Saturday, August 19, 2017

Nationalism defeated at the ballot box

Why did self-proclaimed nationalist parties fare so badly in the election? Though the absence of opinion polls and comparable electoral data made it difficult in advance to gauge the extent of support for any party, nationalist candidates appeared to be well-organised and amply funded. The hardline nationalist Buddhist Committee for the Protection of Nationalism and Religion, known by its Myanmar acronym Ma Ba Tha, seemed to be enjoying nationwide support, whipping up crowds tens of thousands strong in its tour of the country during campaign season.

Before the election, the hardliners fomented anti-Muslim sentiment, sparred with the National League for Democracy and attempted to castigate the largest opposition as soft on Muslims while also throwing support behind President U Thein Sein. Rights groups and political analysts kept a wary eye on what was deemed a growing tide of radical Buddhist nationalism, warning that it could stymie the NLD in its goal to sweep the majority and provoke unrest.

Yet not a single candidate identifying as a nationalist was elected.

“In a profoundly Buddhist society which generally supported the four ‘race and religion’ bills promoted by Ma Ba Tha, voters have sent a quiet but clear message that political choice is their personal concern and that they are not influenced by Ma Ba Tha’s posturing,” said Derek Tonkin, former British ambassador to Thailand and chair of the non-profit Network Myanmar.

Part of the problem, according to some of the defeated nationalist candidates, was the NLD’s roaring landslide win that left little room for anyone else. Of the 91 political parties that competed, only a scant dozen picked up seats.

The party most openly, even defiantly, espousing nationalist views during the lead up to the election was the National Development Party, led by U Nay Zin Latt, a former presidential adviser who promised to lobby for voting rights for monks if he was elected.

Though the party was barely three months old, it fielded more than 350 NDP candidates in all states and regions besides Rakhine and Kachin, more than almost any other party outside the big two, the Union Solidarity and Development Party and NLD. All lost.

But NDP central executive member U Myat Soe said the defeat “cannot be perceived as nationalism’s failure”.

“We’re just starting out,” he said. “We may not have won any seats, but people did vote for us. And although 2015 wasn’t our winning year, we will continue to be a force to compete with in coming elections.”

Supporters say that the NDP secured the third-highest number of votes after the NLD and the USDP, though final voting tallies have yet to be released.

Ko Naung Taw Lay, a member of the Myanmar National Network, none of whose three independent candidates were elected, said the failure was not due to lack of enthusiasm.

“Nationalist ideas have not yet had sufficient exposure. This is something that takes time. We have to get our message out,” he said, adding that nationalism aimed at protecting all national races and religions from violence.

Though he said he would keep a low profile during the transition to the new parliament, he pledged to continue to speak out about protecting all the national races, and firmly take a stand on what he called the Rohingya problem.

“Elected MPs should consider what the people want before making laws,” he said.

Ethnic parties were also the big losers, compared with their expectations, especially outside Rakhine State, as the NLD juggernaut mopped up the final seats in the remotest parts of the country, according to final results announced on November 20.

The Arakan National Party did win more seats than NLD in Rakhine, taking 10 Amyotha Hluttaw spots and 12 Pyithu Hluttaw seats. The Shan National League for Democracy won three seats in the Amyotha Hluttaw and 12 in the Pyithu Hluttaw. The remaining parties won 13 Pyithu Hluttaw seats and seven Amyotha Hluttaw seats between them.

U Maung Maung, chair of Myanmar Wunthanu Rakkhita and an executive member of Ma Ba Tha, said as the NLD takes up the reins of government, the people’s wishes have to be respected.

“As nationalists, we welcome any party or any government that will govern the country properly. But they must protect their own race, religion and country, or we nationalists will speak up. Though the NLD won, they should not neglect the protection of race and religion,” he said, adding that a hluttaw with a wider spread of parties would have been preferable.

“A single party deciding for the whole country is not a good sign,” said Ko Naung Taw Lay.

Translation by Emoon and Kyawt Darly Lin