnic minority parties. It is trying to chip away at the ethnic minority vote with such steps as promising equitable distribution of resources among ethnic groups in its platform.

The other hurdle facing the party is the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, abbreviated in Burmese as Ma Ba Tha, an organization of conservative Buddhist monks. Ma Ba Tha, formed in 2013, reportedly has more than 200 chapters across the country. One of its central figures is Wirathu, known internationally for his vocal anti-Muslim sentiment.

Though 90% of Myanmar's population is Buddhist, the number of Muslims has grown in recent years due in part to migration from Bangladesh. That has met with a backlash from many Buddhists. Laws were passed this year, under pressure from Ma Ba Tha, restricting religious conversion and marriages between Buddhist women and non-Buddhists.

Buddhist leaders wield considerable political clout. Ma Ba Tha has blasted the NLD for its unwillingness to support the laws, which are seen as threatening freedom of religion. And Wirathu has thrown his weight behind President Thein Sein, who ensured the laws' passage.

Political stability in Myanmar hinges on ethnic minorities and influential Buddhists. They will remain challenges that the NLD must tackle even after the election.

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