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Myanmar's opposition admits avoiding Muslim candidates

Supporters cheer as they wait for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during an election rally near Yangon on Sept. 22. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has shunned Muslim candidates ahead of the November election, according to a senior party member. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

By John Zaw
October 3, 2015

Disenfranchisement continues ahead of November election

Myanmar's main opposition party, led by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has deliberately avoided selecting Muslim candidates as part of the group's strategy to succeed in upcoming national elections, according to a senior figure in the party.

Win Htein, a 74-year-old sitting parliamentarian with the opposition National League for Democracy, said "political reasons" have forced the party to pass over Muslim candidates ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

"We have qualified Muslim candidates but we can't select them for political reasons," Win Htein told in an interview at the party's election canvassing committee office in Yangon. "And Muslim candidates also realize our situation so they understand us."

Growing nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment, spearheaded by hardline Buddhist monks, have put pressure on Myanmar's two main political parties ahead of the elections. In the predominantly Buddhist country, both the National League for Democracy and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party have shunned Muslim candidates.

Win Htein blamed the influence of Ma Ba Tha, whose most prominent members are outspoken Buddhist monks known for fiery speeches against Myanmar's minority Muslim community.

"If we choose Muslim candidates, Ma Ba Tha points their fingers at us so we have to avoid it," he said.

Furthermore, the country's election commission has disqualified 124 would-be candidates, most of them Muslim, following a controversial citizenship process.

One of the rejected Muslim candidates is Shwe Maung, a sitting parliamentarian who won a seat with the ruling party in 2010 elections. The election commission barred him from running in August, claiming he did not qualify because his parents were not citizens of Myanmar when he was born.

'I have no trust in them'

Such cases have alarmed rights groups and the international community, who warn of the disenfranchisement of Muslim candidates.

After a campaign observation mission in Myanmar in September, the Atlanta-based Carter Center noted the disqualifications disproportionately affected religious minorities — especially Muslims.

"Although the number of disqualified candidates is relatively small, restrictive requirements, selective enforcement, and a lack of procedural safeguards call into question the credibility of the process," the organization said in a Sept. 25 statement.

In Rakhine state, where anti-Muslim sentiment has triggered riots and displaced tens of thousands, almost all Muslim candidates were disqualified, the center noted.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also weighed in on the issue.

"I am deeply disappointed by this effective disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and other minority communities," he said in a Sept. 29 meeting. "Barring incumbent Rohingya parliamentarians from standing for re-election is particularly egregious."

On appeal, the election commission later reinstated 11 Muslim candidates who were earlier rejected.

However, Kyaw Min, chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, whose candidates are predominantly Rohingya Muslims, said the reinstatement of the 11 candidates was merely a token effort by the election commission to appease concerns from the international community.

"Only Muslim candidates were disqualified based on murky citizenship issues, so it is clear that [the election commission] targets a specific religious minority: Muslims," said Kyaw Min, who was himself disqualified as a candidate but not reinstated.

Kyaw Min said the main political parties' apparent refusal to field Muslim candidates is a response to growing pressure from Buddhist hardliners, particularly Ma Ba Tha.

This year, for example, Myanmar's president signed off on a set of controversial laws on race and religion, which critics say will likely be used to target the country's Muslims and possibly other religious minorities, including Christians. The government has already disenfranchised an estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims who had held temporary "white card" identification. The cards had granted voting privileges in the 2010 national elections, but were rescinded earlier this year.

Another mainly Rohingya party, the National Democratic Party for Development, saw five of its candidates, all Muslims, disqualified. The only remaining candidate is a Buddhist.

Unlike other rejected candidates, Hla Thein, a lawyer and a Muslim, decided not to fight the decision.

"I didn't make an appeal to the [election commission] about my rejection as I have no trust in them," he said.

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