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YANGON, Myanmar — The celebrations began shortly after dawn. A cluster of monks in saffron robes gathered beneath this city’s historic golden Shwedagon Pagoda to murmur prayers and chants. A procession of vans then took the men to a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, where groups of monks, nuns and civilians huddled under umbrellas before a large stage lined with senior abbots and emblazoned with Buddhist insignia.
This was no ordinary religious festival. The Sept. 14 gathering was the start of a two-week nationwide anti-Muslim event organized by Myanmar’s powerful Buddhist nationalist group, known locally as the Ma Ba Tha. The cause for celebration was the recent adoption of a package of laws to “protect race and religion” in the Buddhist-majority country, further marginalizing its beleaguered Muslim minority.
"Victorious! Victorious!" the crowd bellowed as a soft-spoken monk took to the stage.
The four bills, sponsored by the Ma Ba Tha and signed into law last month by President Thein Sein, restrict interfaith marriages and religious conversions, criminalize polygamy and adultery and demand that women wait three years between the birth of each child. The legislation is broadly viewed as an attack on the country’s Muslims. A Muslim man recently became the first target of the new monogamy law, facing seven years in prison for living with a Buddhist woman after separating from his wife.
This comes at a time of high religious tensions in Myanmar, which has been gripped by bouts of anti-Muslim violence since emerging from decades of military dictatorship in 2011. Ma Ba Tha’s celebrations coincide with the launch of campaign season in Myanmar, which is preparing for a landmark general election on Nov. 8. A rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric raises concerns that religious nationalism will be used for political goals.
Also this month, the government-backed election commission culled more than 100 candidates, most of them members of the Rohingya Muslim minority from western Myanmar. The commission cited concerns about their citizenship. Nearly 1 million Rohingya Muslims were stripped of their right to vote earlier this year after pressure from Buddhist nationalists.
In the United States [the] Christian right and anti-abortionists also talk about voting for the candidates who support the anti-abortion [agenda], so this is normal for them to express their opinion. It is not the candidates asking the Ma Ba Tha to campaign for them, so it’s very different.
U Ye Htut
head of Myanmar's Ministry of Information
The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has increasingly found itself the target of the Ma Ba Tha. “There are many parties and people who can bring the best reforms to Myanmar,” a monk told the audience at a Yangon monastery during the Sept. 14 gathering, reading a statement from Ma Ba Tha leader Ywarma Sayadaw. “It is extremely crucial to avoid and not to vote for those who claim they work for the people but look to abolish the race protection laws … and help those from other races and religions for money.”
In a separate speech that day, another nationalist monk, Maw Kyun Sayardaw, reportedly likened the opposition party to a “league of prawns” — an insult in Myanmar culture associated with stupidity.
Suu Kyi’s party — which is expected to win a landslide victory in the elections — has publicly criticized some of the race protection bills. That has provoked the ire of Buddhist nationalists, many of whom view Suu Kyi, a democracy icon who spent most of her life outside Myanmar, as too sympathetic to international interests. (Suu Kyi, whose late husband was British, is barred from running for president because of a constitutional provision that excludes individuals with foreign family members from the position.) She is no stranger to criticisms of her foreign connections, enduring regular smear campaigns on social media for her perceived pro-Muslim bias. But the attacks have escalated in recent weeks as Myanmar’s elections — expected to usher in the first democratic transition of power in over half a century — draw nearer.
Firebrand monk Wirathu — infamous for his incendiary sermons likening Muslims to “mad dogs” who rape Buddhist women — has publicly backed incumbent Thein Sein for the presidency. He has accused the NLD of using campaign tactics that violate Buddhist teachings. Wirathu’s organization is broadcasting interviews in which members of the Ma Ba Tha interrogate political candidates about their positions on immigration and religion.
In a statement published on Facebook on Sept. 15, nine embassies expressed concern “about the prospect of religion being used as a tool of division and conflict during the campaign season” in Myanmar. The government has rejected the allegations, accusing the signatories, including the U.S. government, of fomenting “misunderstanding and doubts” among the people.
U Ye Htut, the head of Myanmar’s Ministry of Information and Thein Sein’s spokesman, defended the Ma Ba Tha’s right to campaign for candidates perceived to support Buddhism.
“In the United States [the] Christian right and anti-abortionists also talk about voting for the candidates who support the anti-abortion [agenda], so this is normal for them to express their opinion,” he said. “It is not the candidates asking the Ma Ba Tha to campaign for them, so it’s very different.”
He deflected criticism of a recent video posted on the official Facebook page of the president’s office, which appears to brag about Thein Sein’s anti-Muslim policies. The slickly shot film lists among the president’s key achievements the rejection of the existence of Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority denied citizenship by the government and dismissed by many as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The video also praises Thein Sein’s role in pushing through the four race protection laws.
