In a brightly lit hotel room in Burma’s grandiose capital, Malaysian academic Faisal S. Hazis urged the representatives of 27 political parties and a handful of civil society organisations present to shun sectarian politics, drawing parallels with Malaysia’s recent political history.
His warnings on communal tensions struck a chord in a country where bouts of violence between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority have displaced more than 140,000 people since 2012 and where radical Buddhists are ratcheting up anti-Muslim rhetoric ahead of elections on 8 November.
“As the popularity of the ruling party continues to decline, it turns to authoritarian measures again to remain in power,” he said, referring to Barisan National, a coalition that has ruled Malaysia for 58 years but lost the popular vote in 2013.
The party is now stoking fear among Malays that “Islam and the community’s very existence is under threat” from increasingly influential non-Malay communities, said Hazis, a senior fellow at the National University of Malaysia.
A similar argument is being made in Burma, in this case that Buddhism is in peril. The rhetoric has been fuelled by the hardline Buddhist group Ma-Ba-Tha which successfully pushed for the passing of the controversial “race and religion laws” that critics say discriminate against women and Muslims.
Members of Ma-Ba-Tha have called on voters to snub the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, due to its objection to the bills.
Leaders of the powerful group have endorsed President Thein Sein, whose ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is facing a tough battle against the widely popular NLD.
“Islam and the Malays have survived thousand of years. The same goes to Buddhism and the people of Burma … We survived two world wars, long colonial rule, flood, tsunami, famine and so many other calamities. We will not perish just because of one election,” Hazis told an ‘Elections and Ethics’ organised by Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
The 8 November parliamentary poll has been billed as the country’s first free and fair election in 25 years, the first since 1990 to be contested by all main opposition parties.
In an interview with Myanmar Now, Hazis blamed the political and religious elites who feel their power and privilege is under threat for raising religious tensions, calling it “a dangerous trend”.
“Ordinary people would not resort to ethnic or religious violence without provocation by these elites, be it political or religious elites. So we need statesmen who can rise above party politics or other parochial interests,” he said.
OPPOSITION NEEDS A COMMON PLATFORM
Both Burma and Malaysia were colonised by the British and both have multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious societies. In Malaysia, it was voters who were responsible for the ruling coalition’s worst electoral result. So far in Burma, recent reforms have come from the top and have been carefully scripted.
Any change must be inclusive in such diverse societies, Hazis said.
“We can’t strive for democracy but at the same time deny the rights of the minorities. One of the basic tenets of democracy is to uphold and respect human rights including the rights of the minorities,” he told Myanmar Now.
He also said there was an important lesson that Burma’s political opposition could learn from Malaysia – unity.
“The opposition needs to form an electoral pact or a coalition that will ensure straight fights between the ruling party and the opposition. As long as opposition parties remain fragmented and divided, it will be difficult to challenge the incumbent government especially in a multi-ethnic society like Burma,” he said.
He said the opposition needed to agree on a common platform based on centrist messages that cut across ethnic and religious boundaries, such as democratic principles, good governance and transparency.
This approach helped the opposition in Malaysia to gain ground in 2008 elections, denying the ruling coalition a two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since 1969, and then winning more seats in the 2013 elections and the popular vote, he said.
Questions remain, however, over how long the cooperation will last. The alliance in Malaysia broke apart in June, only for a new one to be formed.
Hazis urged Burmese voters to make a statement at the ballot box.
“Every vote counts. In the case of Malaysia, the voters did the unthinkable by denying the ruling party’s traditional two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2008 and 2013,” he said. “Despite the Malaysian electoral system being far from free and fair, no one could stop the will of the people,” he said.
Read more about Ma-Ba-Tha here.
This article was republished with full permission from Myanmar Now.