RANGOON — The controversial Buddhist monk U Wirathu, leader of Burma’s ultranationalist 969 movement, has advised the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) to refrain from pushing the presidential candidacy of democracy icon and party chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Mandalay-based monk conveyed the message in a meeting with NLD cofounder Win Tin on Saturday in Mandalay, where he said a constitutional provision that currently bars Suu Kyi from presidential eligibility should remain in place, despite his admiration for the long-time democracy campaigner turned parliamentarian.
“Everyone in the country, including me, wants Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be president. But I am worried about those who are not ethnic people [who identify as one of Burma’s officially recognized ethnicities], such as Chinese and Muslim, will become president in the country if Article 59 is amended,” Wirathu told The Irrawaddy on Monday, saying he feared foreign influence in the nation’s affairs if an ethnic Chinese or Muslim were elected president.
Article 59F of the 2008 Constitution bars from presidential eligibility anyone who marries a foreigner or has children who claim foreign citizenship. Suu Kyi married a British man and has two children who hold British passports.
There is no comparable constitutional provision preventing Muslims who hold Burmese citizenship from running for president, but people in Burma who identify as ethnic Chinese are not considered citizens and thus cannot run for the office.
Win Tin on Monday said that he had dismissed Wirathu’s concerns over the precedent that a Suu Kyi presidency might set.
“I told him that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not struggling only to be president of the country. She is working for democracy and a genuine federal system in the country,” the NLD cofounder told The Irrawaddy.
Wirathu has courted controversy in recent years with a nationwide campaign that claims Muslims in Burma are threatening the country’s Buddhist majority. Monks promoting the movement have held public sermons urging Burma’s Buddhists to protect their race and religion by boycotting Muslim-owned businesses.
Some of the same monks have in recent months called into question whether Suu Kyi is up to the task of protecting the purportedly besieged Buddhist majority.
Monks have a long tradition of involvement in Burma’s politics, including the religious order’s leading role in anti-government protests in 2007 that were dubbed the Saffron Revolution, in reference to the monks’ colored robes.
Unlike the monks’ political agitations then, the efforts of 969 proselytizers have been condemned by the international human rights community, which has blamed them in part for outbreaks of Buddhist mob violence against Muslim communities in Burma.
Wirathu’s stated position on Monday appears at odds with remarks he made in late November, when he said a Suu Kyi presidency would bring “chaos” because she was “weak at governance.”
Win Tin on Monday said he did not buy into the monk’s ostensible reason for opposing a change to Article 59F.
“I found that he does not want Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become president. He does not want her to win in the election and he does not want a person who married a foreign citizen to win power,” he said.
Win Tin said he had assured Wirathu that the NLD would not allow “puppet politics” to affect its policy positions and hoped-for governance following elections in 2015.
Win Tin met with Wirathu at the latter’s invitation, in a setting that the NLD leader said added more mixed signals about the monk’s loyalties.
“I found Daw Aung San Suu Kyi photos and messages from her speech, and messages in support of her, which were posted at his monastery when I was there,” Win Tin said.
“He told me that he and his monks have been active in the movement for political change in the country, and that they intended to foster a smooth transition,” Win Tin added.
“I told him that I approved of monks’ participation in the political transition because there is a history of monks involved in politics. But, I told him that it was important that their efforts benefit all the people in the country and not only one group of people.”