MYANMAR will stage its first competitive general election in 25 years on November 8th. More than 90 parties have registered, but only two have national reach: the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Miss Suu Kyi’s party is expected to perform well but a discordant theme has sounded repeatedly during the campaign. At a rally in Pathein, in south-western Myanmar, an abbot affiliated with the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, best known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, asked the audience of 10,000 if they knew which political party was supported by “Islamists”. They shouted, “NLD”. In central Myanmar, monks have reportedly been warning voters that the NLD wants to turn Myanmar into a Muslim country. Wirathu, a Ma Ba Tha-affiliated monk from Mandalay, says that the NLD cares more about Muslims than about Burman Buddhists, the country’s biggest ethnic and religious group. Where do these accusations come from, and do they have any validity?
The second question is easier to answer than the first: no. Miss Suu Kyi herself is Burman, the majority ethnic group, which comprises around 68% of the population. Neither in word nor deed has she expressed any sympathy for Islamism nor even the slightest interest in making Myanmar a Muslim country, whatever that would mean (Muslims account for just 4% of Myanmar’s population). She has spoken out in favour of pluralism. But she has been shamefully silent on Buddhist persecution of Muslim Rohingyas—an ethnic group in western Myanmar whom many Burmans, including the USDP government, derisively call “Bengalis”, implying that they have immigrated illegally from neighbouring Bangladesh. The NLD is fielding no Muslim candidates—in part, according to a senior party official, “for fear of antagonising Ma Ba Tha”.
The first question is more complicated. Partly the answer has to do with electoral politics. Anti-Muslim sentiment is widespread and deep-seated in Myanmar; the USDP would not be the first political party to stir up ethnic grievances for political gain. Though Ma Ba Tha and the USDP generally deny explicit affiliation, links exist. At the Pathein rally a local USDP official sat on the dais with Ma Ba Tha members. The USDP-dominated legislature adopted—and Myanmar’s president, who chairs the USDP, signed into law—four noxious Ma Ba Tha-supported bills, which restrict religious conversion and interfaith marriage, and mandate that women wait 36 months between births: a requirement that many fear will be enforced more stringently against Muslims than Buddhists. Whether the USDP organises Ma Ba Tha’s activities or not, their anti-NLD campaigning helps the incumbent party.
But electoral politics aside, Myanmar has never really made peace with its plural identity. Though it is home to scores of ethnic groups, Burmans have wielded unchallenged power since independence. The incumbent government has signed ceasefires with several armed ethnic groups, but has never fully delineated how much local autonomy it is prepared to cede. The Panglong Agreement, signed by Miss Suu Kyi’s father in 1947, granted a measure of autonomy to the country’s ethnic minorities (many of whom are non-Buddhist) but the agreement was never implemented. Instead, the military junta justified its repression by warning that without it Myanmar would splinter and disintegrate. Miss Suu Kyi’s popularity presents Myanmar’s army with the most potent challenge it has ever faced, and the accusations against her represent its last-ditch effort to cling to power.
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