Myanmar’s Muslims, especially the Rohingya, have been one of the most topical issues for more than three years since June 2012 when Rakhine State was rocked by sectarian violence, pitting Rohingya and non-Rohingya Muslims on one hand against Rakhine Buddhists on the other. Important issues regarding Myanmar’s Muslims have included but have not been limited to statelessness and disenfranchisement of Rohingyas, lack of state protection of different Muslim communities in the whole country during episodes of sectarian violence in 2013 and 2014, and the exclusion of Muslim candidates in the general elections held two days back by both the National League for Democracy and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.
It was largely expected that Myanmar’s Muslims would be absent on the Election Day or choose few Muslim-run parties or independent Muslim candidates with the hope of securing representation in the next parliament. From my observations of Muslim voters on November 8 and talks to several of them before, on and after the day, I am fairly confident that this assumption was proven largely untrue.
Imam at Mosque in Downtown Yangon
On 6 November, the Mufti at a mosque in downtown Yangon at the end of his Friday sermon asserted that it is a Muslim duty to vote and those Muslims who do not vote shall face questions on Judgment Day because Muslims have duties in terms of both their individual personal conduct and their interest in and work for the societies/environments/countries they live in. By citing a fatwa by a famous Muslim cleric, the Mufti proceeded to claim that Muslims ought to do three things: 1) study the history of candidates and political parties; 2) seek opinion from those who are knowledgeable about electoral matters if a Muslim voter is not able to judge or decide; and 3) perform a voluntary prayer for peace in the elections in the morning before going to the polls.
This shows the concerns of Muslims in Myanmar, at least in urban areas, regarding the elections and their possible impact upon the community. At the same time, it also shows politicalness or democratic citizenship of Muslims even among its Ulama which is often regarded as culturally traditional and politically apathetic.
A Muslim Taxi Driver in Yangon
In the morning of October 17, I took a taxi to go and meet someone. The taxi driver happened to be a Muslim! I asked him about his take on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, which had been often criticized to be no less discriminatory towards Myanmar Muslims. He said he trusts the Lady or Mother Su. I asked him if he thinks she is going to be fair or good to Muslims. He said that the people of Myanmar would have to give her a chance to rule Myanmar first. She would prove herself then. But he also said he is confident she would be better than the ruling government and party in terms of treatment of Muslims. At least, she would not ‘scapegoat’ Muslims at times of difficulties as he believes has been done by the previous military regimes and present one as well.
Muslim Family at the last NLD Rally in Yangon & Muslim Car-owner on Return
I attended the last NLD rally held in Yangon on 1 November where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi gave her final campaign speech. I was sitting next to a Muslim family – father, mother and three daughters. The father shouted and clapped his hands; the mother whistled with her fingers; and the daughters shouted and sang the NLD campaign songs!
After the rally, I had to walk for almost one hour to catch a taxi as all the taxis were occupied. Fortunately, a car stopped by and asked me where I was going. Again, the car-owner happened to be a Muslim! I said ‘downtown’ and he said ‘Come with me and I’ll drop you home!’ The man also brought another NLD supporter in his car who would also get off in downtown. On the way, he even played NLD campaign videos loudly and cars and people that passed by looked at us!
Rohingya Businessman with Links to Rohingya Party
In the evening of 8 November, I talked to a Rohingya businessman with strong links to the Democracy and Human Rights Party, a party led by and composed of Rohingya Muslims. He said that he voted for the NLD because the party needed strong support from everyone for change, a campaign message broadcast by the NLD.
Apart from these four snapshots, I have observed several Muslims who participated in, joined and worked for the NLD rallies in Yangon. Also, I saw many Muslims in townships where they constitute a sizeable community such as Pabedan, Kyauktada, Botataung, Mingalar Taung Nyunt, and Tamwe openly supporting the NLD and confided in me that they voted for the party. The same can be said of Mandalay. In Yangon and Mandalay, a number of Muslim-run political parties contested the election in townships with sizable Muslim communities but none won. According to preliminary results, none of them even obtained more than ten votes or so.
Although it is still difficult to make generalizations about Muslim political activism and their broad support for the NLD, this preliminary conclusion seems to be the case at least in urban areas.