Paid to Pray? USDP Officials Arrange ‘Rent-A-Crowds’ For Pro-Wirathu Protests

Local officials from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) helped organise rent-a-crowds for a series of rallies in Yangon to support the fugitive monk Wirathu, a Myanmar Now investigation has found. 

Attendees at demonstrations and public prayers were bused in from Yangon’s outskirts with offers of free trips to Shwedagon pagoda and in some cases paid cash to attend, participants and a source close to the USDP said. 

In many cases the USDP officials did not tell attendees they would be marching in support of the notorious monk, who is wanted by police on charges of sedition.

The USDP has denied the allegations, saying it was not the party’s business if some of its members attended the rallies of their own accord. 

Wirathu has evaded arrest since May 28, when a warrant was issued in relation to a speech he made attacking the government. In response his supporters organised a series of rallies and prayers where they chanted slogans including “Free Sayadaw U Wirathu from worry”. 

The organisers’ alleged use of incentives and misleading claims to entice people to join the rallies is a sign of waning popular support for Wirathu, whose political influence declined markedly after the National League for Democracy, a party he staunchly opposes, came to power in 2016. 

Maung Min Min, 15, said men who claimed to be USDP officials came to his village of West Oboe in Twante township on June 11 and asked him and a friend if they would like to join a free pilgrimage tour to Shwedagon pagoda.  

Min Min (middle, yellow shirt) said a senior USDP member in his village sent him to the prayers held for Wirathu in Mayangone Township. (Photo- Sai Zaw/Myanmar Now)

They never got to visit Shwedagon, instead organisers took the pair, along with eight others from their village, to a gathering of around 1,000 people near the Tooth Relic pagoda in Mayangone township, he told Myanmar Now. 

After they arrived they were made to stand along lines on the floor and repeat prayers, he said. “They called out at us using this thing that made sound,” he added, referring to a megaphone. “They brought us food.” 

He and his friend were never told they were attending a gathering in support of Wirathu.

Ten other participants who spoke to Myanmar Now during the gathering indicated they did not know who the prayers were for. 

“They said a monk was arrested and they wanted to hold a prayer for him,” said 65-year-old Daw Nyein, also from Twante, adding that she was told she would be able to visit a pagoda. 

“I don’t know which monk. But praying is good in Buddhism,” she added. 

Men who appeared to be organisers at the rallies repeatedly tried to prevent Myanmar Now from interviewing the demonstrators. 

Aung Myat Tun, the USDP chairman in West Oboe village, said he helped gather people to join the prayers but did not do so under any directions from his party. He spread the word to villagers because a man driving a truck said he would take them on a free pilgrimage tour. 

When Myanmar Now asked for the driver’s contact details he said he couldn’t provide them because his phone was broken. 

Twante township’s USDP chairman Dr Thein Zaw Myint said he did not direct anyone at the village level to gather people for the rallies. 

A source close to the USDP in Hlaing Tharyar told Myanmar Now a group of around 40 men from a squatter community in the township were each paid 10,000 kyat to attend a rally on June 10, then given 3,000 a day to attend rallies after that, as well as compensation for travel and food expenses. 

USDP spokesperson Thein Tun Oo told Myanmar Now that none of its members received money from the party to attend the prayers. The decision to attend was a personal decision, the spokesperson added, and the USDP would not interfere unless members violated party rules. 

“They joined the rally of their own free will and personal judgement,” he said.

After a rally on June 12 at Shwedagon pagoda, Myanmar Now reporters saw around 30 attendees board three small trucks and then followed them. One truck ended up at the USDP office in Hlaing Tharyar township.

The same truck also carried Wirathu supporters to another rally at Botahtaung Pagoda in downtown Yangon the following day, June 13.

Attendees at prayers held on Shwedagon’s platform on 12 June. The light truck in the picture travelled to the USDP office in Hlaing Tharyar Township after the prayers. (Photo- Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now)

One passenger on the truck was Myo San Win, who according to posts on the official USDP Facebook page is one of the party’s township executive members.   

When Myanmar Now called Myo San Win’s cellphone, a man who declined to give his name asked “Am I going to face charges?” before hanging up. 

Right- Hlaing Tharyar Township’s USDP executive Myo San Win at a USDP event (Photo- Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now), Left- Myo San Win on his return trip from a rally at Shwedagon on 12 June (Photo- Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now)

During one rally near Shwedagon pagoda a Myanmar Now reporter posing as a curious bystander asked a participant how one could go about joining future demonstrations. A middle-aged man responded: “Where do you live? Isn’t there a USDP office in your ward?”

Then he called out to a man in a white shirt with a ponytail, who he gave the nickname Ko San Shay, or Ko Long Hair. Myanmar Now later identified the man with the ponytail as Kyaw Kyaw, an active organiser for the USDP in South Dagon township.

He appears in several photos dressed bearing the party’s logo on the Facebook page of the USDP South Dagon branch.

Right- A photograph of USDP (South Dagon) township organizer Kyaw Kyaw posted on Facebook, Left- Kyaw Kyaw at a prayer ceremony for Wirathu on 13 June (Photo- Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now)

Reached by phone, Kyaw Kyaw said attending the Wirathu rally was his own decision. “Party is party. Nationalism is nationalism. We are protecting Buddhism,” he added. 

At the rally, the middle-aged man gestured at Myanmar Now’s reporter and told Kyaw Kyaw, “this girl wants to join us.” Kyaw Kyaw replied: “Can we trust her?” 

(Editing by Nyunt Win and Joshua Carroll, reporting by Htun Khaing, Sai Zaw, Phyo Thiha Cho, Chan Thar, Khin Moh Moh Lwin, Aung Nyein Chan, Kayzon Nwe, and Mung San Aung)


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