Aung San Suu Kyi in Kawhmu Township, March 22, 2012.
Reuters

On a Saturday in late October, a convoy of taxis snaked its way through a small village 12 miles south of Yangon. In one of the jeeps, Myanmar’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, waved to the crowds that lined the roadsides. Onlookers responded with cheers. Once onstage, Suu Kyi articulated her vision for the country, one that looked beyond the nationwide elections on November 8. She wanted to create more jobs, improve the infrastructure, and empower citizens.

It’s a vision that all parties here espouse, but only Suu Kyi, known as “the Lady,” has anything close to a monopoly on the people’s trust. This is reflected in the feverish excitement that follows her wherever she goes. Although her detractors may have grown in number, and she has faced relentless attacks from a new crop of Buddhist nationalist groups that allege that she is supportive of a campaign by Muslims to Islamize the country, she is still always greeted by cheering masses. Many in the country believe that if she and her party are able to win enough seats in the elections to form a majority, then their hopes for democracy in Myanmar will finally become a reality.

Even though Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party will likely win, a simple majority of votes may not mean a majority of seats. The constitution, which was drawn up by the military in 2008, reserves 25 percent of the seats for the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is closely aligned with the military—all senior party officials are former military men. In turn, Myanmar’s old guard will maintain a strong influence on the parliament—the 110 military members of parliament provide an effective veto over any amendments to the constitution, which requires more than 75 percent of the parliamentary vote to change.

Another challenge for the NLD is the smaller ethnic parties that hold sway in the border regions. These parties, including the Arakan National Party and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, could win enough seats to force the NLD to form a coalition government. Although this would dent the clout that comes with winning a majority, it would for the first time in Myanmar’s history bring long-sidelined minority voices into the political process. But the money remains on the NLD, and the battle between it and its military nemesis in parliament will shape the political system in Myanmar well into the future. 

Myanmar nationals living in Thailand hold portraits of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and shout slogans during a protest outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, May 31, 2009.
Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

BEHIND THE SCENES

On a muggy Monday morning in Thingangyun township in the eastern part of Yangon, I sat with Nay Phone Latt, a free-speech advocate whose criticism of the previous junta landed him a 20-year jail sentence in 2008, just when the ruling military government announced that it would seek to transition to a “disciplined democracy.” After a presidential pardon in 2012, Latt was released, and he is now running as an NLD candidate for the regional parliament in Thingangyun. As we spoke, supporters gathered nearby, readying a convoy of trucks for a tour to meet his constituency. I asked Latt about his views on the military, which has been ruling the country since 1962 and its feints at reform. Over the past year, the government made a concentrated effort to appoint dozens of retired military officers to what should be civilian posts in civilian ministries—home affairs, health, education, the judiciary.

“So much of our politics happens behind the scenes,” he said. “There are so many ties between the generals and the cronies.” He’s right; the military remains in control of the economy and owns much of the country’s businesses and factories. It has much to lose from a complete civilian takeover of the government—hence its efforts to lock itself into the political process.

According to Soe Myint Aung, a political scientist and founding board member of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, public administration in Myanmar remains largely the domain of the military, and is more or less untouched by reforms. The constitution, for instance, mandates that the chief ministers of the ministries of Home Affairs and Defense and Border Affairs be serving military commanders. “It’s extremely hard to remove the top military figures in the executive branch,” Aung said. “[The military] is constantly spilling its former servicemen over to executive positions.” The upshot is that the military will remain embedded deep within the governance structure of Myanmar long after the elections.

A NEW MOVER AND SHAKER

Recently, the military has also received support from a new political force that has risen over the past two years and that is now a significant mover and shaker in Myanmar. Known by its local acronym Ma Ba Tha, the group is led by monks, and since its inception in 2013, has expanded quickly, with branches in 250 of the country’s 330 townships.

These monks, and their growing legion of lay followers, consider themselves protectors of Buddhism, the country’s dominant religion, against hostile forces—namely, Islam. They have been able to tap into the popular, and growing, anti-Muslim sentiment across the country, and earlier this year received 1.3 million signatures on a petition for parliament to pass four so-called Race and Religion laws. Rights groups have warned that the legislation would greatly discriminate against Muslims; they would require people to obtain government approval to convert to a different religion, and all marriages would be publicly posted and could then be contested in court. Parliament passed these laws anyway, and the laws are now codified. Given widespread anti-Islamic sentiment across the country, any conversion to Islam, or any marriage of a Buddhist woman to a Muslim man, for example, will likely meet fierce public resistance.

