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Hardline monks and Myanmar's opposition clash in social media row

By Hnin Yadana Zaw and Timothy Mclaughlin
October 3, 2015

A war of words is being fought in Myanmar, largely over social media, between nationalist Buddhist monks and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, highlighting divisions in the run-up to a general election on Nov. 8.

Tin Oo, a founding member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), met prominent nationalist monk Wirathu in the city of Mandalay on Wednesday in a bid to ease the tension as the country prepares for the historic vote.

Since nearly 50 years of strict military rule ended in 2011, underlying tensions in society have arisen and been taken up by different elements, including nationalists in the predominantly Buddhist country.

Wirathu is a leading member of the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, which has been stoking anti-Muslim sentiment.

Suu Kyi's NLD, while mindful of Wirathu's arguments which have struck a chord with many people in Myanmar, has campaigned against intolerance and some NLD supporters have been critical of hardline monks and their anti-Muslim stance.

In their meeting, Wirathu criticized the NLD for not distancing itself from comments critical of monks, according to a video of their encounter, uploaded on Facebook.

"I know that there are Facebook accounts using Aung San Suu Kyi's photos and NLD flags, saying disrespectful words and insulting the monks," Wirathu said. 

"The NLD needs to announce that they do not represent the NLD."

Tin Oo, the 88-year-old patron of the NLD, was shown kneeling in front of Wirathu in a traditional show of respect for monks.

The Ma Ba Tha, which is led by monks, has emerged as a powerful force and it successfully promoted four so-called Protection of Race and Religion Laws seen as targeting the Muslim minority and women.

The group is not represented by any particular political party but it has questioned candidates and parties that it believes did not fully support the laws, in particular the NLD, saying it was failing to protect the country and Buddhism.

Wirathu said if the NLD distanced itself from the social media attacks he would act against Ma Ba Tha supporters attacking the NLD.

He also reiterated his organization's position on reducing the role of the military in politics, a view shared by the NLD.

But he said it did not support repealing a section of the military-drafted constitution that blocks Suu Kyi from becoming president because her late British husband and two children are not Myanmar citizens, saying that was intended to protect the country.

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