Does Myanmar have a “Muslim problem”?

Photo: International Catholic Migration Commission/CC BY-ND 2.0

By Holly Reeves

Myanmar has waited a long time for the full information from its 2014 census, the first in decades. Amid a fragile transition to democratic rule, details of the numbers of ethnic minority groups were kept quiet. As allegations of rising Islamophobia grew and fear of a “Muslim takeover” swept the country, what were authorities so afraid of? Apparently, nothing.

This week the final piece of the census puzzle, the Union Report of Religion, was published. As expected, Buddhists make up the majority of citizens, followed by the Christians that account for 6.2%. But the most interesting number is the Muslim population, on 4.3%.

“Some were worried that there could be a significant difference in the numbers of each religion,” Thein Swe, Minister of Labour, Immigration and Population told reporters. “But there is not much difference when compared with the census data in 1983.”

And the stability in numbers was welcomed by Islamic groups themselves. “If our Muslim community had increased by a large number, it could have fuelled religious extremism and people would have been hostile toward us. But now, we are free from such fear,” said U Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader from the Islamic Centre of Myanmar.

Representation matters

Leading up to the census, discussion on ethnic minorities in society had reached fever-pitch. Rights groups were calling for the count to be delayed, with one saying it was, “not worth dying for.”

But the data is important for understanding Myanmar’s make-up, and which voices are heard. The ethnic identity of groups in Myanmar is often interwoven with how they  describe their religion and this means Islam for most Rohingya, and Christianity for the Kachin, Chin and Karen groups.

Myanmar’s constitution allows that a group with more than 0.1% of the population in a single state or region should be appointed an ethnic affairs post in the local government. As a result there are currently twenty-nine ministers, representing groups rather than religions, across the 14 state and region governments. These are appointed by direct elections by voters in that ethnic group.

The largest amount is in Shan State, which has seven, followed by one for each of Akha, Kachin, Intha, Lahu, Bamar, Kayan, and Lisu. But that is not the only effort at representation for smaller groups.

The co-ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) won support in the recent election by promising national reconciliation. They promised a new dawn – a democratic and federal union based on freedom, equal rights and self-determination.

“Being democratically elected by the people, our government is responsible for all citizens, treating everyone equally with love and compassion,” Suu Kyi said in her New Year speech. “That is why we give a high priority to national reconciliation. We will continue to build a genuine federal democratic union, longed for by the entire people.”

Achieving this representation, and resolving problems between the ethnic groups themselves, has to be an important priority. This has brought the creation of a new Ministry of Ethnic Affairs – mandated by the National Race Protection Law. Observers are concerned that the Ministry does not have the capacity to tackle the huge issues at hand, but voices in government that seek smoother relations are already making their voices heard.

The fall of Ma-Ba-Tha?

The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee recently spoke out about Ma-Ba-Tha, the radical Buddhist group that has historically been highly influential to authorities. An official publicly called their actions resolutely “unlawful,” and their activities and actions would not be supported. The group’s leader Wirathu, who rallies his supporters in vilifying the Muslim minority and particularly the Rohingya, hit back by saying it was his group that was now being victimised.

“I have seen that the ruling party and the new civilian government is stepping forward to target me as ‘Enemy Number One’ to destroy the whole Ma Ba Tha group to the end,” he wrote. He also described the administration as, “a woman dictator’s government which is going to put me in prison”.

No backing-down from the authorities though. NLD spokesperson U Win Htein explained, “Religion and politics must be divided. We will not stand for using religion for political benefit, or mixing religion and politics in any way. So we will not follow whatever they demand.”

The Rohingya problem

The elephant in the room, as if often the case in Myanmar, is the over one million Muslim Rohingya minority. They were not allowed to self-identify in the census and have no representation. Anti-Rohingya opinion stretches across the population, and reaches into the depths of the NLD.

Regardless of the census data, Ma Ba Tha will continue its push against what it sees as a, “Muslim plot” to take over Myanmar. And whether or not there is support from within government, their voice will be heard. And when there is no widespread understanding of the issues of any ethnic minority, there can never be a solution. The numbers, ultimately, do not matter.