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Aung San Suu Kyi's party excludes Muslim candidates

By Jonah Fisher
September 8, 2015

There was a time when Aung San Suu Kyi was seen as Asia's Nelson Mandela. To her more ardent fans, she was more than that. An icon, almost a saint. So why is the Nobel Peace Prize winner's political party excluding Muslims from its list of candidates for November's general election?

Sithu Maung had high hopes that he'd be chosen as a candidate for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) and be part of a historic electoral victory.

At 29, he's perhaps a bit young, but otherwise he ticked all the right boxes.

A prominent student leader, he'd done time as a political prisoner after taking part in the so-called Saffron Revolution - a series of often monk-led protests in late 2007.

He targeted the Pabedan constituency in downtown Yangon. The area has a Muslim majority, which he figured would be a great fit for a Muslim candidate like himself.

But the NLD rejected Sithu Maung and a Buddhist candidate will be on the ballot instead.

He told me he was sure that his religion had played a part.

"I wish the NLD would give a fair and equal chance to all qualified candidates," he told me when we met in a tea shop. "Without discriminating by their race and religion."

Needing to two-thirds of the non-military seats in parliament to chose the president, Aung San Suu Kyi's party is prioritising victory above all

Sources both within the NLD and outside told us that none of their 1,151 candidates standing in regional and national elections, is Muslim.

It's hard to prove a policy of discrimination, but one thing is clear - leading Muslims in both Yangon and Mandalay, who expected to be given constituencies to fight, were overlooked.

"I don't know," was the answer of U Tin Oo, one of the party's founders, when we challenged him to name a Muslim NLD candidate.

He's 89 and his justification for the absence of Muslims from the NLD lists focused on Myanmar's citizenship rules.

That explains the absence of the stateless Rohingya, but not the many Burmese Muslims whose families have lived here for generations.

Pragmatism trumping principle

The exact number of Muslims in Myanmar is considered so sensitive that last year's census results are being suppressed. It's generally thought they represent somewhere between 4 and 10% of the population.

Ever since she was elected to parliament in a by-election in 2012, Ms Suu Kyi has gone out of her way not to offend the country's hard-line monks, also known as the Ma Ba Tha.

That's meant disappointing Western human rights groups and choosing her words very carefully in relations to the country's Rohingya - widely discriminated against in Myanmar.

Earlier this year, pragmatism trumped principle again when she refused to speak up in defence of UN envoy Yanghee Lee when she was verbally abused by prominent monk Ashin Wirathu.

The ultra-nationalist leader called Ms Lee a "bitch" and a "whore".

In July 2013, Time magazine put Mr Wirathu on their front cover with the question: "The Face of Buddhist Terror?"
Widely discriminated against, many Rohingya Muslims have been forced into refugee camps within Myanmar by sectarian violence

Post-election politics

This decision to not to run Muslim candidates should be seen in that context. Already facing what will almost certainly be bruising negotiations with the army in the post-election period, the NLD has decided not to pick a fight with any of the monks.

"It is kind of an irony that she wrote Freedom from Fear [a collection of her essays] and now she fears something," says Myat Thu, a Muslim activist who came close to joining the NLD. "I think she has lost her courage".

It's a wounding criticism for a woman whose bravery in the face of the country's generals in the 1990s and early 2000s is beyond doubt.

Chatting with me at her home, former student activist Mya Aye told me "frankly it's wrong," of the decision to exclude Muslims.

"There are many Muslims who have worked for the NLD and been loyal to them for many years. The voice of the minority is important in parliament."

With the army already guaranteed 25% of the seats in the Hluttaw [parliament] the target for the NLD is to win two-thirds of those that remain. That a big ask, but it would give them a majority and the freedom to choose the next president.

If two-thirds proves to be beyond them, the NLD will have to enlist the support of smaller parties. With that in mind, it had been expected the party would make pre-emptive deals not to contest constituencies in some ethnic minority areas.

Instead, much to the annoyance of the ethnically-based parties, the NLD appear to be fielding as many candidates as possible.

Similarly, leading members of the so-called 88 Generation of student activists were encouraged to cosy up to the NLD in the expectation that they would be allowed to run for parliament if they wished. But when it came down to it, most of the 88 Generation ended up being rejected.

They may now be regretting not setting up their own political party.

Aung San Suu Kyi has already held well-attended rallies under the guise of voter education campaigns. Having waited so long for another chance, winning the election now appears to be all that matters.

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