Myanmar President seeks to capitalize on anti-Muslim sentiment

Published Sep 17, 2015, 11:02 pm IST
Updated Mar 27, 2019, 7:22 pm IST
Thein Sein is banking on anti-Muslim policies to help him win another five-year term

Yangon: With an eye on upcoming elections, Myanmar's president has ticked off a list of accomplishments under his administration, noting with apparent pride a number of anti-Muslim policies he hopes will help him win another five-year term.

In a video message posted on Facebook this week, Thein Sein said he repeatedly, and firmly, told the international community there were no Rohingya Muslims in the predominantly Buddhist nation.


He said a string of controversial laws on race and religion were passed under his watch and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation - which represents more than a billion Muslims across the globe - tried unsuccessfully to open an office in western Rakhine state.

The president's comments came as the U.S., Britain and other governments expressed concern about rising religious tensions ahead of the November 8 general election, which many hope will be relatively free and fair following decades of military rule.

The countries issued a statement this week saying they were "concerned about the prospect of religion being used as a tool of division and conflict during the campaign season."

Myanmar has seen a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric since Thein Sein's nominally civilian government came to power in 2011, including attacks on Rohingya that left up to 280 people dead and sent another quarter million fleeing their homes. Half are now living under apartheid-like conditions in camps, where they have limited access to medical care and education. Others took to the sea, sparking Asia's own migrant boat crisis.

Though many Rohingya arrived in Myanmar generations ago, the government says all 1.3 million are migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Adding to their disenfranchisement, the Rohingya for the first time will not be allowed to vote.

Thein Sein, a former army general, has expressed on-and-off again interest in running for another five-year term. His video message appeared to be aimed at a domestic audience.

He said the country was now being visited by President Barack Obama and other powerful leaders after years of isolation and sanctions. He noted there has been an increase in foreign investment and that people now have access to mobile phones. He also cited his handling of the Rohingya.

"There are no Rohingya in this country," Thein Sein said in the video message. "We clearly and strongly announced this to the international community."

"We did not allow the OIC to set up an office in our country," he continued. "And our country successfully passed four laws protecting race and religion."

Critics say the laws regulating religious conversion, interfaith marriage, population control and monogamy could further entrench discrimination against women and religious minorities