Anti-Islamic Movement in Myanmar Undermines Democratic Process


It has recently been revealed that Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi ‘purged’ the National League for Democracy opposition party of Muslims ahead of the national election on November 8, reflecting widespread anti-Islamic sentiment. Ethnic tensions were ignited by an ultranationalist Buddhist movement and the so-called ‘Burmese bin Laden’, who warned of an impeding Muslim takeover of Myanmar. Additionally, Myanmar has increasingly suppressed ethnic minorities and government protestors in Burma to prevent candidates from campaigning or voting.

Suu Kyi, 70, won the Noble Peace Prize following her non-violent struggle for democracy in 1991. However, her silence on the marginalisation of Muslims and the Rohingya ethnic minority has exposed her to criticism from a range of human rights groups. Myanmar has five million Muslims, which consists of between 4 and 10 per cent of the population, however, not one of the NLD’s 1,151 candidates standing for regional and national elections is Muslim. There are no Muslim candidates in the military-backed governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which are competing in one of the country’s first ‘free and fair’ general elections in 25 years.

The cause of the purge is the increasing power of the anti-Islamic Ma Ba Tha, or ‘The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion’. A senior NLD member coordinating the campaign, Win Htein, told Al Jazeera that the party needed to exclude Muslims to secure the election. He said, “in the present climate, we believe that it is a better strategy to win by leaving out Muslim candidates in the coming election”, whilst claiming that potential candidates of the Islamic faith had “agreed to that”. However, an anonymous Al Jazeera senior government source proposed that the authorities should crack down on extremist members of the Ma Bah Tha instead of ‘sponsoring them’.

Myanmar has witnessed a surge in nationalism following the eruption of riots in Rakhine state against the Rohingya in 2012, who comprise a third of the state’s three million people. The government disenfranchised about 700,000 Rohingya people through declaring holders of ‘white cards’ as ineligible to vote earlier this year. The cards had been issued as temporary identification documents, and white-card holders had been permitted to vote in the 2010 elections. Additionally, 15 Rohingya candidates were barred in August from contending the election, as their parents were ‘foreign-born’. Commentators attribute growing ethnic tensions to Asin Wirathu, dubbed the ‘Burmese bin Laden’, who was jailed in 2003 for inciting hatred and stirring clashes due to the attempts by the Rohingya to ‘establish an Islamic state in Rakhine’. Wirathu was released in 2010 and the source claimed that he has a ‘network’ within the country so that “if he wanted Islamic households in Bago to be destroyed, all he would have to do is snap his fingers. The [hardline Buddhist] groups there would destroy them”.

Additionally, Human Rights Watch researcher David Matheison reports that military-aligned units are undermining Burma’s elections by intimidating ethnic minorities. “These proxies, known as the Pyithu Sit [People’s Militias] and Neh San Tat [Border Guard Forces] are intimidating voters in Burma’s ethnic-minority borderlands and are stopping candidates from campaigning … or voting from taking place.” Myanmar recognises 135 ethnic minorities but denies citizenships to others, including the Rohingya. The country has no reliable opinion polls, however it is expected that ethnic-lined parties would win most seats.

The Council on Foreign Relations argues that the suppression of Muslims, ethnic minorities and anti-government protestors won’t necessarily mean that the elections are unfree. However, they will be ‘troubled’ in a manner similar to elections held in other young democracies plagued by conflict, such as Nigeria or Indonesia. The disturbances suggest that USDP is trying to leverage incumbency and decades of military rule to assist the army’s favoured party. However, the exclusion of these groups from the democratic process indicates ethnic tensions will continue to plague the country until the power of the Ma Ba Tha is curtailed.