With just weeks before Myanmar’s landmark elections, a fleet of cars covered with stickers of the National Development Party carrying flag-waving party supporters and Buddhist monks crawled through the streets of Mawlamyine, Mon state’s capital.

The convoy was heading to the Strand Hotel on the banks of the Thanlwin River. Most party faithful were wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the NDP’s symbol – a golden dancing peacock – some of the shirts also bore the slogan ‘racial protection law has come into effect!’

The NDP only became an official political party in early July 2015, but the Buddhist nationalist party has surged into contention in Myanmar politics, ranking fourth among political parties in terms of both funding and numbers of candidates fielded for the Nov.8 poll.

On the lawn of the Strand Hotel, some 60 monks were assembled, many from the Maha Myaing Monastery and Myazedi (Yekyaung) Monastery, believed to be the cradle of the radical Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha. Behind them gathered hundreds more people, listening intently to the speakers.

“Around the world, every country, its people and religions, focus on their own interest. So it is out of the question that we do not safeguard and protect our race and religion,” said Nay Zin Latt, former presidential adviser and founder of the party, to applause from the audience. He was clad in a traditional pale apricot Myanmar ‘taikpone’ coat and a string of jasmine flowers round his neck.

Religious tensions are running high in Buddhist-majority Myanmar ahead of the election, largely stoked by Ma Ba Tha, which has emerged as a powerful force.

In late August, President Thein Sein signed onto the statute books the last of four controversial “Race and Religion Protection Laws” championed by radical Buddhists but decried by rights groups as aimed at discriminating against the country’s Muslim minority, as well as eroding the rights of women.

The NDP strongly supports the laws, but its leaders deny that they are stirring up animosity towards Myanmar’s Muslim minority for political gain.

Some 350 NDP candidates will contest 134 seats in Lower House, 60 seats in Upper House and 160 seats for state and regions parliament, trailing only the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, the main opposition National League for Democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the National Unity Party, formerly known as Myanmar Socialist Programme Party.

So how has the party managed to shake up the political landscape in such a short space of time? Paik Tin, a political columnist and head of policy for the NDP, said the party had the backing of many wealthy members.

In an interview at a wooden house in Mawlamyine with the NDP signboard hung outside, Paik Tin outlined the party’s platform, which appeared to be centred on “defending” Buddhism.

“We are insisting to protect race and religion because majority of our party members are Buddhists. The existing situation demands us to do so,” said Paik Tin, as party members around him used their mobile phones to record the interview and take photographs.

“As some said our country is the last stronghold of Theravada Buddhism, so we are responsible to take seriously the protection of our religion and nationality. But we reject the accusation that we are using religion for political influence.”

NEW KID ON THE BLOCK

The NDP was formed in the early part of 2015, by presidential adviser and prominent businessman Nay Zin Latt who resigned from his post to found the new political movement.

According to the Union Election Commission, the NDP applied for the formation of a party in March, for registration in early July. Aung Htwe, the party vice chairman, said it now has hundred thousands of members across the country.

The party says its platform is not only based on religious nationalism, it says it is seeking to grow national prosperity, improve education and healthcare and bring an end to armed conflicts in Myanmar.  But its opponents say its populist message will not appeal to better educated voters.

Thaung Hla, chairman of National Unity Party in Mawlamyine, said his party has instructed its 31 candidates in Mon state not follow the NDP’s populist approach and to keep religion out of political campaigning.

“We do not accept mixing religion and politics. Religion should not be misused in politics,” he said, adding that his party had instructed its 31 candidates in Mon state not to use religion in political campaigning.

Although the NDP has made no secret of its support for the new laws, in speeches, campaign slogans and banners, Aung Ko, a Lower House candidate for the NDP, looked irritated when asked if his party was an extension of the radical Buddhist Ma Ba Tha movement.

“We are accused of conducting campaigns in collaboration with Ma Ba Tha to use religion for politics. It is not true. But we have common objectives,” the 40-year-old ethnic Mon said.

He said his party received spontaneous support from young people who form the volunteer groups that organize alms donations for monks in Mawlamyine.

But many among the monks’ order reject the NDP’s campaign tactics.

RELIGION AND POLITICS

Ven Silacara, deputy chief  Buddhist monk of Ramanya Nikaya, which has great influence on the Buddhists of Mon state, said while he supported the nationalistic laws, they should not be used in political campaigns.

The 70-year-old monk lectures to 800 monks and novices every day at a monastery in Mawlamyine.

“We appreciate the emergence of nationalistic law, but we will not take part in campaign of political parties,” he said.

Another prominent Mon monk, Venerable Okkansa, who was detained for over 15 years in the notorious Insein prison for political activities, agreed: “All political parties are conducting campaigns. But they do not use religion for attracting votes.”

Mi Kon Chan, an NLD candidate from Paung Township, said some politicians were whipping up fear among Buddhist voters, particularly in rural areas, who had been told their religion would be under threat if the NLD wins the election, after the party objected to the new “race and religion” laws in the last parliament.

“I have experienced dirty campaigning,” said Mi Con Chan, a Buddhist woman, married to a Buddhist. “They said my husband is Kalar (Muslim) and I am not a Buddhist.”

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