Pre-election intrigue and uncertainty haunts Muslims in Myanmar

by Blake Hunsicker and Niels Larson

A National League for Democracy party (NLD) flyer hangs on a vendor stall in Yangon, Myanmar. (Elizaveta Kanaeva)

Tucked away behind his school’s basketball court, P.E. teacher and Islamic scholar Hajji U Aye Lwin fielded calls from a nearby township where worshippers claimed to be surrounded by thugs.

Because they have no mosques of their own, Muslims in Yangon’s Thaketa township had taken to praying in their madrasas, or religious schools. A group of unidentified people, first thought to be Buddhist monks but later said to be laymen, demanded that worshippers sign a pledge that they wouldn’t pray in the buildings.

Sitting in his office at the Diplomatic School of Yangon, Lwin answered his friends’ calls and told them to take the case to local administrators. After hanging up, he said they didn’t know who started the trouble or what would happen.

Later that day, the madrasa leaders signed the pledge.

The mystery of who instigated the standoff in Thaketa, and whether the mob had the blessing of authorities, hardline Buddhist groups, or were acting on their own accord, is indicative of recent anti-Muslim activity in Myanmar, also known as Burma. The tensions, which resulted in violence in 2012 and 2013 and spurred the recent Rohingya refugee crisis, have once again intensified in the lead-up to next month’s general election, the country’s first since the end of direct military rule in 2011.

“They are playing games. These mobs are created by them, they are their men,” Lwin said, referring to the military and the incumbent United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), whom he believes instigate anti-Muslim mobs and encourage hardline Buddhist nationalist groups for political gain.

Lwin is the chief convener of the Islamic Centre of Myanmar.

Tensions between Muslims and Buddhists allow the USDP and military to pose as peacekeepers, he said, able to quell violence against Muslims and at the same time protect Buddhists from them.

“They are afraid. And you know what they ask for? The military. Where are the soldiers? The army, the military, as the savior.”

Whether recent anti-Muslim sentiment is promoted by the military or the USDP is the subject of fierce rumor and debate among Muslims and others.

At the center of the speculation are Buddhist nationalist groups like the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, or Ma Ba Tha, which is made up of hardline, anti-Muslim Buddhist monks who some say have outsized influence in political life in the country.

Earlier this year, Ma Ba Tha, which is not a political party and has no candidates in the upcoming elections, successfully lobbied four “race and religion” laws many say target Muslims. The laws, which include restrictions on faith conversion, interfaith marriages, polygamy and childbirth, were signed into law by incumbent president and USDP member Thein Sein.

The laws were, for some, the smoking gun proving the connection between anti-Muslim Buddhist monks and the USDP. Another telltale sign came later — in their nationwide victory lap celebrating the legislation, Ma Ba Tha had difficulty booking Yangon’s Thuwanna stadium. At the last moment, according to media sources, the president stepped in to permit the celebration, which was initially stalled because the stadium wasn’t permitted to host non-sporting events.

Muslim Rohingya activist Wai Wai Nu in her office in Yangon, Myanmar. (Elizaveta Kanaeva)

“I never expected that the Buddhist nationalist movement would get this powerful,” Wai Wai Nu, a well known Rohingya activist in Myanmar, said. “It happened because of encouragement from powerful actors, including the government.”

Ma Ba Tha remains highly popular, particularly in rural areas of the country.

Among some Muslims, the most promising alternative to the USDP is its main contender, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and its leader, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. There are a total of 92 parties contending for seats in the parliament, which will go on to chose the country’s new president next year. The military is guaranteed 25% of the seats beforehand, giving them strong advantage ahead of the polling.

Support for the NLD is palpable in Yangon, where the party’s trademark red flag can be seen waving from taxi antennas and sprawled across backseat windows in the city’s notoriously congested traffic. For many, it’s a startling sight in a country where public support for the party and car ownership were all but unheard of five years ago.

“I will vote for Aung San Suu Kyi because she hasn’t rested since 1988,” Mr. Doe, a Yangon native, said, referring to the year she and others founded the NLD.

In the crowded basement of a Shiite mosque in downtown Yangon, a retired seaman confided that, as a Muslim, he feels persecuted in his country. When asked about the elections, the man paused, focusing on his meal of rice and potatoes before answering.

“Nothing will happen,” he said, speaking on the condition that his name not be used because he fears harassment. “If the NLD wins, the military won’t give up power.”

He believes that a coalition government, made up of NLD members and those of the USDP, closely aligned with the military, has the best chance for immediate stability.

This sentiment was shared by many, including Lwin and Nu, who admit there’s a chance that if Ms. Suu Kyi’s party wins by landslide, as they did in the 1990 general elections, the military may refuse to hand over power, just as they did 25 years ago.

“There will be a coalition, because the army needs — the USDP needs Aung San Suu Kyi to appease the international community,” Lwin said. “And Aung San Suu Kyi needs the military as a shield, so that history won’t repeat just like in 1990. So, I think she is out-maneuvering this now.”

Her political gaming, however, has brought criticism to her and her party. In September, the NLD sacked its Muslim candidates, who were slated to run in Muslim majority areas of Yangon and elsewhere. It was a move some say was meant to appease hardliners, but nonetheless brought criticism from Muslim supporters. Similarly, many criticized her for not speaking out against discriminatory policies against Muslim Rohingya, who are not allowed to vote next month.

Her political allegiance with former USDP party head Shwe Mann, the speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw — the lower house of parliament — was another point of contention. Rumor had it that Mann could be Ms. Suu Kyi’s choice for president. His ambitions, however, have been thrown into uncertainty after being stripped of his party title in August. He remains speaker of the lower house.

Despite her ambiguous political maneuvering, many of her longtime supporters still hold faith.

“One thing consistently she will say is there must be no infringement of human rights, which includes freedom of worship,” Lwin said.