By Jonathan Bogais —
Tensions are running high in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine State ahead of the November 8 general elections. The Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, a body of ultra-nationalist monks—known locally as MaBaTha—is raising the stakes by calling for a radical anti-Muslim campaign, creating fear that a new wave of violence could erupt. Meanwhile, in a worrying sign of things to come, three boats carrying displaced Rohingya have already been sighted leaving Rakhine raising social and political concerns in the region.
The recent three-day visit to Rakhine by the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi, and her call for unity and an end to violence, prompted angry accusations from some ultra-nationalist monks accusing her and her party of being “weak on Islam,” the religion of about 5 percent of the population. Under the leadership of the leading ultra-nationalist monk Wirathu, MaBaTha has been encouraging people to vote for candidates who “will not let the Buddhist race and religion disappear.” Slogans like “keep our blood pure” and “protect our race” abound. During a recent two-week-long rally in Yangon, an estimated 1,300 monks celebrated the passage of four Protection of Race and Religion Laws that critics say discriminate against people based on religion and gender.
The strong anti-Muslim rhetoric and the criticisms of Aung San Suu Kyi suggest that ultra-nationalists have the backing of an anti-reform faction in the ruling military elite eager to build support against the NLD. The ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement is a growing force in Myanmar’s politics and the driving agent of a nationalist push that threatens to overshadow gains made by Myanmar’s reformers. Its strength represents the best hope for some of the army-backed leaders to hold onto power in the first elections since the country emerged from decades of military dictatorship and isolation.
However, the MaBaTha’s extremist religious and social views must also be analyzed in terms of the political and economic implications of how discrimination against the Rohingya population and the confiscation of their lands serve the economic interests of the local Buddhist authorities at a time when land is rapidly becoming one of Southeast Asia’s most sought-after commodities for commercial development.
Aung San Suu Kyi is in a difficult position in Rakhine where she must walk a fine line between showing empathy with the Rohingya’s plight — with the risk of losing credibility and votes among dissatisfied Buddhists — or being perceived as indifferent to the struggles of the embattled Muslim minority. She is also under pressure from the international community to take action to prevent further violence and recognize the existence of the Rohingya. Conditions on the ground, and the mass exodus of Rohingya that caused an international outcry earlier this year, have earned them the unenviable description by the United Nations as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.” Reports of repeated, systematic violent abuses of the Rohingya following communal clashes in 2012 and 2014 prompted President Barack Obama, during his visit to Myanmar last November, to call for an end to incitement and violence and for the government to address issues of injustice.
Despite Obama’s call, little happened. Instead, in an effort to appease the overwhelming Buddhist majority in a country of nearly 52 million, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party initially protested, but eventually acquiesced to the government’s decision to exclude the estimated 800,000 Muslim Rohingya from eligibility to vote in the upcoming elections. During her visit to Rakhine, she did not meet with Rohingya representatives and stayed away from the regional capital, Sittwe, a city from which most Muslims were removed in 2012. Aid to the displaced Rohingya is barely filtering through the strict restrictions imposed by local Rakhine nationalists.
The elections reflect the overall situation in a country that remains weak in terms of governance, economic development, and security. In Rakhine, as in other places away from the major cities, people are not politically aware and their vulnerabilities can be easily exploited. In this space, anti-Muslim rhetoric can go a long way.
Meanwhile, tension has erupted again in the town of Kyauktaw, north of Sittwe, following the discovery of a dead man whose origin could not be identified. In scenes reminiscent of events preceding the 2012 and 2014 unrest, aid workers have reported the presence of armed Rakhine gangs near Rohingya villages increasing the fear that violence could erupt again.
Paradoxically, Aung San Suu Kyi remains the best hope for the Rohingya despite her long-standing criticisms of the people she calls Bengalis and considers illegal immigrants, because the alternative is a coalition between current government members and ultra-nationalists. This problem, and the threat of further deadly unrest, and the renewed exodus by sea will not go away unless a real strategy involving international actors is defined and acted upon, regardless of who wins the elections.
Dr. Jonathan Bogais is a non-resident senior associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. He is also an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney. Visit his personal site: www.jonathanbogais.net. Read more posts by Dr. Bogais here.
Dr. Jonathan Bogais is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.