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Rights group urges Myanmar to prevent Rohingya disenfranchisement

Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar residing in Malaysia hold placards during a rally over the current Rohingya crisis at a hall in Ampang, in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur on June 3, 2015 (AFP Photo/Mohd Rasfan)

August 20, 2015

YANGON - A US-based rights group has urged Myanmar to prevent the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya from voting in crucial November elections after the minority were stripped of their identity cards earlier this year.

The Carter Center also warned that growing anti-Islamic hate speech in the Buddhist-majority nation could see religious tensions flare during the upcoming campaign period.

Myanmar authorities began collecting temporary identification documents from minority groups, mainly the displaced Rohingya in western Rakhine state, in April -- a move which takes away their voting rights.

In a report on the looming elections released late Wednesday the centre said it hoped President Thein Sein's decision to revoke the documents "does not result in large-scale disenfranchisement of previously eligible voters".

The advocacy group, which has been invited to observe the Myanmar polls along with the European Union, said Myanmar had substantially improved the political environment in preparation for the November 8 polls, but added "significant challenges remain" .

A host of issues have troubled observers as the country prepares to hold the first nationwide elections to feature Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition in a quarter of a century.

Questions over transparency, media freedom and the dearth of trust in authorities have all caused concern in a nation run by the military for decades until 2011.

Carter warned the campaign could see growing anti-Muslim hate speech, which has been linked to religious bloodshed in a country where hardline monks have become increasingly influential.

It added that members of Suu Kyi's opposition had raised concerns that efforts to portray the party as pro-Muslim -- which have included social media campaigns with crudely altered pictures showing the Nobel laureate wearing a headscarf -- could be politically damaging.

"As the campaign period approaches, it is possible that nationalist groups and political parties will seek to build support by appealing to voters on religious grounds, heightening tensions in an already tense political atmosphere," the report said.

Thein Sein's move to revoke identity documents in March and the subsequent removal of voting rights runs counter to international best practice and appears "discriminatory", said the Carter Centre.

Impoverished Rakhine remains deeply scarred by religious divisions after violence swept across the state in 2012, leaving more than 200 dead and some 140,000 confined to miserable displacement camps, mainly the Rohingya.

Many of those now unable to vote were eligible to cast ballots in controversial 2010 elections, which saw Thein Sein's ruling party court votes in Rohingya areas of Rakhine.

Those polls were marred by widespread accusations of cheating and the absence of Suu Kyi and her party.

The subsequent quasi-civilian government has implemented dramatic political and economic changes that have seen most Western sanctions suspended.

But campaigners have voiced increasing fears that reforms are stalling.

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