No vote, no candidates: Myanmar's Muslims barred from their own election
By Poppy McPherson
November 3, 2015
As the country prepares for crucial polls, millions of Muslims are being denied the chance to vote for the candidates of their choice
|A young Muslim girl from Myanmar holds her identity card stating that her race is ‘Burmese Indian’. Photograph: Thomas Cristofoletti for the Guardian|
Win Mya Mya has given everything for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party – including the use of her left hand.
Drawing back the thin sleeve of her purple silk shirt, she reveals a disfigured appendage that gives her near-constant pain.
“She can’t even use it in the bathroom,” her sister says.
The wound dates back to 2003 when Win Mya Mya was part of a Suu Kyi convoy attacked by a mob sponsored by the former ruling military junta. Scores of people were killed. She spent years in jail and her family’s shop was seized.
“I would die for the NLD,” she says, speaking of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.
But despite this devotion, Win Mya Mya cannot stand for them in an election.
|Win Mya Mya, vice-president of NLD in Mandalay, is not a candidate in the upcoming elections because she is a Muslim. Photograph: Thomas Cristofoletti for the Guardian|
The upcoming poll on 8 November has been been touted as the freest and fairest in decades but, with religion an increasingly sensitive issue in Myanmar, many Muslims – from ordinary voters to experienced politicians – are coming up against barriers to participation.
The vice-president of the NLD in Mandalay, a hotbed of religious tension, Win Mya Mya is one of dozens of Muslims who applied to run for parliament but were rejected on the basis of their faith.
“Our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said I have to go to the country and persuade the Islamic people [to vote for the party] for the election but she doesn’t want me to apply as a candidate,” says Win Mya Mya.
Although they make up at least 5% of the 51 million population, no Muslims will appear on ballots for either the ruling party or the opposition. The NLD admits it struck them off following pressure from the increasingly powerful ultranationalist Buddhist movement.
Meanwhile, more than one million members of the Rohingya Muslim minority, a persecuted ethnic group from Western Myanmar, have been rendered stateless and are ineligible to vote.
Among the wider Burmese Muslim community there is alienation and disenfranchisement compounded by disputes over identity documents.
“Burmese Muslims have told us that they always thought of themselves as Burmese but now suddenly they are being treated as foreigners,” Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, tells the Guardian.
“It is creating a feeling of alienation and there is a definite move away from integration and towards more concentrated areas in towns and cities where Muslims choose to live.”
Recently, Muslims have been told to register their race as Indian or Pakistani (irrespective of whether they have relatives there) in order to obtain national registration cards, a senior immigration official told the Guardian.
The cards are needed to vote and travel abroad.
“He or she is Muslim so we write ‘India’,” says U Thaung Zaw, the head of Mandalay’s immigration department.
Haj Yan Aung, a shop owner whose family has lived in Mandalay for generations, says he refused to identify himself as Indian or Pakistani, and was denied the document. As a result, he is unable to vote.
“They denied that I was Burmese,” he says, his eyes filling with tears. “I said race has nothing to do with religion. They said: if your religion is Islam, you are automatically mixed blood, according to their new immigration policy.
“Insane! Do you know how old the mosques are in Mandalay? Some of them are over 200 years and the youngest one is over 150 years. We’ve been living here a long time. If I have to write my race as Indian, I won’t take that card.”
Some of his community bribed the authorities to list them as pure Burmese, he says. “Before, they had to pay $40 or $50. Now the price is $150.”
In Mandalay, Myanmar’s former royal capital, Buddhists and Muslims have lived together peacefully for hundreds of years. But amid countrywide tension, anti-Muslim riots in July last year left two people dead.
The city’s dozens of Muslim enclaves have now installed metal gates that are locked at night in case of attack.
“Formerly, we lived together and there was no trouble at all,” says Smar Nyi Nyi, an Islamic community leader.
A former student activist under the junta, he has grown increasingly disillusioned with the NLD over their failure to speak out over the persecution of Muslims.
