By Martin Woollacott
29 October 2015
Race and religion are casting a dark shadow over Myanmar as it moves toward critical elections next month. The elections would have been difficult enough for the country if confined to the issues of what degree of democracy can now be introduced, and what role should be played by the iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But it has been made more divisive and dangerous by an insidious emphasis on national identity that threatens to further open up the fault line between ethnic Burmans and the country’s minorities, in particular the Muslim community.
A campaign to portray Aung San Suu Kyi as pro-Muslim, and to label her National League for Democracy the “Muslim party” is under way. Its public face is thePatriotic Association of Myanmar, or Ma Ba Tha, a powerful organisation of the Buddhist clergy that earlier this month staged a huge rally in Yangon to celebrate the recent passage of laws ostensibly regulating marriage and contraception for all citizens but in fact intended to stop Muslims having large families, marrying more than one wife, or marrying Buddhist women. The laws are based on the fantasy that these things are happening on any scale – even if that were the case, they would be unenforceable. But they have helped conjure up a supposed Muslim menace to Burma’s Buddhist values.
A few weeks ago the election commission disqualified more than 100 parliamentary candidates, most of them members of the Rohingya Muslim minority in the north-western state of Rakhine. Nearly one million Rohingya were deprived of the vote earlier this year on the grounds they could not prove their families had been long resident in Myanmar, and riots there in recent years have led to a massive and brutal displacement of population.
The monks are widely believed to enjoy support from a military establishment that thinks anti-Muslim scaremongering will take votes away from the NLD, heavily favoured to win the election on 8 November, perhaps even keeping its MPs under 50% of seats in parliament and weakening it in post-election manoeuvring. An NLD advisor notes such tricks as a government-leaning paper prominently printing shots of Aung Sang Suu Kyi greeting Muslim elders while neglecting to take or use shots showing her with Buddhist clergy on the same occasion. President Thein Sein and other officials, on the other hand, are routinely shown greeting senior Buddhist monks.
The building-up of this “Muslim invasion” scare has reached the point where the NLD is fielding no Muslim candidates in spite of having a significant number of Muslim members. That may be either prudent or cowardly; it is probably both, and certainly an indication of how serious the problem could be.
How are ordinary Burmans going to react, when they come to vote, to this effort to cast the election as a fight for the Burman Buddhist soul? U Ko Ni, a leading Muslim member of the NLD, says that, “It is only a small group among Burmese Buddhists spreading these untruths. Most Buddhists don’t agree.” But, he complains, “The authorities are not taking action against those who spread this hate speech”. He defended the decision to field no Muslim candidates by saying that to do so would play into the hands of those who claim “the NLD is a Muslim party, and very soon Myanmar will be a Muslim country”.
He implies that most voters will see through such nonsense. The truth is that the anti-Muslim campaign poses a painful dilemma for Aung San Suu Kyi: if she were to loudly oppose it, the propagandists would twist her words. So she has chosen a careful line, issuing a statement, for example, deploring events in Rakhine statebut generally avoiding Muslim issues.
There is a Burmese understanding of history in which their state was stolen from them by the British, who then let in foreign predators – Hindu and Muslim Indians, Jews, Chinese, and other Europeans – as well as empowering hitherto unimportant minorities such as the Shan and other hill peoples. It is true that the British imperial project interrupted a Burmese one, which was in the process of conquering and absorbing other states and peoples. Resentment at their historical displacement and feelings of superiority toward other ethnicities and religions have shaped the military establishment, but how far they inform popular attitudes now is difficult to know.
Many would argue that Myanmar cannot have an effective democracy unless attitudes of this kind are shelved rather than pumped up to sustain a chauvinistic populism. What the military may ultimately hope for is something along Malaysian lines, in which a dominant Burman party rules in alliance with junior partners from other ethnicities. What the NLD embodies, on the other hand, is the hope that a Myanmar democracy will be about all citizens voting on the basis of principles and policies, not on ethnicity.
It can be argued that military rule came about precisely because ethnic Burmans in positions of power could not cope with the diversity of their real country. For decades Myanmar suffered under that rule, as inefficient as it was oppressive, sliding toward economic ruin, politically fettered, closed off from the world. Then came a period when the army eased its grip, opened up to foreign trade and investment, and permitted limited democratic activity.
Now the question is whether Myanmar is on its way to becoming a democracy in which the military retain some influence and privileges but are no longer preponderant, or whether it is going be a state in which the army remains on top behind a democratic facade – perhaps thanks to a narrow Burman ideology.
There is plenty to object to in this electoral campaign, including inadequate electoral lists, possible misuse of advance voting, overly complex voting procedures, alleged bias in the electoral commission, and failure to register voters abroad. But the real anxiety must be that the NLD may be cheated of decisive victory by this Islamophobic fantasy, or, even if it gets the landslide it expects, will have to cope after the election with its toxic legacy. Will ordinary voters brush aside the narrative of Muslim encroachment and make their choice about Myanmar’s future without prejudice? Much depends on the answer.
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