Political parties in Myanmar have geared up for upcoming general elections with Nov. 8 set as the date for crucial polls which will be the first held under the civilian government in more than six decades.
The Union Election Commission announced the election date on July 1, inviting candidate registration from the 96 registered political parties from July 20 to Aug. 7.
A few days after the commission’s announcement, a 16-membered team was formed to assist Muslim candidates in campaigning in their constituencies countrywide. The team includes mainly Muslim legal experts.
Spokesman of the team Maung Muang Myint told Anadolu Agency that the group will help Muslim candidates financially, legally and technically.
“It was a shame that our parliament has no Muslim lawmaker although Muslims make up more than 5% of the country’s population,” he said over the phone.
“Of more than 6,000 candidates in the 2015 elections, only 28 were Muslims. And they won no seat,” he said, adding that the commission had rejected more than a hundred would-be candidates, mostly Muslims, on the grounds of citizenship. Election law states that candidates’ parents must be already recognized as citizens at the time of the candidates’ birth.
“So this year, we teamed up to help them in the whole process starting from candidate registration,” said Myint.
Two largest political parties in the county, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party and military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), did not file any Muslim candidates for the last general elections.
Parties have yet to submit the lists of candidates to the election commission for registration. Myint, however, said Muslims have only a slim chance of being chosen as candidates of the political parties in the Buddhist-majority country.
“We do not hear anything about parties choosing Muslims as their candidates,” he said. “So far, we are contacted by only about 20 independent Muslim candidates from Yangon, Mandalay and Rakhine.”
Aung Shin, the spokesman of the NLD party, admitted the party had excluded Muslims as candidates to avoid the criticisms from Buddhist nationalist groups while religious tensions were running high ahead of the 2015 elections.
“It happened [in 2015], but it will not happen this time,” he told Anadolu Agency over the phone last week, affirming that the party will choose candidates regardless of race and religion.
“We do not have a policy not to select Muslim candidates, but it depends on the will of respective local communities,” Shin said.
He said respective local communities have been making lists of the would-be candidates, and the party’s Chief Executive Committee then to select suitable people from their lists.
“In this way, the candidate selection will reflect the desire of the host communities,” said Shin.
Min Htwe, like many other Muslims in Yangon’s Mingalar Taungnyunt township, does not believe strong political parties will include a proper number of Muslim candidates running in the upcoming elections.
“I do not think the NLD and other parties would risk losing votes by selecting many Muslim candidates because the majority of populations are Buddhists,” said Htwe in his 30s.
“But parties will include some Muslim candidates to claim that they have no discriminatory policy,” he told Anadolu Agency.
The Muslim community is concerned that not only there will be very few Muslim candidates running in the upcoming elections, but also most will be representing little-known parties, left with slim chances of winning any seats.
“Most people would only vote for big parties, the NLD or USDP. So there will be likely another Muslim-free parliament unless these parties have Muslim candidates,” he said.
According to the 2014 census, the Muslim population officially makes up 4% of the country’s 51 million people. Muslims, however, found themselves a target of hatred as Myanmar has seen a growing anti-Muslim sentiment with the rise of nationalism among majority Buddhists.
The persecution of Muslims is most prevalent in the western Rakhine state, where the UN Refugee Agency said more than 723,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape the brutal military crackdown since 2017.
Myanmar refers Rohingya as Bengali, a term suggesting that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, living in Rakhine for decades. However, Rohingya reject the claim, asserting that they have been living in the region for centuries. Rakhine housed more than 1 million Rohingya, who were temporary national identity card (white card) holders and had rights to vote in 2010, a crucial election in transforming the country from military dictatorship to democracy.
The previous government led by reformist President Thein Sein, who himself a senior leader of the military junta that ruled the country for nearly six decades until 2010, revoked the white cards ahead of the 2015 elections, making them ineligible to vote.
Rohingya politician Kyaw Min, the chairperson of Democracy and Human Rights Party, was among Muslim candidates who were banned by the election commission from running in the 2015 elections.
“I won a seat in 1990,” Min told Anadolu Agency, referring to general elections in which the NLD saw a landslide victory, but the results were ignored by the military junta.
Min said Muslims had had voting rights in elections dating back to independence and through the country’s 2010 general election. “There was at least a Muslim lawmaker in every parliament throughout Myanmar history. We, Muslims, however, lost our rights to represent our community since the 2015 election,” he said.
His party recently sent a letter to the election commission, demanding the restoration of rights to vote for Rohingya people in Rakhine. “With a minority group being disenfranchised, how could an election be really free and fair?” he asked.