Burma's Muslims seek rights, security in upcoming polls

On Friday, men take time out of their busy lives to gather at the Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque in Rangoon to pray together.

It’s a time honoured tradition that goes back to the times of British colonial rule.

The mosque was built for the “Burmese Indians” — people of Indian origin, mostly from present-day Bangladesh, who came here to work as civil servants, soldiers, labourers and traders.

Their descendants are now part of a group in Burma that is feeling increasingly marginalised.

Muslim candidates have been disproportionately disqualified from running in the 8 November election in a selection process that “lacked credibility”, according to the Carter Center which has been monitoring the run-up to the polls touted to be the country’s first free and fair democratic election.

Under pressure from Buddhist monks, the two main parties have not fielded any Muslim candidates. Even Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has declined, citing “political reasons”.

“At the moment, I don’t see any good signs for the future of Islam because I’ve seen that the Muslims are losing their rights now. What I hope from the new government is that they give equal rights – rights that all religions are entitled to whether they are Muslim, Christian or Hindu,” said the Imam of Bengali Sunni Mosque, Mufti Jaarar.

Only a handful of the 6,000 candidates are Muslim.

One of them, Khin Maung Thein, is throwing his hat into the fray in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city. It is a stronghold for the radical Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha and its firebrand monk Wirathu, the self-styled “Burmese bin Laden”.

Standing from the penniless United National Congress party, he doesn’t campaign much because there isn’t much funding and, besides, those who will vote for him are family and friends.

He was compelled to run on hopes that he would be able to make a difference for Muslims.

“Political and non-political organizations are trying to create a democratic country. The coming November elections will be really interesting and it needs to be fair and balanced. If not, we will be in trouble for another 50 years,” he said.

Around five percent of Burma’s population of 51 million follow Islam.

Of the numerous groups of Muslims, the Rohingya — who number around a million — have been excluded from voting and have no candidates running, although their plight is a hot topic in the polls.

After the end of military rule in 2011, anti-Muslim sentiment flared across Burma, resulting in communal violence.

Hundreds have been killed and more than 100,000 mainly Rohingya have been displaced in western Arakan State due to fighting between Muslims and Buddhists.

The Rohingya face violence and lack basic rights such as access to healthcare, education and employment. They live in “apartheid-like conditions” due to, among other things, Burma’s refusal to recognise them as citizens.

During the boat people crisis in Southeast Asia earlier this year, Burma denied its treatment of the Rohingya was causing their exodus, even though it considers them Bengali rather than Burmese.

“I don’t want to accuse anyone because I don’t have any solid proof — the forces behind this incident (disqualifying of all Rohingya candidates), they want to make sure that this time, they don’t want any Rohingyas or ethnic people living in Arakan state in the parliament,” said Khin Maung Myint, vice president of the National Democratic Party for Development, a Rohingya political party whose candidates were disqualified from running.

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Burma watchers warn that the upcoming polls could reignite sectarian violence.

“We’re expecting that we’re going to have to be on high alert in some areas where there may be clashes connected to either trying to prevent Muslims from voting, or retaliating against them after they vote,” said Phil Robertson, head of the Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

In the Muslim area of Rangoon, people gather to gossip over tea. The election is not a topic that’s debated openly, but it’s on everyone’s mind.

“Safety, that is important to us, for us Muslims. That’s all we want,” said Hajj U Maung Ko, 53-year-old resident from Twante township.

About 30 million people are eligible to vote for three quarters of the 664 seats in the two houses of the legislature. The remainder of seats are reserved for military-backed candidates.

The new legislature will elect the new president sometime early next year, from three candidates put forth by the two chambers of parliament and the military.

 

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