On 8 November, Burma will go to the polls in what has been billed as the first free and fair parliamentary election in 25 years, yet the marginalisation of the Muslim community has left local and international observers concerned about how democratic the vote will be.
Of the more than 6,000 candidates running in the elections, the overwhelming majority of them are Buddhist, and only 28 are Muslim, representing just 0.5 percent of candidates, according to the final list of candidates released by the Union Election Commission (UEC).
Muslims make up about 5 percent of the country’s predominantly Buddhist population.
The UEC has rejected more than a hundred would-be candidates, mostly Muslims, stating that their parents were not recognised as citizens yet at the time of the candidate’s birth, meaning their candidacy would be in violation of the Elections Law.
“In any other country, the rejection of an entire class of candidates would render the contest itself undemocratic,” Charles Santiago, a member of parliament from Malaysia and chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said in a statement in September.
Religious tensions are running high in Burma ahead of the election, largely stoked by the radical Buddhist group Ma-Ba-Tha, which has emerged as a powerful force.
“We are all in a helpless state,” said Kyaw Min, a Muslim politician and chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party. “The decisions are arbitrarily made along racial and religious lines.”
His party submitted applications for 18 candidates mainly for constituencies in Arakan State in western Burma, which has a sizable population of stateless Rohingya Muslims, but only three were approved as candidates.
In total, UEC figures show that of 6,074 approved candidates in the elections, there are 5,130 Buddhists, 903 Christians and 28 Muslims.
Not only are there very few Muslim candidates running in the elections, but most are representing little-known political parties, leaving many with slim chances of winning any seats.
“There is strong likelihood that there will be no Muslim legislator in the parliament,” said Myo Thant, a Muslim politician who has decided not to run in the poll which he said is being held under the influence of nationalist monks.
“Everyone is pandering to the wish of the Ma-Ba-Tha,” he said.
Major parties exclude Muslims
In an apparent move to appease Ma-Ba-Tha, the main political parties have excluded Muslims as candidates.
Some Ma-Ba-Tha monks have publicly condemned the popular National League for Democracy party (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi as a “pro-Islam” party which Buddhists should not vote for.
The NLD’s leadership made the decision to exclude Muslims from its candidate list to avoid criticism, said NLD spokesman Win Htein.
“Our NLD members who are Muslims are very much understanding of this situation,” he said.
Apart from two Muslim candidates representing the National Unity Party (NUP), the party of the former military dictator Ne Win, almost all Muslim candidates are representing little known, Rangoon-based Muslim political parties.
Kyaw Min said powerful parties are avoiding Muslims either out of fear that they will lose votes or with the deliberate intent of keeping Muslims out of the formal political arena.
“The result is Muslims will lose their democratic right to represent their community. This will also discourage the patriotism of Muslims in this country,” he said.
His party is one of a handful that is fielding Muslim candidates outside Rangoon, including the only Muslim candidate in the town of Maungdaw in northern Arakan State.
Like many of his party’s would-be candidates, Kyaw Min himself was rejected by the election commission, despite him winning a seat in the 1990 elections, the results of which were ignored by the junta.
In Arakan (also known as Rakhine State), the authorities have revoked the ‘white cards’—temporary national identity cards – of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, making them ineligible to vote.
These white cards enabled the embattled Muslim community there to vote in previous elections in 1990 and in 2010. They will now be disenfranchised, warned United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
“I am deeply disappointed by this effective disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and other minority communities,” the UN chief said late last month.
The Carter Center, which is observing the elections, released a statement on 25 September, saying, “The disqualification of almost all Muslim candidates running in Rakhine State further limits representation possibilities for the Rohingya population, already largely disenfranchised by the cancellation of voting rights for former temporary citizenship card holders.”
The current union parliament is already dominated by Buddhists. There are only three Muslim legislators from USDP representing constituencies in the towns of Buthidaung and Maungdaw in northern Arakan.
Despite their small number, they have asked more questions than any other MPs according to Myanmar Now’s analysis of data of MPs’ questions in 11 out of 12 parliamentary sessions since the government took power in 2011.
Most were related to the citizenship and other rights issues regarding the Rohingya. Yet none of the three are not on the ballot for the upcoming elections.
While two have apparently left politics, Shwe Maung, who represents the town of Buthidaung in Arakan, quit the USDP and attempted to run as an independent candidate. He was disqualified for the same reason as other Muslim candidates.
“I wish I could say I was an exception. But the truth is that Rohingya, along with other Muslims in Myanmar, are totally alienated and excluded from participation in politics. And make no mistake: it is because of our ethnicity and religion,” Shwe Maung has said in a statement released by APHR last month.
Hla Toe, a Muslim who co-chairs the Kaman National Development Party, has little hope of winning a seat in Arakan. Of four Muslim candidates running there, two are from his party.
“We will try to win a seat in Yangon [Rangoon], but we don’t think we will win in Rakhine State where there is a lot of racial discrimination,” said Hla Toe, who himself is running for a lower house seat in Rangoon’s Minglar Taungnyunt Township.