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Muslim Backlash Casts Shadow Over Myanmar Election

FILE - Controversial Buddhist monk Wirathu, second right foreground, who is accused of instigating sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims through his sermons.
FILE - Controversial Buddhist monk Wirathu, second right foreground, who is accused of instigating sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims through his sermons.

The monk's hate-filled speeches have become a part of life in Myanmar. His fringe movement has moved into the mainstream. And now he has a new target: the once-untouchable Aung San Suu Kyi, who he says has failed to stand up against the threat he says Muslims pose to this country and its Buddhist values.

The comments by Ashin Wirathu highlight the rising role Buddhist nationalism is playing as the country heads into general elections Sunday.

The issue has helped shape who can vote, who can run and, quite possibly, what form the new government will take.

Though Suu Kyi's opposition party is still viewed as the favorite - tens of thousands turned out for a rally in the former capital Yangon over the weekend - analysts say the "race and religion'' card could hurt her in rural, conservative areas.

"Rightly or wrongly, Suu Kyi has been painted as being on the wrong side of the (Muslim) issue,'' said Richard Horsey, an independent analyst. "That could affect the proportion of the popular vote the National League for Democracy gets in some regions.''

"Will it be enough to tip the ruling party across the finish line in those constituencies? That's still very unclear.''

The predominantly Buddhist nation of 50 million started transitioning from dictatorship toward democracy in 2011, putting in place a nominally civilian government that won widespread international praise for quickly implementing political and economic reforms, many of which have since stalled or started rolling back.

Wirathu and his radical Buddhist nationalist fringe, 969, took advantage of newfound freedoms of expression to fan prejudices against the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority. His hate-filled sermons helped incite violence that began in 2012, leaving hundreds dead and sending a quarter-million others fleeing their homes.

With little or no pushback from the government or society - the large silent majority helped served as an incubator - 969 morphed into a more palatable, politically powerful organization that today boasts millions of supporters, including moderate monks and members of the ruling elite.

Wirathu, who previously referred to Muslims as "mad dogs'' and "vermin,'' has toned down his language. He also plays a less public role in the group, now known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha. Its members say the organization is peaceful and was created in part to help end the violence.

The influence of Buddhist nationalists on politics, however, is undeniable.

For the first time, the country's 1.3 million Rohingya are not allowed to vote or run for seats in Parliament, including sitting lawmakers.

"This election, which has been touted as historic for its potential to be the freest and fairest in over two decades, could have been a breakthrough for democracy in Myanmar,'' Shwe Maung, a Rohingya member of Parliament barred from seeking another term, wrote in a column published Tuesday in The New York Times. "Instead it is poised to institutionalize and entrench the longstanding persecution of minorities.''

The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the NLD have refused to field any Muslim candidates, presumably because they fear a backlash at the polls. There are dozens of smaller parties, some representing ethnic minorities living in border regions, and others largely proxies of the military-backed government.

Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during an election campaign for her National League for Democracy party, Sept 27, 2015.
Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during an election campaign for her National League for Democracy party, Sept 27, 2015.

Despite her popularity, even Suu Kyi is fair game.

"I was crazy about her, too, but now I know we can't trust her,'' said Wirathu, rattling off a list of actions he considers suspicious, including her refusal to take sides during the first wave of sectarian violence, which killed Buddhists as well as Muslims.

Conversely, Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have criticized Suu Kyi for staying silent on the plight of Rohingya. She told Indian TV last month she wanted to reconcile the two communities, not add to the divisions.

The international community has expressed concern that the rise of Buddhist nationalism, and especially hate speech, is undermining Myanmar's democratic process.

Rather than push through key laws needed to spur the economy, the outgoing legislature spent its final months working on passage of four Ma Ba Tha-drafted "race and religion'' laws that were widely criticized by the U.S. and others because they could be used to discriminate against Muslims, women and other minorities.

The laws impose strict regulations on Buddhist women who want to marry outside their faith and for anyone who wants to convert to another religion. They also call for punishment for those living with an unmarried partner, and require women in heavily populated areas to space children at least three years apart.

In a pre-election campaign video, President Thein Sein listed the laws among his administration's biggest accomplishments.

Showing tactical approval of the Ma Ba Tha, he also granted it permission to use a massive sports stadium just outside Yangon to celebrate the laws' passage. More than 10,000 people turned out, packing every inch of the giant hall and spilling outside, watching speeches on giant monitors.

On center stage was a revered moderate monk, U Nyanissara, also known as Sitagu Sayadaw.

Though monks are forbidden by law from mixing in politics, he said it is sometimes important for religious leaders to step in, in the name of national security. He listed a series of historical examples in Europe, and said, ``Like them, we need to make use of religion in political affairs.''

Critics blame the rapid rise of Buddhist nationalism in part on the muted response to violence targeting Rohingya, whom the government considers to be illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, even though many of their families arrived generations ago.

They are effectively stateless. A government offer of citizenship is full of conditions most Rohingya are unwilling or unable to make: They would have to call themselves "Bengali'' and offer proof that their families have lived in the country for more than 60 years, among other things.

The majority are confined to isolated villages in the northern tip of Rakhine, where they have limited access to adequate health care, jobs or education.

The level of desperation in camps outside the state capital, Sittwe, where 140,000 have been forced to live as result of the recent violence, is even more staggering. They are trapped, even for medical emergencies, unless they pay hefty bribes to officials.

The government tossed the aid group Doctors Without Borders from the camps for many months, accusing it of showing bias in favor of Muslims. The group has since been allowed back in on a limited basis, but not soon enough for some.

On a recent visit to one of the camps, The Associated Press showed Salema Khatu a picture of her 10-year-old son, Habil. The 27-year-old wailed uncontrollably, pressing the image to her wet eyes as stunned, empathetic crowds looked on. It was the first time she had seen the boy's face since he died six months ago.

Habil, his wide, dark eyes sunken in his skeletal face, was being treated for tuberculosis by Doctors Without Borders before the group was forced out.

Aung Kyaw, 60, says the little hope Rohinyga once had has evaporated.

``We can't work, so we are living now off savings from our past,'' the Rohingya man said, adding he's lived in Rakhine his whole life, that his parents were civil servants and his grandparents well-to-do village chiefs.

"Now we have nothing,'' he said.

"`I feel like we are all living in a prison.''

AP reporter Min Kyi Thein contributed to this report from Mandalay, Myanmar.