The low monotone of maroon-robed monks reciting Buddhist scriptures mingles with the sound of birdsong at Myazedi monastery, with little to indicate that this serene place is home to an extremist brand of Buddhism.
The monastery in the Mon State capital Mawlamyine is the birthplace of the radical 969 movement, the predecessor of Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, or the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, notorious for its anti-Muslim preaching.
VimalaBuddhi, the abbot of the monastery is also the general secretary of Ma Ba Tha. He is one of the movement’s firebrand monks and well known for his hard-line nationalist views.
The abbot’s speech endorsing a second term for the incumbent president Thein Sein at a Ma Ba Tha convention in June was the first overt signal of the increasingly powerful movement’s support for the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
He and the monastery’s 500 monks were once supporters of the National League for Democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi, VimalaBuddhi told Myanmar Now, but said they switched their allegiance after concluding that the party of ex-generals would better protect the country’s national interest.
“Who welcomed her when she visited Mawlamyine? It was the monks from this monastery that filled this street,” he recalled of a visit of Suu Kyi in 2012.
It appears the monks’ support for the NLD cooled after it failed to back Ma Ba Tha’s ‘Race and Religion Protection’ laws.
“When we were planning for the race and religion protection laws, we invited Aung San Suu Kyi three times. She refused all three times. When we invited the USDP, Htay Oo (current co-chairman of the party) came,” the monk said during an interview at his monastery.
President Thein Sein’s USDP and other parties have been firm supporters of the laws passed in August - dealing with monogamy, interfaith marriage, population control and religious conversion - that critics say discriminate against women and Myanmar’s Muslim minority.
While the NLD still commands great popularity across Myanmar, the allegiance of the influential Ma Ba Tha movement could prove decisive in the election.
Since the NLD’s snub, VimalaBuddhi says he has decided that the opposition party would be unfit to govern and plunge the country into chaos if put in charge.
The abbot provides few answers as to why this would occur, beyond Suu Kyi’s inexperience in office. “It’s not because we hate her. But (Suu Kyi) would be like an underage girl who got married,” he said.
Although he rarely leaves his monastery, VimalaBuddhi takes the point of view that Myanmar’s electorate is not yet ready for full democracy. Democratic practices and attitudes should be developed gradually because voters have had no experience of such matters since Gen. Ne Win staged a military coup in 1962, he said.
Corrupt officials can be found in all government agencies, but dismissing them all will stop the functioning of the government, he added.
Critics have charged that Ma Ba Tha is using religion as a political tool despite electoral laws barring such tactics. No action has been taken against members of Ma Ba Tha so far.
Since campaigning started, candidates from the ruling party have repeatedly vowed to safeguard race and religion, a platform not just of the USDP, but also of the Buddhist nationalist National Development Party led by former presidential adviser Nay Zin Latt.
During a rally in Mawlamyine, the NDP’s campaign cars were emblazoned with slogans supporting the race and religion laws, a stance the VimalaBuddhi welcomed.
“Any party has the rights to say they support the law, even NLD,” he said sharply. Ma Ba Tha could not avoid consulting the government in a bid to get the laws passed, he added, even though it risked accusations of being in the pocket of the ruling party.
MA BA THA AND NLD
As campaign season began, some Ma Ba Tha members urged people not to vote for the parties that had not promised to protect and safeguard race and religion. Some monks openly criticized the NLD, a party once strongly associated with the monk-led uprisings against military rule.
Despite the NLD fielding over 1,000 candidates, none are Muslim, attracting criticism that it is appeasing Buddhist extremists and Ma Ba Tha. In October, Tin Oo, the NLD patron, visited Wirathu in Mandalay, a firebrand Ma Ba Tha monk known for his anti-Muslim speeches, but details of the meeting remains sketchy.
Another monk from Myazedi Monastery, Sucittasara, denied links between the local clergy and the government’s former generals. The 40-year-old’s reasoning is that the chairman of Ma Ba Tha was a former political prisoner.
“Do (people) really believe these senior monks will support a group that has brutally attacked these Buddhist monks and the people?” asked Sucittasara, a graduate who has a degree in Buddhist Literature from Sri Lanka.
Yet this is what some members of the monkhood and critics of Ma Ba Tha have levelled at the group.
Sucittasara suggested Ma Ba Tha and NLD should hold discussions urgently before the elections since both organisations have a common objective - the welfare of Buddhist people.
“Elections are drawing near. Such meetings could be a plus, not a minus, for both groups,” he said.