Under pressure on all sides, UEC reinstates 11 Muslim candidates
By Guy Dinmore
September 25, 2015
Eleven Muslim politicians have successfully challenged their controversial disqualification from contesting the November elections following a surprise reversal by the Union Election Commission.
|Men rest outside the Nasarpuri Mosque in Yangon’s Pabedan township. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)|
Their reinstatement after appeal followed concerted pressure from the United States and eight other governments, which had urged Myanmar to hold “a credible, transparent and inclusive election” while expressing concerns “about the prospect of religion being used as a tool of division and conflict during the campaign season”.
One Western diplomat called the reinstatement of the 11 candidates an important development and credited U Tin Aye, the ex-general heading the UEC, with resisting pressure from the Union Solidarity and Development Party to exclude them.
The UEC had disqualified 124 would-be candidates earlier this month,many of them Muslims, following a murky vetting process. Two of those rejected were incumbent members of parliament, including a Muslim representative of the USDP who had applied to run as an independent.
Some of the successful candidates said they had learned on September 21 that their appeals had been approved by a UEC tribunal on September 19. A UEC statement on its website named 11 reinstated candidates. Their religious affiliation was not listed but checks by The Myanmar Times with the candidates and parties confirmed that all were Muslim.
“Perhaps the statement by the nine embassies had some influence,” U Khin Maung Cho, one of the 11 who is running as an independent candidate in Yangon’s Pabedan township, told The Myanmar Times.
But the 64-year-old lawyer, who is of the ethnic Bamar majority, also stressed that the UEC had no legal grounds to disqualify him when it alleged there was no concrete evidence to prove the ethnicity of his parents.
“I hope to get the Muslim vote,” he said, although he noted that the election code of conduct effectively bars him from touching on religion in his campaign rallies. His religious affiliation is however listed on leaflets he is preparing to distribute.
The lawyer’s campaign slogan is “genuine democracy” and he has chosen the scales of justice as his logo.
Ethnic and religious affiliation are likely to determine the outcome of voting in many constituencies, especially in ethnic minority areas, in what some analysts are describing as the most identity-driven elections since independence in 1948.
Under the election code of conduct, parties have committed themselves to “not abuse religion for political purposes” or fuel “sectarian or tribal” divisions.
But quasi-political rallies being held across the country by ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks of the powerful Ma Ba Tha group have in some cases adopted an overtly pro-government and anti-Muslim agenda.
The rise of Buddhist nationalism, fuelled by a radical minority of monks, is widely seen as having persuaded Myanmar’s two largest parties - the USDP and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy – to exclude all Muslim candidates from their ranks.
Nationalist pressure was also behind the government’s U-turn last February when it disenfranchised an estimated 800,000 holders of “white cards” or temporary IDs, mostly ethnic Rohingya in Buddhist-majority Rakhine State.
|Muslim candidate U Khin Maung Cho. Photo: Guy Dinmore / The Myanmar Times|
U Khin Maung Cho said one of the main reasons he had decided to run as an independent for a seat in the lower house was the “pre-meditated policy” of exclusion adopted by the two big parties. He said Ma Ba Tha would surely “interfere” in the elections with its “anti-Muslim propaganda” but he hoped its influence would be limited.
The 11 candidates reinstated this week number two independents, four from the National Unity Congress Party, two from the National Unity Party, two from the Democracy and Human Rights Party and one from the New National Democracy Party.
They join just a handful of Muslim candidates who were cleared initially by the UEC among a total of more than 6000 politicians running for seats in the national and regional parliaments.
An official of the Democracy and Human Rights Party said that it now had three approved candidates out of 18 who had applied. Two of the three were ethnic Rohingya, he said.
Muslims make up around 4 percent of Myanmar’s population according to out-of-date official figures, although the community says the real number could be double that.
In a few constituencies in Yangon, including Pabedan where U Khin Maung Cho is running, Muslims make up the largest religious group. However, they are far from one coherent voice, being divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.
In tea-shops along the majestic and tree-lined avenue of Shwe Bon Thar, known for its concentration of gold and jewellery shops, talk of the elections is heating up although many voters admit to their lack of detailed knowledge of who is running. News that two Muslim independents would be running in the township has yet to filter down.
Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Jewish places of worship lie within a few minutes’ walk of each other, making Pabedan one of the country’s most intensely mixed communities, as it has been for over a century.
“Ma Ba Tha is dangerous,” said one Bamar Buddhist man who described himself as a “broker” in gold, gems and currency, and praised the local community’s peaceful co-existence. He and his companions taking afternoon tea said they all intended to vote for the local NLD candidates, although only one could remember their names.
“The issue of Muslim candidates is very sensitive,” the broker said of the decision by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to bar them. But the broker, who declined to be named, said the biggest danger was the UEC and the fear it would “play tricks” to rig the elections for the USDP.
Nearby, five Hindu Tamils, all gold dealers, agreed the NLD would get their votes.
In the tranquil courtyard of the Mogul Shia Mosque, first built in 1854 by wealthy Iranians and Shia of central Asian descent, some worshippers still speak the Farsi of their ancestors and adhere to the commemorations that distinguish them from the Sunni majority around them.
There too the NLD appears to be making inroads, although one man said his wife, a former military officer, would not be backing the opposition party.
However, Naeem, an activist of the National Democratic Party for Development, a mainly Rohingya party, said the objective of the ruling party and most Bamar Buddhist parties, including the NLD, was “to declare a Muslim-free parliament to Ma Ba Tha”. His party had only one candidate accepted by the UEC, a Bamar Buddhist.
“Muslims in Burma, Rohingya as well, have been in parliament since 1936, long before independence, and are even in the current parliament. This is a very dark page for Myanmar by excluding Muslims and Rohingya in this election. It is a big blow to the democratisation of the country,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ei Ei Toe Lwin