YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's firebrand Buddhist monk Wirathu has openly endorsed President Thein Sein's ruling party in the Nov 8 General Election, saying opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party was "full of themselves" and unlikely to win the vote.
Hardline monks will push for laws banning Muslim dress and other Muslim customs, Wirathu told Reuters on Sunday (Oct 4) before a rally held by thousands of members of the radical Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha.
The remarks could stoke religious tension, already high in Myanmar after Ma Ba Tha played a big role in securing passage of four so-called Protection of Race and Religion Laws seen as targeting women and the country's Muslim minority.
The group has emerged as a force ahead of the poll, criticising Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which opposed the four laws.
"NLD people are so full of themselves," Wirathu, 47, who is a leading ultra-nationalist member of Ma Ba Tha, but does not run the organisation, said in an interview. "They don't have a high chance of winning in elections."
Experts say pressure on the NLD can translate into support for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
"If we have to choose the best, it is the President Thein Sein's government," Wirathu added. "They could open the doors and work step by step for peace and development."
Asked about Wirathu's remarks, senior NLD member Win Htein said: "He should go to hell... According to the teachings of Buddha, monks shouldn't get involved in political affairs. They should be neutral."
Ma Ba Tha has recently sought to tone down its image, portraying itself as a peaceful and apolitical organisation, but Wirathu's endorsement of Mr Thein Sein underscores an appetite to influence politics.
Wirathu denied Ma Ba Tha was campaigning for the USDP, but said it was "grateful" to his party for supporting the race and religion laws. "If the NLD forms the government and if they try to amend the laws, they will have to deal with Ma Ba Tha," he said.
Wirathu and other monks have been linked to the sectarian violence that spread in Myanmar in 2012, killing hundreds and leaving thousands without homes.
Anti-Muslim unrest simmered under the junta that ran the country for nearly half a century and erupted into clashes after the end of military rule.
Wirathu said that next on Ma Ba Tha's agenda were Muslim veils and customs, such as the ritual slaughter of cattle during Eid, one of the most important Muslim holidays, and butchering of animals in halal tradition.
"We have plans. We will lobby the government first to stop the slaughter. If necessary, we will go to the Parliament," the monk said.
"Slaughtering of cattle makes young Muslims familiar with blood. If they really want peace, they should stop slaughtering animals and the tradition of halal butchering," said Wirathu.
In January, the monk caused outrage by calling a United Nations human rights expert who said persecuted Rohingya Muslims should have citizenship in Myanmar a "whore".
Wirathu previously has urged Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and stop interfaith marriages, calling mosques "enemy bases".
Wirathu said he would campaign against the tradition of Muslim women covering their heads, and sometimes, their faces. "They use the robes in suicide bombings, helping men to pretend they are women," said Wirathu. "It is a security concern and a threat to the sovereignty of the country. We will make that tradition stop."