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A Muslim-Free Parliament in Myanmar

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

By Oren Samet
October 10, 2015

Myanmar's upcoming elections risk further the country's slide away from the much-touted democratic success story.

Election season has officially kicked off in Myanmar. Candidates from more than 90 registered political parties are currently campaigning around the country to win votes in what many are expecting to be the freest election Myanmar has seen in over half a century.

The vote, which is scheduled to take place on Nov. 8, marks a potential milestone for a country that spent nearly 50 years under a series of repressive military regimes.

But the campaign has a dark side. Rising animosity toward Muslims, who make up between 4 and 10 percent of Myanmar’s total population, has infected campaign rhetoric and seems to be influencing the decision-making of key actors involved.

For the United States and other Western governments, who are hoping a successful election will allow them to turn a final page on decades of efforts to isolate Myanmar’s military-controlled regime, these developments are proving to be an unwelcome reality check on Myanmar’s transitional progress.

Muslim politicians have become the latest victims in a broader campaign against Islam’s perceived creeping influence in Myanmar. Dozens of Muslim candidates were recently rejected by state and local election commissions around the country. Authorities deemed them ineligible on grounds that their parents were not citizens, a claim fiercely disputed by the candidates themselves. (To run for office in Myanmar, constitutional provisions mandate that both of the candidate’s parents must hold Myanmar citizenship.)

Citizenship is a touchy issue in Myanmar, where existing legislation restricts full citizenship rights to a defined number of “indigenous” ethnic groups. But never before have citizenship disputes been so religiously charged, and the grounds for rejecting many of the candidates seem to defy basic logic.

For instance, one of the rejected candidates, U Shwe Maung, is already a sitting member of parliament. He appealed the decision all the way up to the Union Election Commission — the nation’s highest electoral authority — to no avail. Throughout the appeal process, he was not given the basic due process rights and provided an opportunity to present evidence in his defense — par the course for a country where the rule of law is already judged by exceptionally low standards.

Candidates haven’t been the only targets. Many Muslim voters remain off the rolls for 2015, despite being included during the last general election in 2010 (an election widely seen as marred by fraud). Most of these are members of the beleaguered Rohingya minority that primarily live in the western part of the country near Bangladesh.

It’s not only the ruling authorities that have excluded Muslims from participating, either. The leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), failed to nominate a single Muslim candidate. A party official later admitted that qualified Muslim politicians were deliberately passed over. This omission by the party that’s widely expected to win the most votes means the likelihood of any Muslims making it into parliament is low.

The election commission and the NLD likely felt a need to cave to popular pressure. Since inter-communal violence rocked western Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2012, the country has witnessed an alarming spike in anti-Muslim sentiment. Rohingya Muslims on the country’s periphery have been the principal targets. But while longstanding animosity toward Rohingya has historically been cast in ethnic terms, the current discourse has become increasingly about religion.

Buddhist extremism is driving anti-Muslim sentiment. Buddhist nationalist groups, including a prominent association of extremist monks, have consistently warned of the threat the country faces from Muslims in its midst. Now they seem to be pushing for a Muslim-free parliament. And it appears increasingly likely that they will get their wish.

Since the transition to a nominally civilian government in 2011, Myanmar has emerged from intense international isolation. Its government, led by President Thein Sein, has embraced international investment and support as it has eased media censorship, released hundreds of political prisoners, and cautiously backed a shift toward quasi-democracy.

For the United States and other Western governments, the upcoming elections represent an opportunity to further and consolidate that change. The election could bring to power Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy opposition, which Western actors have supported for years. Such an outcome would validate the Obama administration’s approach to Myanmar, one which administration officials — most notably former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — have described as a key foreign policy accomplishment.

But as candidates and voters face complete disenfranchisement and religious extremism rears its ugly head, it appears the elections will not be the democratic coronation many have been hoping for.

Several Western governments recently highlighted this concern, issuing a statement decrying the candidate rejections and the broader lack of transparency. In response, the Election Commission reinstated 11 previously disqualified candidates — an apparent gesture toward inclusiveness the government hopes might allow this issue to blow over entirely.

The exclusion of Muslims is far from the only credibility problem the elections face. Errors on recently compiled voter lists, concerns about the integrity of voting procedures, and the cancellation of polling in certain conflict-plagued regions also threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the vote.

But as opposed to these concerns, few inside Myanmar seem to believe that the exclusion of Muslims is even a problem. With no domestic appetite to combat religious discrimination, the elections — along with a potential Muslim-free parliament — risk furthering Myanmar’s already precipitous slide away from a democratic success story.

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