Myanmar's election surprise: Anti-Muslim hate campaign loses big

But as Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition party prepare to govern, divisive Buddhist nationalists and older military forces remain potent. 

Hkun Lat/AP
A Myanmar Buddhist monk walks on a white bridge Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Yin Yin Moe can still remember the fear she felt when a group of men began rioting in her neighborhood of mainly Muslim-owned stores in downtown Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-biggest city.

“Last year, some Buddhists came, we never saw them before. They started throwing rocks and began fighting with the young men here,” says the pharmacy owner. “I was afraid for the safety of my old parents and my young niece. We had to close the shop and left for three days… only on the fifth day the police came.”

That unrest marked the rise of a powerful movement of nationalist Buddhist monks, known in Myanmar as Ma Ba Tha. Their anti-Muslim and pro-government positions and speech were seen as fomenting fear and divisions among people in this multi-faith country. Some predicted that they could swing last week's historic elections away from the party of eventual winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

The leader of Ma Ba Tha, a charismatic monk named Wirathu, campaigned for months in support of laws in Myanmar restricting rights for racial and religious minorities. So potent was his movement's supposed influence that Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy didn't field any Muslim candidates, despite leading what it calls a people’s party.

Yet the hardline Buddhists and their military backers failed to stop the NLD, even in areas where they had prominence. Analysts say the hardliners underestimated Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity and the desire for change in Myanmar and went too far by opposing her.

Hardliners continue as a force

Still, as the Nobel prize winner prepares her NLD party to govern the country for the first time, both groups – nationalist monks and military elites – continue to be a powerful force.

“Their [military] plan was to use Ma Ba Tha, spread online hate speech, force civil servants and soldiers to vote [for the pro-military party USDP], and to buy votes,” argues prominent activist Kyaw Thu, who heads a network of NGOs called Paung Ku that monitor communal tensions.

On Nov. 12 the NLD was officially declared the winner of Myanmar's first truly free and fair elections in a quarter century. The party won more than 80 percent of the votes, ushering in what observers here are calling a new political era.

The victory is being seen as a relief for Myanmar’s Muslims who have increasingly suffered under government targeting and popular prejudices. 

In February, the government disenfranchised about one million Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority in western Myanmar. The state-run election commission disqualified most Muslim candidates from running in elections and the new parliament will have no Muslim representatives.

“We are very glad the NLD beat the USDP because most Muslims in Myanmar feel depressed - most feel the USDP is unfair to Muslims,” said Khin Maung Htwe, a Muslim resident here. But, he adds, “we hope for a better future. We believe Aung San Suu Kyi has no feelings of discrimination.”

Stateless Rohingya 

It remains unclear whether the NLD will improve the plight of the Rohingya, who are viewed by many in Myanmar as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

The NLD vice chairperson in Mandalay, who is a Muslim, says she understood her party’s request that she not run for office. But Win Win May says the NLD’s win will bring change in terms of pushing back against prejudice. “If there is a new government the Ma Ba Tha will disappear, only the NLD can do a lot about this situation.”

Aung San Suu Kyi told the BBC on Tuesday that her government would protect Muslims in Myanmar and guarantee equal treatment for all.

Kyaw Thu, the activist, worries, however, that the military will continue to stir up communal tensions. “They know the NLD has a lack of capacity. So they can use this strategy to create chaos and problems to justify the role of the military - this is a problem for the NLD in the next five years,” he said.

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