The Muslim minority and the election

The lack of minority NLD-candidates is discouraging for Myanmar’s Muslim community.

IT IS just over two months to the election. The National League for Democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, says it will be the most important election of a lifetime. She also said that if people chose the NLD, it would bring change to the country. What she meant is that the November 8 election can lead to democracy. But in this transition period to democracy, what are the prospects of Myanmar’s minority groups? This week I would like to discuss whether the election can bring about the rights of the Muslim minority.

As is well known, sectarian violence erupted in Rakhine State in 2012, the year after the Thein Sein government came to power. Hundreds of people were killed, thousands were injured and houses and other property was destroyed. More than 100,000 people were resettled in camps for the internally displaced. Most of them have not been able to return to their homes.

After 2012, sectarian violence also broke out in other parts of the country, including at Mekhtila, Lashio and Mandalay. Anti-Muslim movements developed in the Buddhist heartland. Laws proposed by Buddhist nationalists, the so-called race and religion laws, were submitted for endorsement to the Union parliament. Many domestic and international organisations say these laws are discriminatory and exclusive. Since the Thein Sein government came to power, the Muslim minority has faced threats and is far from gaining equal rights.

The coming election may mean that some people who support equal rights for minority groups will be candidates. Many Muslims will participate in the election. However, in Rakhine State more than 400,000 Muslims have been told to surrender their temporary registration documents known as white cards and have been disenfranchised. These people had the right to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and in the 2010 election.

The disenfranchisement occurred because the government said in February that white cards would become invalid on March 31 and must be surrendered to the authorities. The Constitutional Tribunal had also ruled that it would be a breach of the constitution if white card holders were able to vote. Unlike the 2010 election, Rohingya in Rakhine State and Muslims throughout the country who held white cards [along with many of Chinese and Indian descent] will not be able to vote in the election. It is as if the election has nothing to do with them.

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Only the two biggest parties, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, and the NLD, have ambitions to gain the presidency and form the next government. The USDP has endorsed the race and religion laws. For those Muslims who can vote, the USDP will not be their choice because they have been repressed by the ruling party.

The Muslim minority has therefore been attracted to the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has expressed disapproval of the race and religion laws. There was also an expectation that the NLD would choose Muslims as election candidates. By doing so, the NLD could demonstrate that its membership embraces all religions and ethnic groups and that the party stands for minority rights. The NLD could attract many votes from these minority groups. If members of the Muslim minority were elected, they could raise their community’s concerns in the hluttaw.

The NLD includes experienced Muslim politicians such as U Ko Ni, a lawyer, and Daw Win Mya Mya, from Mandalay. But some NLD sources say that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi instructed them not to contest the election. Ko Mya Aye, a leading member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group, and a Muslim, withdrew his application to be an NLD candidate. Muslim members of the NLD had their applications to contest the election turned down. There are no Muslims on the NLD’s candidate lists. A prominent member of the NLD suggested that this may be because the party does not want to expose itself to criticism from rival parties and other anti-Muslim groups.

This situation has been discouraging for the Muslim community, which numbers from four million to five million people. There are at least three small parties established by Muslims but their candidates have little chance of being elected. All in all, there is not much hope for the Muslim minority in November.

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