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Nationalist candidates fight for votes without party backing

By Aung Kyaw Min
October 27, 2015

Emboldened by the introduction of four “protection of race and religion” bills, a group of hardline Buddhist nationalists are on to their next political gambit: winning seats in the looming polls.

Myanmar Nationalist Network candidate U Naing Win Htun distributes pamphlets in North Okkalapa township, Yangon, on October 25. (Zarni Phyo/The Myanmar Times)

The Myanmar Nationalist Network is fielding three members who are contesting Pyithu Hluttaw seats as independent candidates. Should they be elected to parliament, they have promised to press for more laws enshrining nationalism, which they define largely as protecting Buddhists from what they call an encroaching Muslim population.

The network is closely related to the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion. Better known as Ma Ba Tha, it was the main advocate for the introduction of the four laws.

The network, which calls itself an unofficial civil society organisation, was started by young, out-of-work law school graduates. They claim to have already garnered hundreds of enthusiastic members in major cities who support their plan to increase nationalist representatives in the hluttaw.

“We believe we shouldn’t neglect nationalism in whatever political, economic, educational or social activities we are pursuing,” said network chair Ko Win Ko Ko Latt, a 33-year-old Yangon University graduate from Yangon Region’s Htantabin township.

“The nationalist point of view is particularly important for cases such as amending the National Education Law. And currently, more laws are needed to protect women’s rights and should be discussed in parliament,” he said.

“We have found there is a hesitation to enact laws that concern nationalism.”

Ko Win Ko Ko Latt is contesting a Pyithu Hluttaw seat in Pantanaw township, Ayeyarwady Region. He’s up against a crowded field, with eight others contesting the seat, but he claims he has an edge as the only nationalist vying for the township.

His network colleagues, Ko Nay Win Aung and Ko Naing Win Htun, will contest Pyithu Hluttaw seats in Kyonpyaw township in Ayeyarwady Region and North Okkalapa township in Yangon respectively.

The young candidates believe the next government’s first order of business should be ensuring that “Bengalis” – Muslims who mostly live in Rakhine State, and describe themselves as Rohingya – do not attain citizenship.

“We are not concerned about all religious cases. But we are worried about cases in our country like the Bengali race problem, where the international community is putting pressure on the government to recognise the Rohingya as a national race. But this is really about the illegal migration of foreign Bengalis who claim they are Rohingya,” Ko Win Ko Ko Latt said.

He added that Myanmar has a responsibility like every other country to protect its citizens from foreign intruders. “Special laws need to be prescribed to protect the view of the nationalists from them.”

While their platform sounds like political proxy for Ma Ba Tha, members of that organisation say they are not directly connected to the candidates.

“They have helped do activities when a sayadaw from Ma Ba Tha asks them. They have come to participate in protests, but they are not Ma Ba Tha executives or members,” said U Aung Myaing, a central committee member of Ma Ba Tha.

However, he said he endorsed their attempt to win the election on the back of nationalist policies.

“Anyone who supports the nationalist cause has the rights to do this. I am proud of [them for doing] this,” he said.

The radical Buddhist juggernaut has lent some of its hefty political force to promote the candidates via social media, offering support to young lawyers who played a supporting role in the controversial “race and religion” laws.

Several international observing groups, including the Carter Center and the International Crisis Group, have warned against further fuelling religious and communal tensions already simmering ahead of the coming polls.

But that hasn’t stopped opportunistic candidates from jumping on to the nationalism bandwagon.

U Lin Zaw Tun, a former army colonel contesting a seat in Shan State with the Union Solidarity and Development Party, opened his pockets to make a sizeable personal donation to Ma Ba Tha just ahead of the campaign season kick-off.

Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation U Myint Hlaing, meanwhile, has invoked Ma Ba Tha member U Wirathu in campaign speeches, calling on voters not to support people who married a “kalar” – a derogatory term for those of South Asian descent – or other foreigners.

The Myanmar Nationalist Network’s track record with Ma Ba Tha – including convening public meetings about alleged Islamic extremism, organising protests against the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, supporting the Interfaith Marriage Law, opposing attempts to amend the constitution and denouncing UN special rappporteur Yanghee Lee’s call to grant citizenship to the Rohingya – appears to have won them supporters.

“I like their strong stand for nationalism,” said U Myint Kyine, a voter from Pantanaw township, Ayeyarwady Region. “Our national situation is a concern for me, so I will support them in the coming election.”

While the law-degree holders are eager to take a crack at legislation, they have had little in the way of formal legal experience.

“I have an apprentice lawyer licence, but I haven’t ever worked professionally in the legal field,” said Ko Win Ko Ko Latt. “But I have sent 83 pages of suggested legislation to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw regarding the National Education Law.”

The group’s general secretary, Ko Nay Win Aung, a 31-year-old economic law graduate born in Yangon’s Insein township, is “self-employed” in the legal field, as is Ko Naing Win Htun, a Dagon University graduate originally from Ayeyarwady Region.

“Anyone can take part in nationalism from anywhere,” he said. “But I think it would be better to have more nationalist lawyers within the hluttaw to effectively enact nationalism measures for the whole country.”

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