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Credibility of Burma’s elections comes into question over exclusion of Muslim minority

Supporters of Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party attend a rally in Mandalay earlier this week. Pic: AP.

October 31, 2015

EVEN before the November 8 election comes around in Burma, also known as Myanmar, lawmakers have begun to question just how free and fair it will be with odds stacked in the government’s favour and large numbers of people unable to vote.

While there’s no doubt the polls will be the freest elections the nation has had for 25 years, serious questions and problems remain.

The primary one is that about 760,000 people, including Muslim Rohingyas, ethnic Chinese and Indians will not be allowed to vote. Since the 2010 and 2012 elections the temporary registration cards of the Muslim minority, refugees and migrant workers have expired that allowed them to vote. Holders of new identity cards are no longer allowed to vote.

The U.N. has described the Rohingya Muslims as “one of the world’s most persecuted peoples”. About 140,000 live in displacement camps in western Arakan state and lack adequate food, shelter and medicine.

Yanghee Lee, the special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said the elections had to be inclusive and the country needed to review the disqualification of candidates that included Muslims.

Lee told the Associated Press, “The credibility of the elections will be judged by the environment in which they are conducted and the extent to which all sectors of Myanmar society have been allowed to freely participate in the political process.”

She also said “the disenfranchisement of certain communities and groups, particularly on discriminatory grounds, does not meet that test.”

The removal of voting rights and their inability to register as candidates has led to further disenfranchisement amongst the Rohingya people. Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights NGO said many were planning to take to the seas again. In the past thousands have attempted to leave Burma by boat.

Thousands or Rohingya migrants were abandoned at sea earlier this year. Pic: AP.

U.S. lawmakers have also complained there is “nothing fair” about the military’s 25 percent quota of parliamentary seats and wondered how much it could truly demonstrate of the intention of the Myanmar people.

Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., told the Associated Press the move away from military rule was “a systematically manipulated democratic transition.”

“If the odds are intentionally in the ruling party’s favor, but they have a clean election, how should the U.S. respond?” he asked and advised restraint in expanding U.S.-Burma ties.

More than 90 parties will contest the vote, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, athough she is still not allowed to run for president.

Legislator Suu Kyi is barred as she was married to a foreigner and both her sons are UK citizens.

Additional reporting from Associated Press.

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