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Doubts mount about Myanmar election as Muslims excluded

By Joshua Carroll
September 27, 2015

Free and fair elections looking less likely as complaints mount about flaws in process, including denial of vote to Rohingya Muslims and exclusion of over a hundred candidates – many Muslims

YANGON, Myanmar -- Myanmar election officials have released the final list of candidates to stand in a highly anticipated general election on Nov. 8. However, more than a hundred including many Muslims were controversially excluded from the list released this week, underlining a series of problems that threaten to damage the poll’s credibility.

More than 6,000 people will contend for regional and national seats in what is expected to be one of the freest polls in decades.

It is the first time the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party has agreed to contest a general election since 1990, when it won by a landslide but was not allowed to take power.

The poll comes almost five years after the start of a radical process of political and economic reforms that have lifted Myanmar out of global isolation, helped end most sanctions and spurred rapid economic growth.

If the election is largely credible it could be a significant milestone towards making the country more democratic, open and peaceful. If not there will be severe doubts about the veracity of reforms that many have already criticized as superficial.

The reformist government, which was installed by the former military junta in 2011, has pledged free and fair elections. But less than two months before polling day, that is looking less and less likely as complaints mount about flaws in the process.

Among the most serious is the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, a much maligned minority.

The group was allowed to vote in both a 2010 poll and in 1990. Their exclusion this time around comes amid a rising wave of Buddhist nationalism.

And Muslim candidates have also been excluded from the poll. Among them is Kyaw Min, a Rohingya who contested the 1990 poll and is head of the Democracy and Human Rights Party.

Fifteen of its 18 members were denied the right to contest a seat in November on citizenship grounds.

“It’s killing the voice of the minority, particularly the Rohingya and other Muslims, and is totally excluding them from the political process,” Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya rights activist and the daughter of Kyaw Min, told Anadolu Agency.

“It’s just discrimination against those candidates based on their religion,” she added.

In response to pressure from the U.S. and other governments, the Union Election Commission reinstated 11 Muslim candidates following an appeal, the Myanmar Times reported Friday.

Tellingly, not a single candidate from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was excluded during the commission's vetting process.

Another problem tarnishing the upcoming poll is that Aung San Suu Kyi, the world-famous leader of the opposition NLD, will not be allowed to become president even if her party wins a majority because she has two foreign sons.

A clause in the military drafted constitution bars anyone from the top job if they have foreign relatives, and is widely seen as aimed at Suu Kyi.

That has helped create a quirk in Myanmar’s potentially historic general election: there are no official presidential candidates, and it is unlikely the public will know exactly who is vying for the leadership until after they've voted.

The NLD has not announced who it would choose as president if it wins enough seats, and the USDP have been equally elusive.

Thein Sein, the current president, will not contest a seat, but under the constitution that doesn’t exclude him from being made president again.

In other words, Myanmar's next president can come to power without a public vote, but only if their relatives aren't foreign.

Another member of the USDP, Shwe Mann, could also be hoping for the top job. He has grown close the Aung San Suu Kyi and there is speculation she might back him.

But he was dealt a major political blow last month when Thein Sein sacked him from his post as chairman of the USDP in a dramatic ouster that saw armed security personnel surround the party headquarters.

For many analysts, the ouster meant the end of Shwe Mann’s presidential aspirations. But while he may have lost support among Thein Sein loyalists, there is no reason he can’t still be president, particularly if Suu Kyi wants him to be.

Myanmar’s president is chosen by an electoral college made up of newly elected MPs and unelected military MPs, who are granted a quarter of all parliamentary seats under the 2008 constitution.

Early next year, the upper and lower houses of parliament, as well as the military bloc, will each nominate a presidential candidate. Then the union parliament will vote as a whole on the three candidates and whoever wins will be president. The new president then forms a government.

While Myanmar state media continues to talk up hopes for a “free and fair” election, others including foreign embassies are treading more carefully, talking instead of their support for “credible” and “transparent” elections.

Religious nationalism is perhaps the biggest threat to achieving that, but another major concern is an administrative one -- voter lists across the country riddled with inaccuracies, with some even including the names of dead people.

The NLD has made a major push to update the lists, and one member has gone as far as to say that the inaccuracies could cause unrest on polling day.

Win Htein, of the party’s central executive campaign committee, told the Eleven Media website that there will be people unable to vote at “every ballot station in the upcoming general election.”

He added: “They might say bad words around the ballot station, and then there might be violence. “

Whatever happens after Nov. 8, the hardline Buddhist nationalists who are threatening the credibility of the poll are likely to maintain a strong role in Myanmar’s politics.

A monk-led group named Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, recently succeeded in pushing a package of laws through parliament that rights group warn will be used to oppress Muslims and other religious minorities.

The NLD has accused the group of breaking Myanmar’s election law, which prohibits the use of religion to try and sway voters.

The party filed a complaint after Ma Ba Tha members distributed leaflets this week that said “unexpected risks will enter the religion and the country” if the NLD is elected.

Suu Kyi’s party has not, however, gone as far to openly challenge Ma Ba Tha on its campaign to marginalize Muslims or its race and religion laws. In fact populist Buddhist nationalism has gone largely unchallenged across the political spectrum.

“All the politicians and parties are silent on the [race and religion] laws and on the whole issue, including the disqualification and disenfranchisement of Muslims,” Khin Zaw Win of the Tampadipa Institute, a Yangon-based think tank, told Anadolu Agency.

“This hangs as a shadow over the elections," he added, "they cannot be fair.”

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