After Myanmar Election, Few Signs of a Better Life for Muslims
November 18, 2015
YANGON, Myanmar — A few months before the general election here, the military-backed government struck hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the voter rolls. To be reinstated, they would have to prove their citizenship, but without using their government-issued ID cards, which the government had voided.
It was only the latest indignity heaped on the country’s several million Muslims, who face discrimination and have been subjected to murderous campaigns by radical Buddhists. Some Muslim members of Parliament were barred from running for re-election.
In the northwest, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim group, have been denied citizenship rights and areconfined to bleak villages and camps.
As Myanmar’s democracy movement prepares to take power after a landslide election victory last week, Muslims here wonder whether their lives will improve under the new government, led by the National League for Democracy.
Not likely, according to comments from N.L.D. officials.
“We have other priorities,” said U Win Htein, a senior party leader. “Peace, the peaceful transition of power, economic development and constitutional reform.”
Referring to the Rohingya, he used language similar to that employed by the current, military-backed government, saying that they were largely illegal immigrants who must be “returned” to Bangladesh.
“We’ll deal with the matter based on law and order and human rights,” Mr. Win Htein said, “but we have to deal with the Bangladesh government because almost all of them came from there.”
The election on Nov. 8 has been widely celebrated as a breakthrough for the nascent democracy here. But it was a bittersweet moment for Myanmar’s increasingly embattled Muslims, many of whom had put their faith in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate, national democracy icon and leader of the National League for Democracy.
Experts said they expected no drastic changes in government policies toward Muslims, but they held out hope that at least things would not become worse. Though the N.L.D. leaders made no campaign promises to end discrimination against Muslims, analysts said, they did not go out of their way to attack them.
“I think a lot of Muslims thought sure, the N.L.D. and Suu Kyi haven’t vocally supported us, but they’re much better than the other guys,” said David Scott Mathieson, a Myanmar specialist at Human Rights Watch. “That’s an added governance burden on Suu Kyi that she has to address — we might not support full Muslim participation, but we will ensure that you’ll be treated as citizens, and there will be no further discrimination during her government’s term. She’s got an overwhelming mandate to do that.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized abroad for not speaking up for the Rohingya, whose life is grim enough that thousands fled on smugglers’ ships in the spring, setting off a regionwide crisis after other countries initially turned the boats back, leaving the migrants to starve at sea. But her reticence is de rigueur in a country where anti-Muslim hatred runs high and any hint of conciliation is seen as political suicide.
Neither her party nor the military-aligned governing party fielded any Muslim candidates, viewing them as a liability. When the new Parliament is seated in late January, the body will have no Muslim members for the first time since the country’s independence in 1948.
One Muslim candidate who, after appealing twice to the election commission, was allowed to run for Parliament, quit the N.L.D., which he had joined at its founding in 1988.
The candidate, U Yan Naing, said party members had organized a religiously motivated protest against him in the town of Myaung Mya, where he oversaw the party’s election committee. He said he raised his concerns in many letters to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi but received no response.
“It was discrimination,” he said. “This so-called democratic party. I was very disappointed.”
Instead, he ran on the ticket of a small, predominantly Muslim party, with a simple goal: giving Muslims a voice in Parliament.
He was trounced by the N.L.D. In a district that was 40 percent Muslim, Mr. Yan Naing took just 1 percent of the vote. The N.L.D. candidate received 80 percent.
“Even the Muslims didn’t vote for us,” he said. “Daw Suu is very influential over the Muslims, too.”
Indeed, Muslims voted overwhelmingly for the N.L.D., according to analysts and interviews with Muslim voters.
“They didn’t say anything to win our support,” said Khin Mar Cho, 48, as she coated melon slices in batter to fry them at her roadside stall in a neighborhood with a large Muslim population. “But most of us voted for the N.L.D. anyway. We hope for a change.”
Mr. Win Htein, the N.L.D. leader, acknowledged that his party chose not to have any Muslim candidates run, because that would have given ammunition to the radical Buddhists, considered a powerful political force here. The Patriotic Association of Myanmar, a radical anti-Muslim group run by Buddhist monks, had already accused Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi of being too soft on Muslims.
“They said that if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wins, then she would allow our country to be overrun with the Muslims,” Mr. Win Htein said. But he insisted that his party treated all religions equally.
If there was a bright spot in this election for Myanmar’s Muslims, it may have been the failure of the radical Buddhist movement to sway the election in favor of the governing party, which its leaders had backed.
Experts, however, said, the movement was unlikely to disappear as a political force. “Sadly I think it might rear its head again,” Mr. Mathieson of Human Rights Watch said.
One of its main leaders, Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk, vowed that the movement would continue and that it would closely watch the new government for efforts to roll back laws that his group had championed, including those passed this year to enforce monogamy and restrict religious conversion, interfaith marriage and the frequency of childbirth. Those laws, which do not specifically mention Muslims, are understood to have been aimed at them.
“We will protect the race and religion laws as best we can,” Ashin Wirathu said. “We will never let anyone destroy them.”
Still, in the context of Myanmar’s long struggle toward democracy, many Muslims said they believed that a government led by a party that promised a return to the rule of law was at least a move in the right direction.
“There has been so much racial and religious incitement,” said U Aung Kyaw Tun, a Muslim who is a graphic designer in Yangon and who voted for the N.L.D. “If there is rule of law, it will reduce the tension.”
Like other Muslims who voted for the party, he used the word “hope” to explain why. Whether that expectation is justified remains to be seen.
“The fact that members of the Muslim population are still holding out hope in the N.L.D., despite the N.L.D.’s silence and inaction to date — particularly on the abuses against Rohingya — is in some way indicative of the desperation,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a human rights group that focuses on Myanmar. “But it is a contagious hope, and it is a hope that we share.”
Eaint Thiri Thu and Saw Nang contributed reporting.