Buddhists to protest Rohingya role in Myanmar vote

- Politicians, monks, ordinary citizens say will hold protest the capital of western Rakhine state Feb. 15.

By Joshua Carroll

YANGON, Myanmar (AA) - Nationalist Buddhists in Myanmar are planning mass protests against the government’s decision to allow Rohingya Muslims to vote in a constitutional referendum, according to local media.

Politicians, monks and ordinary citizens say they will hold a mass protest in Sittwe, the capital of western Rakhine state Feb. 15, the Eleven Media website reported Friday.

Organizers also plan to march in Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar.

Myanmar’s roughly one million Rohingya live mostly in Rakhine state. The majority are stateless and all are considered by ultra-nationalists to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. 

But they have been allowed to vote before, most recently in a widely discredited election in 2010.

Since then, however, nationalist fervor stoked by extremist Buddhist monks has been rising as the country undergoes democratic reforms following decades of direct military rule.

The new referendum law, passed by parliament Monday, will enfranchise around 1.5 million people with temporary citizenship, who are known as white cardholders because of the color of their identification cards.

Rohingya Muslims make up two thirds of that group, the government says, with the rest including ethnically Indian and Chinese people born in Myanmar.

The new law could pave the way for white cardholders to vote later this year in a landmark general election, which observers hope will be the first free poll for decades.

In the 2010 election, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was accused of vote buying after granting white cardholders suffrage.

While it may seem counterintuitive that marginalized minorities would support the ruling military regime, in practice some have turned to the USDP for complex reasons.

In Rakhine state, for example, some Rohingya Muslims confronted by zealously anti-Islamic local politicians see the USDP as their best option.

Ashin Wirathu, a prominent nationalist monk known for preaching that Muslims will overrun Myanmar because they “breed quickly,” condemned the new law in a statement earlier this week.

He said white cardholders are “harming ethnic interests” and threatened “retribution” if voting rights were again granted to them for the general election.

Around 280 have died in sporadic anti-Muslim rioting that has also displaced tens of thousands since 2012.

Most of the casualties have been Rohingya.

Copyright © 2015 Anadolu Agency