With the opposition National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in Myanmar’s Nov. 8 election, the enduring popularity of its leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was confirmed. The results also constituted a strong popular rebuke of military rule, as the former generals of the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered an embarrassing defeat.
But another group was also revealed to be less politically powerful than expected: the Buddhist nationalist organization known as Ma Ba Tha, or the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. Led by Buddhist monks who espouse a particularly vocal brand of anti-Muslim nationalism, Ma Ba Tha had spent months lobbying for the enactment of legislation and policies aimed at “protecting” Buddhism.
Before the election, many observers were predicting that Ma Ba Tha’s growing clout could impact the electoral outcome. The organization had already proven itself to be a political power player, securing by mid-2015 the passage of four “Race and Religion Protection” bills restricting interfaith marriage, religious conversion and Muslim birthrates. Today, however, the monks of Ma Ba Tha have fallen out of the headlines.
Ma Ba Tha Weakened
As the NLD prepares to take the reins of government, Ma Ba Tha is in a decidedly weaker position than it was before the vote. And the dramatic reversal of fortune is thanks, in large part, to the group’s own choices during the campaign.
Though Buddhist monks are technically barred from direct participation in Myanmar politics, in the months leading up to election day, the monks of Ma Ba Tha intervened repeatedly. Prominent Ma Ba Tha leaders, including the notorious Wirathu, called on supporters to vote for candidates who would safeguard Buddhism and traditional Burmese culture. In many instances, they made it clear that this meant the ruling USDP.
Wirathu and others argued that the former generals could be better trusted to protect Buddhism than Aung San Suu Kyi. At rallies in September celebrating the passage of the “Race and Religion Protection” bills, Ma Ba Tha monks urged supporters not to vote for the NLD, claiming that the party was backed by “Islamists.”
Extremists Bet on USDP
For the NLD and other parties, Ma Ba Tha’s passionate support for the USDP was a cause for concern. Aung San Suu Kyi herself spoke out months before election day against Ma Ba Tha’s campaign rhetoric. The party even filed an official complaint with the Union Election Commission, claiming that Ma Ba Tha’s politically charged statements violated restrictions on the use of religion to influence the election.
But NLD leaders, wary of Ma Ba Tha’s influence, dared not cross the monks on the issues they championed. Fearful of backlash, the party refrained from nominating a single Muslim candidate on its ticket, and NLD leaders sidestepped questions about anti-Muslim sentiment and policies, including persecution of vulnerable Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
In the end, however, Buddhist nationalism proved to be less of a political force than many, including the NLD, had predicted. The NLD’s promise of change ended up being more alluring for voters than Buddhist nationalists’ pledges to preserve religion and culture.