Muslim voters form a queue to cast a ballot Nov. 8 in downtown Yangon. (Photo by Abby Seiff)
Five years ago, Mg Soe voted for the first time. The young Muslim man's pick? Union Solidarity and Development Party — the junta's then-nascent political party.
"In 2010, we don't even know what is an election. We don't have a choice," he said with a shrug.
At Mg Soe's mosque in downtown Yangon, the imam refuses to push a party. He says: "Vote for the right person who will lead us." Everyone in the community reads between the lines as this: Vote for the opposition National League for Democracy, or NLD.
"We want to change the government because they make a lot of pressure for us Muslims," he said.
The vote Mg Soe casts will be a wary one. He respects Aung San Suu Kyi and is sinking a great deal of faith into the idea a National League for Democracy government will improve the tenuous situation in Myanmar; but he cannot wholly trust the party.
"[I vote for them] because they're the biggest, I think maybe they can make up the leadership. But we have no real choice, that's why we're voting for them."
Yangon's Muslim community has mostly escaped the waves of anti-Muslim sentiment and extreme violence seen elsewhere in the country, but the impact of such circumstances looms large. As anti-Muslim riots broke out repeatedly over the last three years, killing scores and displacing more than 100,000 people, Muslims in Yangon have faced growing discrimination.
Today, many here fear the rapidly mounting power of the Ma Ba Tha — Myanmar's highly organized ultranationalist Buddhist movement which has spoken openly about the "threat" of Islam and shifted this election into one deeply centered on race and religion. Concurrently, nearly 1 million Rohingya Muslims living in Sittwe have been disenfranchised, with the government revoking citizenship documents and branding them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
Observers and rights groups have raised grave concern over the impact the climate will have come Election Day. In a comprehensive report by the Atlanta-based Carter Center, the election monitor noted that "NLD representatives expressed concern that attempts to paint it as a pro-Muslim party could negatively impact its performance at the polls, and fear that speaking out against discriminatory language could lead to retaliation." On Nov. 4, Human Rights Watch warned that "mass disenfranchisement of voters in some parts of the country" were among the issues that had systematically undermined the electoral process.
Years of violence and brutal rhetoric have done the trick. In Yangon, many Muslims speak powerfully about their distrust of the current government and its role in fomenting religious rifts, but insist their names or even words not be used. "If I give you my name, I will be interrogated," said one man.
While Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire for failing to run any Muslim candidates and refusing to speak out on the Rohingya crisis, Muslim voters say they accept such concessions.
"If she did select a Muslim, the candidate will be disqualified. She knew that before so that's why she didn't select any Muslims. [But] I am sure she will be good for Muslims," said the voter, who asked not to be named for security concerns.
Asked why he believed that, he paused for a very long moment. "That's the main question, huh?"
Many Muslim voters in Yangon say they will support opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, but they don't have a great deal of choice. (Photo by Abby Seiff)
It's a question he has little choice but to roll the die on. While some 90 parties are contesting Sunday's election, outside of ethnic areas the choice primarily boils down to two. Should Suu Kyi's party gain control of the parliament and a presidency (a distinct possibility given the general popularity of the opposition and the results of the rejected 1990 elections), life could change immediately and immensely. In such a context, voters say, casting a ballot for a smaller party – one, say, fronting a Muslim candidate – is a waste of a vote.
Others, however, are more openly optimistic. Twenty-three-year-old Tin Zar Soe beamed while talking about the first national election ballot she was about to cast.
"Aung San Suu Kyi is very good. Muslim, China, Burma – all will be this way," she said, clasping her hands in demonstration.
On the Saturday before the election, Shiite Muslims chatted happily after midday services at a downtown mosque. Nearby, vendors plied cigarettes, phones, wallets and children's clothes. Three men gathered around a betel nut vendor grew peppy when asked if they would vote come Sunday.
"NLD," shouted Kyaw Win, as he prepared a row of quid. "Everybody: NLD," quipped a customer.