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Muslim candidates fear no shot at the polls

By Ei Ei Toe Lwin and Ye Mon With AFP

September 7, 2015

With the finalised candidate list expected to be released today, barred Muslim election hopefuls fear not a single one of them will be left to contend the looming polls, leaving no one to represent what many estimate is Myanmar’s largest religious minority.

Lower house MP U Shwe Maung talks to reporters during a press conference on September 4. (Aung Khant/The Myanmar Times)

The Union Election Commission’s scrutiny process has scrubbed 88 candidates from the list, with citizenship complaints the most frequently cited cause for disqualification. Around one-third of the rejected candidates – at least 30 – are Muslim contestants, mainly hailing from Rakhine State.

Leaders of Muslim parties said they have tried every avenue for appealing the disqualifications, including heaps of paperwork proving their eligibility. But none of it has prevailed so far.

“The final decision will be made on September 7 [before the candidate campaign period begins]. We hope to get good results, but we understand it won’t be a fair trial,” said U Zaw Min, chair of the National Development and Peace Party, which has had all six of its candidates nixed due to allegations their parents were not citizens at the time of the candidates’ birth. All have sent appeals to the state commission with the relevant paper trail attached.

“We can show the right documents if they ask, but they don’t take that into account. We feel that our rights have been violated under this so-called democratic government,” he said.

A lower house parliamentarian elected in 2010 during the ruling party’s courting of the Muslim vote, U Shwe Maung was axed from the Union Solidarity and Development Party and then blocked from running as an independent. The election commission found him and the other Muslim independent running in Buthidaung, Daw Khin Khin Lwin, ineligible on the grounds that their parents were not valid citizens at the time of their birth.

U Shwe Maung says the accusation – which was brought against him by his ethnic Rakhine political rival – is ridiculous as his father was a senior police officer, and he also passed scrutiny in 2010, when the political atmosphere was more amenable to Muslim candidates.

“The [state] commission rejected my appeal without taking even 10 seconds to check my documents. While they were hearing my case, I requested they look up my documents but they said there was no need to check,” the MP said, adding that the sidelining of Muslim parliamentarians would make the elections “unfree and unfair”.

“How many times do we need approval?” he said.

But the barring of Muslim candidates is just one part of the larger ostracisation of the Muslim community ahead of the elections. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim voters, including in Muslim-majority communities, have been struck from electoral rolls amid ever-increasing pressure from ultra-nationalist hardline groups with an avowed mission to disenfranchise those they regard as foreign intruders. The New York Times reported on August 23 that up to 500,000 Royinga voters in Rakhine State found their names missing from the voter lists, despite many having participated in previous polls.

In February of this year, parliament enacted a referendum law that would enable those holding white cards to vote, a decision that instigated public outcry and a swift reversal of both the voting plan and the white cards, which were invalidated.

The largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy, did not field a single Muslim candidate among its over 1000 submissions, according to a senior party member.

“People see this as religious discrimination,” the party member told AFP, adding that party chair Daw Aung San Suu Kyi “must be afraid” of the hardline monks.

Meanwhile, parties purporting to represent the Muslim community have had most if not all their candidates disqualified. The Democracy Human Rights Party has had so few candidates pass the citizenship stumbling block that they may be disqualified from the elections. The election law prohibits parties with fewer than three candidates from contesting the vote, which some allege is being used to oust parties without explicitly barring them.

“This strategy of deliberate disenfranchisement is a win-win for the government and its proxy [the] UEC,” said London-based scholar and activist U Maung Zarni. “The Muslims in Myanmar are already anxious and scared for the safety of their communities across the country, generally speaking.”

“If the disenfranchised Muslims … take to the streets or show their displeasure in any aggressive or public manner, the military will use U Wirathu and his Islamophobic networks such as the Ma Ba Tha to counter the Muslim protests,” he said.

Political commentator U Sithu Aung said the burden of citizenship proof for Muslim and opposition candidates was unreasonably high. “Even for me it is impossible to show the status of my parent’s citizenship before I was born. It is a very complicated issue,” he said.

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