Buddhist monks walk inside the Masoyein monastery complex in Mandalay, Myanmar, October 7, 2015.
Jorge Silva / Reuters

The monks of Ma Ba Tha preach the virtues of exclusionary nationalism and warn that democracy, in the form of an NLD-led government, will bring about exactly the kinds of developments that threaten the nation—namely, the mixing of cultures and equal rights to all, regardless of religion. Thus they make for natural bedfellows with the military. Although the media has paid much attention to the fiery, bigoted rhetoric of Ma Ba Tha’s senior monks toward Muslims, less has been said of their possible ulterior motives, such as driving down Suu Kyi’s popular support.

Latt wants to draw more attention to Ma Ba Tha’s political motives, given the impact that this military-aligned political movement could have on prospects for inclusive democracy in Myanmar. “Everyone thinks their main target is Muslims, but it isn’t,” he said. “Their main target is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.” Prior to launching his election campaign, he monitored religious hate speech online. He has seen direct verbal assaults on Muslims and personal attacks against Suu Kyi, although it’s not clear whether these attacks are actually coming from Ma Ba Tha. In June 2014, an altered picture of Suu Kyi wearing a headscarf made its rounds on the Internet. At a campaign rally in western Myanmar in October, she was forced to respond to a question from someone in the crowd who asked whether it was true that the NLD would flood the country with Muslims. She responded forcefully, saying that the question could risk “inciting racial or religious conflict.”

Aung San Suu Kyi makes her way trough the crowd as she arrives to the office of her National League for Democracy (NLD) in Yangon, April 2, 2012.
Reuters

Ma Ba Tha’s propagandizing is evidently finding its target. At public rallies, these monks can draw tens of thousands of supporters. Its monastic leadership is a powerful force, given the hugely influential—almost sacrosanct—position that monks hold in Myanmar. Despite Suu Kyi’s resolute refusal to condemn the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment (she is fearful of losing votes), Ma Ba Tha has depicted the party’s decision not to back the four Race and Religion laws as tantamount to support for a Muslim takeover of Myanmar. It has made the “Muslim issue” so toxic that, in August, the NLD blocked its own Muslim party members from running, fearing that allowing them to run would hurt the party’s popularity. Many criticized Suu Kyi for the undemocratic move. Meanwhile, Ma Ba Tha has tacitly urged voters to back the USDP in elections; in October, the group’s figurehead, U Wirathu, changed his Facebook profile photo to a picture of the USDP chair, President Thein Sein. The type on the picture read: “I’ll be with you Mr. PRESIDENT.” In September, it was revealed that a USDP candidate had donated $31,000 to Ma Ba Tha.

If Ma Ba Tha can sustain its current rhythm and detract voters away from the NLD, it will become yet another obstacle to effective civilian governance in Myanmar. The group’s nationwide branches are increasingly able to function as de facto local administrations. In July, Ma Ba Tha’s branch in the town of Kawlin in northern Myanmar expelled a nonprofit that was providing assistance to flood victims. The monks claimed that the organization hadn’t sought permission from Ma Ba Tha in advance and had collaborated with the NLD. Given Ma Ba Tha’s local power, it could, therefore, come to aid an already military-aligned local governance system. In fact, Ma Ba Tha’spropaganda works to make Burmese people fear a democratic system, which could grant Muslims the political rights that Buddhists enjoy, thereby leveling the political playing field.

So far commentary about the upcoming election has fixated on Suu Kyi’s party. But groups such as Ma Ba Tha could become a driving force in politics by seeking to counter Suu Kyi’s appeal. Even if the NLD wins in a landslide, the party may continue to struggle to democratize Myanmar. The military’s recent maneuverings reveal its clear intent to remain a dominant force in Myanmar politics, and Ma Ba Tha will continue to agitate the public against the flowering of the NLD and a parliament that represents the nation’s myriad ethnicities and religions. The excitement surrounding an NLD victory, should it win on November 8, may therefore be short-lived.

  • FRANCIS WADE is a journalist based in London and Yangon. He is writing a book on Buddhist nationalism and political violence in Myanmar.

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