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A dangerous diversion in Myanmar

(Photo: Myanmar Times)

September 8, 2015

Denying Muslim Rohingya the right to political representation will only pour more fuel on sectarian disputes

Recent developments in Myanmar threaten to turn the country's first free election into a setback for democracy and reconciliation rather than a milestone.

Ethno-religious conflicts that have raged for decades are still far from settled, and more fuel is being poured on the flames in the run-up to November's poll. Probably worst-affected are the Muslim Rohingya minority in the eastern border state of Rakhine, most of whom are still not recognised as Myanmar citizens.

Last week a Rohingya member of parliament, Shwe Maung, was barred from contesting November's election on the basis that his parents were not Myanmar citizens at the time of his birth. His appeal to the state election commission "was thrown out in less than 10 seconds", he says. The commissioners had refused even to look at documentary proof he provided of his parents' citizenship.

Myanmar's election commission revealed that it has rejected at least 88 candidates for failing to meet the citizenship requirement. Eighteen of those were Muslim, according to local media reports.

It is understandable that Myanmar, with its many diverse ethnic groups and often-porous borders, feels it necessary to scrutinise the nationality of political candidates. But, by its treatment of Shwe Maung, the election commission has shown that the scrutiny is biased and unjust.

And that prejudice extends to the way state and national authorities treat members of minorities. 

Muslim Rohingya have been excluded at every stage of modern Myanmar's development as a nation-state. Despite having lived in Rakhine in significant numbers for generations, they remain stateless and without the basic rights and services that citizenship confers.

Although their origins are still a matter of debate, their longstanding residence in eastern Myanmar is no longer in question and dates back beyond independence from British rule in 1948.

Yet both the state authorities and the national leadership in this predominantly Buddhist nation continue to bar Muslims from social and political participation. 

The picture is no brighter for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which is not fielding a single Muslim candidate in the upcoming election. Favourite to win the majority of seats, the NLD has paid little attention to communal conflict in the run-up to the poll. Its policy on the issue is almost the same as that of the military-backed USDP. Suu Kyi appears loath to express empathy, let alone sympathy, for the Muslim minorities targeted by Buddhist mobs during sectarian bouts of violence.

Meanwhile religious and nationalist extremists have played a crucial role in fanning anti-Muslim sentiment over the past few years. Figures such as the firebrand monk Wirathu have used racist rhetoric to marginalise Myanmar's Muslims, who account for just 5 per cent of the 51-million-strong population.

In a recent interview with AFP, Wirathu claimed "victory" for his campaign to pressure the government to push controversial laws through parliament that helped snatch away voting rights from hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya in strife-torn Rakhine.

The Myanmar authorities claim to be moving towards democracy and reconciliation, but no progress can be made unless they review the citizenship policy. The road to democracy and reconciliation can only be travelled with the participation of all. A nationalist ethos of Burmese Buddhism is a dangerous diversion that will end in more violence.

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