By Anealla Safdar & Phil Rees
Myanmar’s main opposition party, led by the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, deliberately bypassed Muslim candidates ahead of the November election, a senior party member told Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the source said Suu Kyi ordered an “Islamic purge” in the National League for Democracy (NLD) to appease growing anti-Muslim sentiment fuelled by hardline Buddhist nationalists.
Not one of the NLD’s 1,151 candidates standing for regional and national elections is Muslim, despite there being around five million Muslims – or between 4 and 10 percent of the population – in the country.
There are also no Muslim candidates in the military-backed, governing UnionSolidarity and Development Party (USDP) running in what has been billed as the country’s first free and fair general election in 25 years.
In the run-up to the vote, local election commissions reportedly rejected dozens of Muslim candidates with authorities denying that their parents were citizens, claims which many of the shunned candidates denied.
“I think Suu Kyi is a bit concerned about the Ma Ba Tha, so it became an Islamic purge here,” said the source.
The Ma Ba Tha is an increasingly effective, ultranationalist Buddhist movement, also known as ‘The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion’, whose outspoken members are known for their bitter speeches attacking the ethnic minority Muslim Rohingya.
“Islamic people have been persecuted,” said the source. “A party should have all kinds of people and all kinds of religions.”
Suu Kyi, 70, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, for her non-violent struggle for democracy.
Her silence on the marginalisation of the Rohingya and general exclusion of Muslims, however, has drawn criticism.
“The anti-Muslim monks are becoming stronger and stronger,” said the source, adding that authorities should crack down on what the source called extremist members of the Ma Ba Tha instead of “sponsoring them”.
Win Htein, a senior NLD member who is coordinating its campaign, told Al Jazeera that the party decided that to secure the best chance of winning, Muslims would have to be left out.
“In the present climate, we believe that it is a better strategy to win by leaving out Muslims candidates in coming election,” he said, claiming that potential candidates of the Islamic faith had “agreed to that”.
Some 15 Rohingya candidates were barred in August from running, again on account of their parents being ‘foreign-born’.
Earlier this year, the government effectively disenfranchised about 700,000 people, mostly Rohingya, when it declared holders of “white cards” ineligible to vote. The cards had been issued as temporary identification documents, and white-card holders had been permitted to vote in the 2010 elections.
“Rohingya Muslims have been removed from the elections by the USDP where they used to participate. You could say that where Islam is concerned, everyone – the monks and the government – is united.
“Now the elections are unequivocally Islamic-free.”
‘Burma‘s bin Laden’
Myanmar has witnessed a surge of nationalism since 2012, when riots erupted in the Rakhine state, a flashpoint for rising aggression towards the Rohingya who make up a third of the state’s three million people.
Ashin Wirathu, an extremist Buddhist monk, was jailed in 2003 for inciting hatred and stirring sectarian clashes and released in 2010. Wirathu, dubbed the ‘Burmese bin Laden’, has warned of an impending Muslim takeover of Myanmar.
If Wirathu wanted Islamic households in Bago to be destroyed, all he would have to do is snap his fingers.
He said that the violence in 2012, which saw dozens killed and several thousand Rohingya displaced, was justified because the minority group was planning to establish an Islamic state in Rakhine.
“Wirathu has a network for everything that is happening in the country,” said the source. “If he wanted Islamic households in Bago to be destroyed, all he would have to do is snap his fingers. The [hardline Buddhist] groups there would destroy them.
“Things would be peaceful if he was dragged [back] into prison, but they [authorities] don’t subdue him.”
There are more than 90 registered political parties expecting to win votes next month.
In addition to blocking Rohingya from participating, military-aligned units are casting further doubt on the election being free and fair, according to Human Rights Watch researcher David Matheison.
In a report published last month, he wrote: “With a little more than a month to go before Burma’s national elections, military aligned militia units are casting a dark shadow over the polls.
“These proxies, known as Pyithu Sit [People’s Militias] and Neh San Tat [Border Guard Forces] are intimidating voters in Burma’s ethnic-minority borderlands and are stopping candidates from campaigning. This exacerbates the problems in some regions, where ongoing fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups will prevent voting from taking place.”
Myanmar recognises 135 ethnic minorities but denies citizenship to others, including the Rohingya. The country has no reliable opinion polls, but it is expected that parties based along ethnic lines would win most seats.
The Ma Ba Tha’s effect on the electorate is also difficult to gauge. Despite the NLD “purging Muslims”, the paranoid nationalist group often dubs Suu Kyi’s party the “party of Islamists”.
Voters, explained the Al Jazeera Investigative Unit source, will likely struggle when deciding where to place their ballot papers.
“Today, people are having problems. They don’t know who to vote for. The NLD is in chaos now, and so, they don’t like it, but there’s no one else to vote for in the USDP…People don’t like the USDP at all.
“It‘s everyone, not just Muslims. Non-Muslims are also displeased at how the NLD selected candidates.”