On November 8, the people of Burma went to the polls for the country’s first democratic election in decades. It was a two-horse race between the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, the political reincarnation of the former military junta that ruled the country between 1962 and 2011, and the National League for Democracy, led by famed democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. Although legal wranglings prior to the election barred Suu Kyi from becoming president even if her party won, she made clear that her word was final within the party.
By November 9, the ruling party conceded defeat and, at the time of writing, the NLD contends that it has won upward of 70% of the popular vote. As long as no underhand actions take place after the election, Burma looks set for a peaceful transfer of power and, all in all, the election appears to be genuine cause to celebrate.
That is, unless you are a Muslim in Burma. The religious debate has stalked the election from the shadows, avoided by some, used for propagandistic purposes by others. It is an inescapable fact that while Burma’s historic election is widely seen as a triumph for liberal democracy — the U.S. has made Burmese democracy a pet project in Southeast Asia for almost a decade — it is a democracy that does not bring power to all people.
Newspaper headlines hammered this point home. Reuters went with: “For Myanmar’s Muslims, little to cheer about historic election.” Newsweek opted for: “Plight of Myanmar’s Muslims Is a Blot On Historic Election.” Thailand’s Bangkok Post chose: “Islamophobia casts shadow over historic Myanmar election.”
Indeed, the elections have epitomized Burma’s Islamophobia, which has been growing more vocal and dominant over the last decade.
The start of a massacre
It was March 21, 2013, and for the people of Meikhtila, a city 80 miles north of Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw, the day began just like any other. However, by nightfall, 25 Muslims lay dead in the city’s dusty streets. A dozen of the corpses had been dragged up a nearby hill where they were set alight. By the end of the week, 43 people in the city had been killed, and more than 13,000, mostly Muslims, driven from their homes.
Nobody knows for certain how it all began that day. One story goes that a Muslim business-owner insulted a Buddhist customer. An angry mob then formed outside the shop and proceeded to destroy the establishment.
An investigation by Reuters put it this way: “The dawn massacre of 25 Muslims in Meikhtila was led by Buddhist monks — often held up as icons of democracy in Myanmar. The killings took place in plain view of police, with no intervention by the local or central government. Graffiti scrawled on one wall called for a ‘Muslim extermination.’ ”
In the months that followed, anti-Muslim violence swept through Burma. In April, a Buddhist mob torched mosques and the homes of Muslims in the village of Okkan in western Burma. Violence spread to surrounding villages, leaving two Muslims dead and dozens injured. In May, in the Shan state town of Lashio, a Buddhist mob armed with machetes patrolled the streets by motorbike, attacking Muslims without constraint. Elsewhere, riots continued until the end of the year.
The events of 2013 shocked many people around the world. Of course, Muslims also attacked Buddhists, but the vast majority of those killed, beaten or left homeless were Muslim. However, these incidents were nothing new. Anti-Muslim riots had also taken place a year earlier, which left almost 120,000 people displaced, mostly the Rohingya, a Muslim minority. Violence also flared up in 2001 and 1997.
The presence of Buddhist monks during many of the attacks, even leading the way in some riots, raised even more eyebrows, with many people asking: Isn’t Buddhism meant to be a peaceful religion?
Islamophobia in Burma has a long history. According to an opinion piece published in the Guardian, “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.”
Alan Strathern, an associate professor of modern history at Brasenose College in Oxford, compares Burmese anti-Muslim sentiment to that in Sri Lanka — two countries where Buddhists have clashed with Muslims.
“Buddhism took a leading role in the nationalist movements that emerged as Burma and Sri Lanka sought to throw off the yoke of the British Empire,” Strathern wrote in the BBC in 2013. “…[M]any came to feel Buddhism was integral to their national identity — and the position of minorities in these newly independent nations was an uncomfortable one.”
In more recent years, this merger of nationalism and Buddhism in Burma has found its most vocal advocate in a 47-year-old monk from Mandalay named Ashin Wirathu, who in 2013 was dubbed the “Burmese bin Laden” by Time magazine. Wirathu, who is also seen as the spiritual leader of the anti-Muslim movement in Burma, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2003 for inspiring persecution of Muslims in his sermons. He was released after seven years.
