People’s Pioneer Party hides hardline nationalist politics beneath progressive veneer

On the face of it, the People’s Pioneer Party is one of the more progressive forces in Myanmar electoral politics. 

The newly formed party, which will contest 248 mostly regional seats on November 8, boasts the country’s first openly gay candidate and says it values “diversity and inclusivity”.

But the party’s links to far-right anti-Muslim monks tell a different story. 

Earlier this month party chair Thet Thet Khine met with the ultranationalist monk Tiloka Biwuntha in Yangon’s Insein township to make a donation. 

The monk, also known as Insein Ywama Sayadaw, was chair of the extremist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha before it was officially disbanded in 2017.

One of Ma Ba Tha’s biggest achievements was to force through a set of “race and religion” laws under the previous government that critics said were an attack on the rights of women and religious minorities. 

Thet Thet Khine owns several gold, jewelry and gemstone companies. She was an influential MP for the NLD but was pushed out of the party in 2018 after she said Aung San Suu Kyi couldn’t make up her mind about her role in government and “was like a player who plays everywhere on the football pitch”. 

Naing Thu Latt seen telling police to arrest anti-war protestors in Tamwe in 2018 (Nyein Chan/Myanmar Now)

‘Arrest these troublemakers’

When activists rallied in Tamwe in May 2018 to support thousands of civilians trapped by fighting in Kachin state, police violently arrested the protestors while several men who identified themselves as nationalists assaulted people. 

One man, who did not join in with the attacks, was caught on video beforehand shouting abuse at the demonstrators and goading the police to arrest them.

His name is Naing Thu Latt, and he is now running for a regional seat in Insein township for the PPP. He is also the head of the party’s office in Insein.

“What the fuck?” he yelled from behind a line of police while dressed in traditional Shan clothing. “Making a scene and causing trouble. What are they getting out of this, out of giving us trouble? Stupid nonsense. The civilians are dead. Just arrest these troublemakers already! Why are they yelling?”

Later he shouted: ”Are you not fighting them? Do you want us to? Just move and I’ll take care of these motherfuckers.”

After two years of hearings at the Bahan township court, Naing Thu Latt was fined 5,000 kyat in July for his involvement in the unrest in Tamwe. He was also summoned by the Myanmar Human Rights Commission to be questioned but he never showed up.

Also known as Thar Htet, the 41-year-old has been pictured at several Ma Ba Tha events, including a 2016 anti-Rohingya protest outside the US embassy in Yangon.

He also taught English classes at training sessions organised by Ma Ba Tha, where the group’s well-known lawyer Aye Paing was also a teacher. And he went along with Thet Thet Khine on September 5 to donate to the ex-Ma Ba Tha leader.

In the last election he unsuccessfully ran to be a lawmaker for the National Development Party, which was founded by Nay Zin Latt, a nationalist and former advisor to ex-President Thein Sein.  

Naing Thu Latt at the PPP office in Insein on September 13 (Phyo Htet Aung/Myanmar Now)

‘Nationalism in our hearts’

In an interview at his Insein office, Naing Thu Latt told Myanmar Now that he was driving to meet a friend when he came across the May 2018 protest. 

He got out of the car because the rally had held up traffic, he said, adding that he only “questioned” the protestors and told the police to resolve the situation because it was blocking the roads. 

“I didn’t have any actual involvement. Nothing happened then, why is it coming up now?” he said. “Because there is an election. I see it as a low blow to the party.” 

He also denied that he was a member of Ma Ba Tha, saying he joined their activities because he liked what they stood for. The classes he taught with Aye Paing were for charity purposes, he added. 

Naing Thu Latt with Ma Ba Tha lawyer Aye Paing

“I know that people are just saying the words ‘nationalism’ and ‘protecting our religion’ for superficial reasons,” he said. “But it’s our responsibility to keep it in our hearts and be involved in any way we can, financially or in person.”

Thet Thet Khine declined to comment on Naing Thu Latt’s ties to Ma Ba Tha.

The PPP candidate attended an anti-Rohingya demonstration outside the US embassy in 2016

Kyaw Zeya, the PPP’s vice-chair, said he personally picked Naing Thu Latt as a candidate. He only considered his present values and future potential, not his past, when choosing him, he added. 

“I had to convince Naing Thu Latt to run as a candidate. Because he had all the elements of a good candidate, we really had to convince him to accept it,” Kyaw Zeya said. 

Thet Thet Khine has always respected the ex-Ma Ba Tha chair, he added. 

He also said, incorrectly, that Naing Thu Latt did not accompany Thet Thet Khine to the donation ceremony. Naing Thu Latt appears in several pictures at the ceremony. 

Kyaw Zeya said the PPP did not have the same values as Ma Ba Tha. Its candidate for Mingalar Taung Nyunt was a Muslim named Aung Myo Min “who still holds love for his country,” he said. 

Thet Swe Win, an activist who was assaulted during the May 2018 anti-war protest, noted that Thet Thet Khine has not only met with the Ma Ba Tha ex-chair, but also with commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. (She was among 34 party leaders who attended the meeting in Naypyitaw last month).

“You need to think about the country’s future very carefully,” he said. “It’s simply no good if you’re using religion as a front to gain votes, and hence power. I don’t want to comment on if they’re doing that or not.” 

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