RANGOON — As the 2015 national elections near, changes in President Thein Sein’s political approach have led to speculation that the former general may be positioning himself to run for a second term in office next year.
The latest tack he has chosen is to prioritize the “protection of race and religion,” evincing a nationalistic impulse that would appear at odds with the reformist mantle he has cultivated since taking office three years ago.
On Feb. 25, the president sent a formal message to the Union Parliament, requesting that four laws—related to religious conversion, marriage, monogamy and population control—be enacted with the purpose of protecting race and religion, and safeguarding the national interest.
Thein Sein said he was sending the request in part at the urging of the monk Tilawka Biwuntha, who chairs the Organization for the Protection of National Race and Religion (OPNRR), and was further prompted by a petition in support of such legislation that was signed by more than 1.3 million people in Burma.
A number of Burmese politicians have asserted that the move was politically targeting nationalists in order to garner support from Buddhists and ultimately win their votes. Thein Sein has given no public indication as to whether or not he will put himself forward for re-election next year, but that has not stopped others from claiming to speak for him on the matter. Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann has made his own interest in the presidency clear, and his assertion in October that Thein Sein would not seek a second term elicited a sharp rebuke from presidential spokesman Ye Htut.
Lawmakers over the last year have spoken of a growing rivalry between the two most powerful members of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Interestingly, Thein Sein’s request to Parliament was sent right back by the speaker, who insisted that drafting the bills was the responsibility of relevant ministries. In sending the proposal back to the administration, Shwe Mann seemingly assured that the president would take ownership of the controversial issue.
The government’s recent trumpeting of the “race and religion” buzzwords coincides with protests calling for amendments to the 2008 Constitution, a campaign being spearheaded by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and its chairwoman, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Some parliamentarians allege that the administration’s intention is to divert attention and muffle the growing chorus in favor of amending the charter by engineering competing political noise that plays to the country’s potent nationalist movement.
“Our Burmese people are still strong and not so weak yet that we have to enact a law to protect our race and religion,” Sandar Min, a lawmaker from the NLD, told The Irrawaddy. “To safeguard them has been in our mind since we were young, so we don’t need to enact a law.
“I want people to know that this is a political trick,” she added. “The state Constitution prohibits any attempt to use religion for political purposes.”
While a Lower House committee actively considers amendments to the Constitution, the president, in his monthly speech to general public on March 1, said all citizens must respect the current, controversial charter.
Meanwhile, eyebrows have been raised over the relationship between Thein Sein and Aung Thaung, a USDP leader and former industry ministry who is known as a hardliner.
Aung Thaung, who told local media last year that Shwe Mann would be due for a shot as the USDP’s standard-bearer in the 2015 presidential election, was more recently seen in public with Thein Sein. The president accompanied the USDP power broker on a trip by the latter to his constituency in Taungtha, Magwe Division, on Feb. 28, where the duo reportedly traveled to inspect ongoing development projects and meet with local residents.
Despite ongoing rancor and mud-slinging between Parliament and the government, Aung Thaung, who is also close to U Wirathu, a leading monk within the OPNRR, publicly thanked Thein Sein for development opportunities in his native Taungtha.
Their appearance together in Taungtha has fueled speculative links between Thein Sein, the OPNRR and Wirathu, who has publicly proclaimed his opposition to amending the Constitution’s Article 59(f), which prohibits Suu Kyi from becoming president.
Htay Kywe, a leader of the prominent activist group that now calls itself the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, said that regardless of alliances past or present, Thein Sein’s push to enact laws on the protection of national race and religion would complicate Burma’s political landscape and threatened to muddle the country’s ongoing reform process.