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Can Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD contain Myanmar's extreme Buddhists?

Can Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD contain Myanmar's extreme Buddhists?
Published 4 Nov 2015 

With Myanmar's election looming on 8 November, most eyes are on Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which wants a strong win to gain significant influence over domestic policies. But the NLD faces resistance from an ultra-conservative Buddhist group, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion or Ma Ba Tha, which does not want the NLD to become Myanmar's next ruling party.

This attitude could both influence voters leading up to the elections and cause problems for the NLD if it does win a majority in the next parliament.

After it was formed, Ma Ba Tha initially declared it was apolitical, but a political agenda has since become apparent. In recent months it has lobbied against the NLD, trying to steer votes toward the incumbent USDP. It has made public comments attacking the NLD, and was implicated in a propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting the party. Some NLD candidates attribute cold responses to its door-to-door campaigning to Ma Ba Tha's activities. Other reports, however, suggest that, while people respect Ma Ba Tha, its lobbying won't change their intention to vote for the NLD.

Ma Ba Tha's actions could nevertheless prove influential. [fold]

After all, its members are Sangha, Buddhist monks who command a high level of moral authority in Myanmar society. Ma Ba Tha's views may not be representative of all Buddhist opinion in Myanmar, but on some key issues (such as attitudes toward the Rohingya people and other Muslims), it probably reflects the views held by many Myanmar Buddhists. Some even claim the NLD's decision not to field any Muslim candidates was a nod to anti-Muslim sentiment and an attempt to appease Ma Ba Tha. 

There is still the possibility Ma Ba Tha will try to persuade voters on election day. Intimidation at the polls would be illegal, but such actions would place the Union Election Commission (UEC) and the Myanmar Police Force in a difficult position. Arresting monks is a very bad look and the UEC has been reluctant to act against Ma Ba Tha so far. Moreover, it is hard to see the new special election police, who are not fully trained or experienced police officers, physically removing monks from an area, even if such an action was justified.

The bigger unknown, however, is how Ma Ba Tha will respond if the NLD wins a majority in the new parliament.

Ma Ba Tha has demonstrated an ability to galvanise large groups of people and to instigate protests in response to issues or comments that don't align with its views. It is reasonable to think it could do the same in response to an election outcome it didn't like, or to decisions made by a majority NLD government.

Ma Ba Tha appears used to having its views accommodated. It seems to have been able to influence officials in the current administration, which has been reluctant to condemn or criticise the group. Ma Ba Tha has gained audiences with senior officials, and pushed for the passing of laws to protect the country's Buddhist identity by regulating conversions and interfaith marriages. These have been widely (and internationally) criticised. Admittedly, it could be that Ma Ba Tha has proved a handy vehicle for lawmakers to implement restrictive laws they have long sought. But, nevertheless, there is an impression that the incumbent government gives Ma Ba Tha what it wants.

This raises the question of whether the NLD is likely to grant Ma Ba Tha the same level of access or influence over its domestic policy decisions. And if not, how will Ma Ba Tha respond?

It is possible that and any decisions or actions which Ma Ba Tha believes challenge 'race and religion' could act as a triggers for large-scale protests. It has instigated these before. It is also possible that a loss of support from government could see Ma Ba Tha becoming a spent force, capable of influencing only a small fraction of the Buddhist population. But if that's not the case, the NLD will have to manage Ma Ba Tha with a degree of respect while maintaining rule of law and avoiding challenges to its policies. Otherwise, Ma Ba Tha's behaviour during this election campaign might seem tame compared to what it will do to disrupt the NLD in the future.

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