“The anti-Muslim sentiment is spreading throughout the country. Not only in the USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party, the ruling party] and the ordinary people – even in the NLD members,” he says. “I am not interested in the election. I am not sure who to vote for.”
|Smar Nyi Nyi, a Muslim businessman and community leader. Since interfaith violence erupted in 2013, his community has been living in fear of attack. Photograph: Thomas Cristofoletti for the Guardian|
From one side of his rooftop he can see the four gates that enclose his community; on the other, the monastery of Ashin Wirathu, the firebrand monk blamed for much of the tension.
Dubbed the “Buddhist Bin Laden”, Wirathu believes Muslims – who he refers to as “mad dogs” in his fiery speeches – are plotting to take over the country.
A former devotee of the opposition, Wirathu still has a tattoo of Suu Kyi, he says. He keeps it hidden because he’s “shy”.
Now, he is one of the leaders of Ma Ba Tha, or the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, an extreme Buddhist nationalist group which ahead of the polls has toured the country holding mass rallies to celebrate the passage of laws seen as targeting Muslims and women.
“I just want to protect Buddhists from the danger of Muslims,” he tells the Guardian. “Actually, Muslims started the violence by marrying Buddhist women and forcing them to be Muslim. Almost all Muslim men do that.”
|Ma Ba Tha monk Ashin Wirathu in his office inside the Masoeyain monastery. The ultra-nationalist Buddhist group of monks has been whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment ahead of the polls. Photograph: Thomas Cristofoletti for the Guardian|
An al-Jazeera investigation last month unearthed strong evidence linking Wirathu and Ma Ba Tha to the Myanmar government and military and accused them of orchestrating the violence to undermine the transition to semi-civilian democracy started in 2012.
“Extremist nationalists have wielded considerable power, leveraging average peoples’ irrational fear of Muslims for political gain,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of human rights non-profit Fortify Rights.
“It’s telling that the group that posed the largest threat to entrenched military power – monks, in 2007 – are now the ones doing the military’s bidding.
“The real transition in Myanmar has been the way in which some peaceful pro-democracy monks now preach ideologies of hate.”
Both sides have denied the relationship, but Wirathu boasts of his ability to effect change through his widely followed Facebook page, on which he posts rumours of alleged Muslim crimes.
“[The government] takes action against bad police, bad juries and bad Muslims,” he says. “I don’t need to give advice – posting on my Facebook is enough.”
As if to prove his point, a few minutes later a married couple arrive at the pagoda and, kneeling at Wirathu’s feet, implore him to arrest their daughter’s Muslim boyfriend. The recent legislation places strong restrictions on interfaith marriage.
“The two religions shouldn’t be married because they are totally opposite,” says Tun Hla Aun, the father. “Our Buddhism has the mindset of forgiveness and kindness. We never harm others. That’s why I came here to the son of Buddha to ask for help for our safety.”
Wirathu nods slowly and scrolls through his smartphone as he listens. He promises to investigate their complaint and says if it is true he will post the allegations online.
|A Buddhist husband and wife talk with Ashin Wirathu and ask for his help to arrest a Muslim man who is having a relationship with their daughter who allegedly tried to convert her to Islam. Photograph: Thomas Cristofoletti for the Guardian|
There is a climate of unease among Muslims in Mandalay, some of whom fear a repeat of the violence tied to the polls.
Whatever happens after the election, it will likely usher in the first parliament in the country’s history without any Muslim MPs. Nonetheless, many Muslim voters are pinning their hopes on Suu Kyi, who they hope – despite her silence on the issue – will work to ease religious tensions if her party comes to power.
She has asked voters to forget about individual candidates and cast their ballots for the party.
“If the NLD wins the election, our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the kind of person who would never discriminate against other religions,” says Win Mya Mya.
Haj Yan Aung is of the same tune, saying if he could vote, he would vote for her.
And in the meantime? “We will sit and worry.”
Additional reporting by Saw Nang