As Myanmar prepares for a general election in November, thousands of Muslim voters and their candidates are being denied the chance to participate in the electoral process. What does that mean for the country’s Muslim community?
By Umair Jamal
Four Rohingya are among a number of Muslim candidates in Rakhine State who have been barred from contesting Myanmar’s upcoming general election, scheduled for November.
The state’s election commission secretary, U Thurein Htut, said in a statement that the candidates “were rejected mainly because their parents and grandparents were not citizens when they were born.”
The rejection of these candidates shows that the state is not ready to offer the Muslim community equal constitutional rights. Unfortunately, the country’s civil government led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s military junta are only making the problem worse.
The upcoming general election looks unlikely to change the fate of Myanmar’s Muslim community. They will remain on the receiving end of communal violence and increased constitutional pressure.
Why do Muslims face discrimination during the electoral process?
Reportedly, all of the Muslim candidates from Rakhine State that the election commission barred from November’s election were approved as candidates in previous elections. At least four rejected candidates belonged to the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP) that advocates for Rohingya rights in the country.
The party’s general secretary, U Kyaw Soe Aung, accused the government of discrimination. “They were approved as candidates in previous elections and were allowed to cast votes and stand for election in 2015,” he said. “I can’t understand why they are disqualified now due to citizenship status.”
This is not the first time that Muslim candidates have faced restrictions due to their citizenship. In the 2015 general election, 17 of DHRP’s 18 Muslim candidates were rejected by the election commission. The one candidate from the party that was allowed to contest did so only because her mother’s side of the family was Buddhist.
Furthermore, several other independent candidates from the Muslim community were blocked from taking part in the 2015 election.
Restricting Muslim representation is not only limited to banning candidates. Since the early 1990s, Rohingya Muslims have been able to register as temporary residents in Myanmar. In 2010, they were allowed to vote but in 2015, Myanmar revoked their voting rights following countrywide protests.
Over the last two years, authorities in Myanmar have forced Rohingya Muslims to accept identity cards that categorize them as foreigners. This means that the upcoming election will leave around 1 million Muslim voters on the sidelines.
In Myanmar, Muslims have become an electoral issue that representatives of the Buddhist-majority parties will use to gain votes. Buddhists make up a 90% majority of Myanmar’s population while Muslims account for 2.2%. Political parties targeting Buddhist voters can benefit from the prevailing ill-feeling against Muslims, particularly Rohingya. The ruling party banning Muslim voters and candidates furthers that objective.
Why is Aung San Suu Kyi keeping Muslims out of the political process?
The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has refused to offer a platform to Muslim political candidates. For instance, ahead of the 2015 general election, the party turned down applications from at least a dozen Muslim candidates. This was seen as a smart political move to not only appease hardline Buddhists but also the powerful military Junta.
The NLD government has done little to address Muslims’ political and constitutional concerns in the country during its tenure. Suu Kyi has received international criticism for her handling of the Rohingya crisis. Earlier this month, the European parliament suspended her from human rights prize events as “a response to her failure to act and her acceptance of the ongoing crimes against the Rohingya community in Myanmar.”
Suu Kyi defended Myanmar’s approach, leading to other international bodies stripping her of awards and prizes. There have been calls for the Nobel committee to revoke the Nobel Peace Prize that she won in 1991.
Mounting international pressure and her experience in power may have pushed Suu Kyi towards opening her party’s platform to Muslim candidates. In November’s election, the party will field at least two Muslim candidates. However, both have been with the party since it was founded in 1988. To an extent, they have been chosen because of their loyalty to the party rather than other factors. However, voters have complained, urging the NLD to reverse their decision and pick a Buddhist candidate.
“Other parties are manipulating the fact that NLD is fielding a Muslim candidate,” a voter from one of the candidate’s constituencies told The Irrawaddy. “This won’t impact much on voters in urban areas with some political knowledge. It is different in rural areas where voters won’t consider much and usually respect monks. I want the candidate to be a native and a Buddhist. Otherwise, [voters] will be swayed and choose other parties because they have no other choice,” they added.
Will the election change anything for Myanmar’s Muslim community?
November’s general election is likely to be anything but a game-changer for Myanmar’s Muslims. After a largely exclusionary electoral process, the community will expect more of the same: a government that will ignore the political, religious, social and economic persecution against them.
Unless Myanmar’s political elite commits to an inclusive approach that involves all religious groups in the state-building process, the country’s leaders will only exacerbate existing tension between Buddhists and Muslims. As Shayna Bauchner of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division described the situation, “The authorities’ unwillingness to recognize the Rohingya’s place in government sadly–and dangerously–has made it all too easy to blot out their place in Myanmar society altogether.”