He has become the well-known face behind the 969 Movement, a Buddhist-nationalist movement, with the aim of limiting Muslim “expansion” in Burma.
While these anti-Muslim sentiments played out in society during the last decade, the politicization of the issue has been a recent development. In August, the government passed a number of highly controversial laws — though championed by radical Buddhists — which many saw as specifically anti-Muslim. One law establishes punishments for people with more than one spouse or who live with an unmarried partner other than the spouse. Two others seek to limit religious conversion and interfaith marriage.
These laws came around the same time as the world was shocked by news reports of Rohingya migrants fleeing Burma. There are an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya living in Burma, mostly in Rakhine State. Historians are divided over where the Indo-Aryan minority originally came from, with some saying they are indigenous to the Rakhine area, while others contend they arrived in Burma from Bengal during British rule. In 1982, the Burmese government passed a nationality law, denying citizenship to all Rohingya.
Doctors Without Borders describes the Rohingya as being among the world’s minority groups “most in danger of extinction.” They face extreme persecution in Burma, not only because of their religion, but also because many Burmese, particularly those in the government, refuse to accept that they are anything other than Bengali or Bangladeshi migrants.
This persecution came to a head in 2015 when thousands of Rohingya fled to other Southeast Asian nations.
Researchers from the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London have stated that the Rohingya face “mass annihilation” and “the final stages of genocide.” The report, Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar, was published in October.
Professor Penny Green, director of ISCI, said in a news release: “While attention is focused on the forthcoming elections, the Rohingya people are harassed, terrorised and slaughtered. We found widespread evidence of killings, torture, rape, arbitrary detention, and State sanctioned campaigns of religious hatred.
“While the Rohingya have been persecuted for decades, they have faced an intensified and unrelenting campaign of State-led terror since 2012. They have had their land removed from them, their civil rights have been rendered meaningless, their livelihoods have been destroyed, and they have been forced into detention camps.”
Using the six stages of genocide theory, the report concludes that in Burma, just two stages remain for the Rohingya: extermination and “symbolic enactment” — removing the existence of the Rohingya from official history.
Denial of identity
In the run-up to the November election, it was reported that the nearly 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims living in Burma were denied the vote altogether. Until February, many Rohingya held temporary citizenship documents, known as white cards, which allowed them to vote. Then, President Thein Sein abruptly nullified the cards, stripping the Rohingya of their right to vote, the latest in a long series of their basic rights being eroded.
But it wasn’t just the Rohingya who faced difficulties in obtaining the necessary paperwork. In the weeks leading up to the elections, local media revealed that many non-Rohingya Muslims in Burma were also not able to obtain the paperwork needed to vote. Worse still, those who didn’t yet have the documents were told to register as being Indian or Pakistani to do so.
“They denied that I was Burmese,” a Muslim shop owner in Mandalay told the Guardian. “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.”
Other Muslims told the newspaper that they could obtain the necessary documents if they paid bribes of up to $150.
These efforts to bar Muslims from voting were just the beginning. The Guardian also found that Muslim supporters of Suu Kyi’s NLD — the harbinger of democracy — were becoming increasingly disaffected with the party. While the ruling party has long found legitimacy among Buddhist extremists, it began to appear that the NLD was not only turning a blind eye to the growing Islamophobia, but was kowtowing to it.
“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,” Win Mya Mya, vice president of the NLD in Mandalay, a city of heightened religious tension, told the British newspaper.
Indeed, an investigation by local newspaper Irrawaddy revealed that the NLD did give in to pressure by Buddhist nationalists and excluded all Muslim candidates from its candidate list. “There are no Muslim candidates. Around 15-16 Muslim people applied to be candidates but the central committee did not choose them,” a prominent member of the party said.
While much of the world has celebrated as Suu Kyi enjoys her “Mandela” moment and Burma had its first democratic election without serious vote-rigging or violence, the question of where Muslims fit into a democratic Burma remains unanswered. Suu Kyi and her NLD have successfully dodged the issue for most of the run-up to the elections in an effort not to antagonize Buddhist nationalists, but in power, they will no longer be able to sweep race and religion under the carpet.