“If President [George W.] Bush or Prime Minister [David] Cameron’s office shared their opinion of their policy on some religious or church group, that doesn’t mean they are using religion for political purposes,” said Ye Htut. “Everyone can express their opinion in a democratic society.”
They are living a subhuman life in Rakhine state. They don’t know what will come in the night or the next day. Everyone is living in fear.
founder, Democracy and Human Rights Party
NLD members suspect that the attempt to stir up religious nationalism is an effort to diminish the party's chances in the elections. “[The Ma Ba Tha] is attacking the NLD and also other political parties,” said U Nyan Win, the NLD’s spokesman. “This is an act against the law.”
Myanmar’s election law and 2008 constitution strictly prohibit individuals or political parties from exploiting religious tensions for political gain.
According to Nyan Win, the NLD filed a formal complaint with the Union Election Commission but has yet to receive a response. U Ko Ko, the commission’s spokesman for Yangon, declined to answer questions about the Ma Ba Tha. “We are doing our election job, and they are doing their job,” he said. “I cannot say exactly that they are violating election law.”
But even some members of the Ma Ba Tha appear to disagree. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the group, a senior member of Ma Ba Tha conceded that while the organization had “no official policy” to target Suu Kyi’s party, some members were clearly doing so. “I personally dislike this,” he said. “I think it is a breach of the constitution, which prohibits using religion for politics.”
Myanmar’s leadership, a quasi-civilian administration dominated by former military brass, has a history of exploiting Muslims. In the 2010 elections, Rohingyas were offered citizenship in exchange for voting for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party — a promise the government reneged on. The party roped in a number of Rohingya candidates to represent it in Muslim-majority parts of northern Rakhine state. One of them was U Shwe Maung, who resigned from the party after the mass disenfranchisement of Rohingya voters earlier this year. He was planning to run as an independent candidate in the November elections, but his application was rejected. U Kyaw Min, a winner in Myanmar’s 1990 elections, which were won by the NLD but were annulled by the junta, also saw his candidacy bid rebuffed. Meanwhile, a candidate for the ruling Union Solidary and Development Party, whose parents are Chinese citizens, was not rejected.
Kyaw Min, who set up the Democracy and Human Rights Party to represent the Rohingya in 2012, believes the outlook for his ethnic group is bleak. Seventeen of 18 candidates from his party were turned down, most of them Rohingya Muslims. The elections will be the first in Myanmar’s history in which Rohingya won’t be able to participate.
“We have to appeal,” said Kyaw Min, sitting in a gloomy downtown apartment in Yangon as traffic blared outside. “But we are not hopeful, because our rejection is not according to the law. It is according to the wish and whim of the government.”
The U.S. State Department has described the government’s decision to exclude certain candidates as “opaque and discriminatory,” one that “risks undermining the confidence of the Burmese people and the international community in these elections.” The November polls have been viewed as a crucial test for Myanmar’s commitment to democracy.
But the elections could see the Rohingya’s situation further deteriorate. Kyaw Min recently returned from a visit to northern Rakhine, where more than 140,000 people remain interred in concentration-camp-like conditions after sectarian clashes with Buddhists in 2012. Nearly one-tenth of the Rohingya population is estimated to have fled by rickety boats across the Andaman Sea in desperate bids to flee persecution and poverty.
“They are living a subhuman life in Rakhine state,” he said. “They don’t know what will come in the night or the next day. Everyone is living in fear.”
With Rohingya voters and politicians excluded from the November voting, analysts fear that Muslim-majority areas could be won by political parties that want to see the Rohingya expelled from Myanmar. Despite being painted as a pro-Muslim party, even the NLD has been reluctant to speak for the minority. Instead, the NLD appears to have succumbed to pressure from the Ma Ba Tha and is fielding no Muslim candidates in the elections. On the issue of Rohingya rights, Suu Kyi has remained tight-lipped, and some party members are outright hostile.
“We don’t support the Rohingya,” said Nyan Win. “They are Bengalis. They come from the Bay of Bengal.”
For Kyaw Min, the NLD’s drift into anti-Muslim rhetoric has been a particular disappointment. In 2005 he was sentenced to 47 years in prison for his pro-democracy work with Suu Kyi, whom he viewed then as the best hope for his people. The military junta even jailed his wife and three children as punishment for his crime. That period, he said, was “the darkest” of his life.
But three years after his release from prison, Kyaw Min is beginning to view Suu Kyi in a different light.
“It is a bit difficult to believe that Aung San Suu Kyi will work for us,” he said. “She is very cautious and silent.”