By Hnin Yadana Zaw and Antoni Slodkowski YANGON (Reuters) - A powerful Buddhist ultranationalist group is helping Myanmar's ruling party win votes in next Sunday's election after the government pushed through laws seen as anti-Muslim, the co-founder of the group told Reuters. Known by its Burmese initials Ma Ba Tha, the Buddhist nationalist group is not running a single candidate in the Nov. 8 election - monks are barred by law from running for office. Yet it has been in the forefront of campaigning and could influence the shape of Myanmar's first popularly elected government in more than half a century. For the first time, a Ma Ba Tha co-founder, a monk named Parmaukkha, disclosed some of the details about closed-door discussions between the group and the government on securing the passage of the bills. The laws require citizens to seek government approval to convert to a different religion, force some women to have children at least three years apart and set punishments for having more than one spouse. An overwhelming majority of Myanmar citizens are Buddhist. The new laws discriminate against Muslims and women and could stoke religious tensions, human rights groups say. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) used its parliamentary majority to push through the laws in the belief that "Ma Ba Tha would help them get votes in the election," said Parmaukkha, who helped found the group in 2013. "They know we are a strong organization." Tha Win, a USDP lawmaker and senior party official in Yangon, denied any connections with Ma Ba Tha. "We're just engaged in politics. Our party's rules don't allow us to carry out religious affairs." Parmaukkha's description of Ma Ba Tha's role was also challenged by the group's spokesman, Thurain Soe, who said his organization was grateful for USDP's help in enacting the laws, but was not supporting any party. "We needed our religious four bills. Who could we ask? We needed to ask this government. This is a very normal process," Thurain Soe said through a translator. "We thank the president and the parliament. But it's just 'thank you', not supporting (the USDP in the election)." REFORM REFERENDUM The general election is the first since a quasi-civilian government replaced military rule in 2011, and is widely regarded as a referendum on Myanmar's reform process. Ma Ba Tha's influence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar might prove crucial in the election campaign, especially in rural areas where monastic authority is unquestioned, election analysts said. Its influence might sway enough votes from Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) to deny the opposition party an all-important parliamentary majority, and save the USDP - created by the powerful military and chaired by President Thein Sein - from an embarrassing electoral debacle. Fearful of potential Ma Ba Tha intimidation, the NLD decided not to field any Muslim candidates on Nov. 8, two senior NLD leaders told Reuters. In recent years, religious violence in Myanmar has killed hundreds of people, mostly Muslims. Formally known in English as the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, Ma Ba Tha grew out of the "969" movement, also led by monks, which called for a ban on interfaith marriages and a boycott of Muslim businesses. Ma Ba Tha began cooperating closely with the government and the USDP in a series of meetings about the race and religion laws in 2014 and 2015, Parmaukkha said. One meeting in the capital Naypyitaw in May 2014 was attended by officials from the ministries of religion, immigration and home affairs, as well as presidential advisors, he said. Three other leading Ma Ba Tha monks confirmed to Reuters that they had attended the May meeting to discuss the bills with the government task force. Members of the governmental team, including Soe Win, Myanmar's Minister of Religious Affairs, did not respond to requests for comments regarding the government's contacts with Ma Ba Tha. The closed-door meeting has not been publicly disclosed before. GLOOMY PARTY ASSESSMENT At another meeting in March 2015, a USDP official, who was also a director general in a government ministry, assured Ma Ba Tha the government would approve the race and religion laws, Parmaukkha said. Parmaukkha declined to identify the official and Reuters was unable to independently verify this account. This was just weeks after an internal USDP survey, which Reuters reviewed, had suggested the NLD would trounce the ruling party at the polls. Two months later, President Thein Sein signed the first of the four bills into law. The remaining three were enacted less than three weeks before the election campaign officially began. Ma Ba Tha spokesman Thurain Soe denied leaders of his group had met government officials on the race and religion bills in 2014 and 2015. Zaw Htay, a senior official from the President's Office, said it was a monk-led petition drive that gave the initial impetus to the laws. The campaign gathered more than 2 million signatures calling for enacting laws protecting race and religion and the President's Office drafted the laws in response to that petition, Zaw Htay said. "It's very hard to separate Buddhist monks from politics in this country," he said, citing their role in Myanmar's struggle for independence from British colonial rule, as well as pro-democracy protests in more recent years. SCORN FOR SUU KYI Ma Ba Tha's leadership has openly expressed support for the USDP and scorn for Suu Kyi. Wirathu, 47, one of the most