Abu Taher: repressed and rejected

Rohingya politician and human rights activist Abu Taher is no rookie. He ran for parliament for the National Democratic Party for Development in the 2010 elections and won the Upper House seat for Buthidaung, Rakhine State. But the Union Election Commission accused him of breaking campaigning laws, and after a grueling, year-long appeal process his opponent from the Union Solidarity and Development Party was finally awarded the seat.


Muslim men in downtown Yangon enjoy a tea before evening prayer on Shwe Bon Thar St. (Lauren DeCicca / Frontier)

Muslim men in downtown Yangon enjoy a tea before evening prayer on Shwe Bon Thar St. (Lauren DeCicca / Frontier)

In the November 8 election Abu Taher, who is now the chairman of the Union Nationals and Development Party, will try his luck again. It won’t be a smooth ride: registration approval for his party has been pending for 3,5 years, making him wonder if the government would rather not allow the UNDP into the political system.

Without a registered party, Abu Taher is forced to run as an independent candidate for the Phyithu Hluttaw in Buthidaung. Nonetheless, he thinks he has a fair chance, given the broad support for his candidacy in 2010. “I think I will win the seat, but only if the Union Election Commission approves my candidacy. They’re still scrutinizing.”

Realistically, the odds are stacked against Rohingya candidates.

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Rohingya politician and ruling party MP U Shwe Maung says in an interview in this issue of Frontier that he believes only 10 Rohingya in Buthidaung township will be able to vote in the upcoming election, compared to 150,000 in 2010 and 2012.

How times have changed. In 2010 the USDP was more than happy to allow Rohingya “white card” holders to vote and Rohingya candidates on the USDP-ticket in exchange for their votes. Then when the nationalist tide rolled in, earlier this year, over 1 million temporary white cards were revoked—and with it, the Rohingya right to vote.

It is not sure Muslim candidates will be allowed to run either. On August 23, U Shwe Maung announced that his candidacy as an independent was rejected by the UEC, on grounds that his parents were not Myanmar citizens. The Muslim MP has thundered against the claim, as it apparently did not hinder his candidacy in the 2010 election.

Abu Taher is not afraid the same fate awaits him. “The citizenship of my parents and grandparents before the 1982 citizenship law was enacted has already been confirmed,” he said. “My ancestors have been living in Myanmar for generations. I can only be rejected as a candidate by policy, not by law.”

The history of Muslims in what now is called Myanmar goes back centuries. Arab Muslim merchants frequented the Burmese kingdoms in the first millennium. During British colonial rule the Muslim population increased sharply.

Census results on the current Muslim population have not yet been revealed, possibly because the potentially explosive numbers could be misused by the nationalist movement, but common estimates put the amount of Muslims between 4 and 10 percent of the Myanmar population. The Burmese Muslim Association claims that up to 12 percent of the Myanmar people are Muslim.

“Unfortunately, Muslims in Myanmar are often judged harshly,” said Dr Nicholas Farrelly, the director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre. “There are virulent anti-Muslim strains in national politics that discourage more moderate voices from speaking out. Some Myanmar people like to suggest that Muslims don’t belong and that Buddhist civilisation is under attack. It’s a toxic recipe for more communal disquiet, and even violence.”

A Muslim woman walks around to the back of the Chulia Dargah Mosque across from the Bogyoke Market in downtown Yangon. (Lauren DeCicca / Frontier)

A Muslim woman walks around to the back of the Chulia Dargah Mosque across from the Bogyoke Market in downtown Yangon. (Lauren DeCicca / Frontier)

Muslim hate is nothing new in Myanmar, said Al-Haj Aye Lwin, the founder of the Interreligious Council of Myanmar. “Muslims have been the target of persecution and discrimination ever since Ne Win took over power in March 1962. Still, we are the second largest religion in the country,” he said.

Despite its pro-democratic banner and its claim that it caters to all ethnicities and religions, opposition frontrunner the National League for Democracy has firmly established itself as a Bamar-cen-tric Buddhist party. The NLD recently presented its candidate list for the November 8 election. Out of 1,090 candidates, none is Muslim.

The move to actively discourage Muslim candidates from the NLD saddens Aye Lwin.

“I can’t understand it,” he said. “In the 1988 uprising and the founding of the NLD, Muslims played an important role. Many of them were imprisoned and lost everything. Today, even a well known Muslim politician like Daw Win Mya May in Mandalay was asked not to run.”

“There are 6 to 9 million Muslims in Myanmar, of which about 3 million are eligible to vote,” he went on. “Who can they vote for?”

Aye Lwin corresponded with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about the rejection of Muslim candidates. “She writes that she is sad that she had to take this tough decision, but that she will still try to support the Muslim minority,” he said, adding that the National Democratic Force will field two Muslim candidates and the Democracy and Human Rights Party fields 11 Rohingyas.

Abu Taher is not looking forward to a government with the NLD in it. The party constitution overlooks minority rights, he points out, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been silent on the Rohingya issue, save one controversial BBC interview when she spoke out in defense of the Rakhine Buddhists.

Research published in July by Professor Roman David of the University of Lignan and Professor Ian Holliday of the University of Hong Kong illustrates the importance of the Rohingya issue to the electorate: more than three quarters of respondents did not want a Rohingya neighbour. Roughly the same amount supported the nationalist monk movement Ma Ba Tha, support was lower for the National League for Democracy.

A Muslim man gets a haircut and a shave in downtown Yangon in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. (Lauren DeCicca / Frontier)

A Muslim man gets a haircut and a shave in downtown Yangon in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. (Lauren DeCicca / Frontier)

Against this background it is hardly surprising that all of the major political parties are courting Buddhist nationalist voters, said Nicholas Farrely. “Any perception of being too cosy with Rohingya political interests could spell the end of a campaign. For that reason I expect we will see low-level antagonism towards Muslims cultivated as a vote-winning strategy.”

He added that in 2010 quite a number of Muslim candidates stood for election and a few were elected to represent parts of Northern Rakhine at both the local and national level, but things are different now.

“While some minor parties will have Muslim candidates, they are unlikely to get close to being elected,” he said. “That may mean that the next legislatures have even fewer Muslim politicians. This compares badly to the situation for Christian leaders, many of whom will be elected to represent their community in Nay Pyi Taw and the various state capitals.”

Aye Lwin fears that anti-Muslim sentiment can be used to stage disruptive events in a bid to attract the nationalist vote and safeguard the interest of the ruling elite, i.e., the army and former army officers in the USDP and their business allies.

“Incidents might occur during Eid al-Adha on 24 September,” he said. “The last couple of years, Ma Ba Tha has tried to disrupt our feast of sacrifice. If things escalate, the government might try to use the situation to its advantage.”

Abu Taher predicts an unsavory election campaign in which Ma Ba Tha will do some of the USDP’s dirty bidding.

“This election will not be smooth. I think the ultra nationalists will cause trouble will cause trouble for Muslim candidates, including me.”

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