prominent of the Ma Ba Tha monks, endorsed President Thein Sein in an interview, saying his administration "opened doors and worked step-by-step for peace and development." He poured scorn on Suu Kyi and her party, saying: "NLD people are so full of themselves. They don't have a high chance of winning in elections." Another monk who helped found Ma Ba Tha, Vimalabuddhi, said that since most of the USDP leaders are from the military they understood the situation in the country better than the NLD who were "politicians and civilians". "They don't really understand our situation," he said. Asked about these criticisms from Ma Ba Tha, senior NLD leader Win Htein told Reuters: "According to the teachings of Buddha, monks shouldn't get involved in political affairs. They should be neutral." He said Ma Ba Tha has targeted the NLD from the start for not being supportive of their race and religion laws and being more sympathetic to Muslims. "That's why we decided not to field any Muslim candidates, for fear of antagonizing Ma Ba Tha, losing votes and failing to win a parliamentary majority. "It has caused some very hard soul-searching," he said. (Additional reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Soe Zeya Tun; Editing by Bill Tarrant)
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KOB4/Metropolitan Detention CenterA suspected white supremacist is facing charges after allegedly ditching a bullet-riddled car containing three dead men in the parking lot of an Albuquerque hospital this week.Richard Kuykendall, a 41-year-old with an “apparent association” with the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, was charged Friday with being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition for his role in the Wednesday triple homicide, according to a criminal complaint filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for New Mexico.Prosecutors allege that after a deadly shootout in a nearby alley, Kuykendall drove to Presbyterian Kaseman Hospital with the victims, removed his shirt and told a security officer “that there were three dead guys in the Chevy” before he walked away.The criminal complaint—first obtained by Seamus Hughes, a researcher at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and a Daily Beast contributor—notes that authorities only believe Kuykendall “may be responsible for the death of one of the three men.”The victims, who have not yet been identified, were also members of the gang. Kuykendall is being held on bail at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque.SHOOTING VIDEO: @ABQPOLICE said three bodies showed up at Kaseman Hospital around 3pm yesterday. They have not confirmed these videos are connected, but show a what appears to be a barrage of bullets at 2:40p yesterday. 2 miles away a bloodied man is seen leaving the scene @KOB4 pic.twitter.com/jqnvdcW4Tn— Ryan Laughlin (@RyanLaughlinKOB) May 13, 2021 Prosecutors described the Aryan Brotherhood as a “nationwide prison gang that strives to control drug distribution and other illegal activity within state and federal prisons.” Formed by white inmates, it has about 20,000 members both in and out of prison and is known for using Nazi symbols, including swastikas and SS lightning bolts, the complaint states.While authorities have not provided a motive for Wednesday’s slaying, the complaint notes that the gang is known for murdering or threatening members who do not remain loyal or pose a threat to the enterprise.“The [Aryan Brotherhood] uses murder and the threat of murder to maintain a position of power within the prison and jail system,” the complaint states. “Inmates and others who do not follow the orders of the [Aryan Brotherhood] are subject to being murdered, as is anyone who uses violence against an [Aryan Brotherhood] member.”Prosecutors state Kuykendall was walking in an alley behind a local pizza shop on Wednesday when a dark-colored Chevy Malibu pulled up behind him. When Kuykendall tried to get in the car, shots were immediately fired at him.Kuykendall “ducked and maintained a low center of gravity as he ran around the front” of the car while shots were still being fired. He was able to jump in the car.She Masqueraded as an Aryan Princess to Take Down Neo-NazisA few seconds later, Kuykendall exited the car and walked toward a dumpster, the complaint states. “Kuykendall remained next to the dumpster for nine seconds and then went back to the car.” The Albuquerque Police Department later found a 9mm pistol in the dumpster.Prosecutors state that after possibly moving a person inside the car, Kuykendall got into the driver’s seat—on top of the presumably dead driver—and drove to the nearby hospital.Once there, he took off his shirt, revealing several tattoos associated with the neo-Nazi group, including “a large letter B on his left shoulder and an iron cross on his left breast,” the complaint states.When authorities arrived, they found a car “riddled with bullet holes” with a loaded pistol under the driver’s seat, an empty pistol on the back seat and spent bullet casings throughout the car, the complaint says.It’s far from Kuykendall’s first run-in with the law. “Kuykendall has an impressive criminal history, with at least 35 arrests in New Mexico and Massachusetts,” the complaint states. His crimes range from forgery and identity theft to larceny and conspiracy, to an assault of a family member in 2018.Read more at The Daily Beast.Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.
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