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Meet Khin Maung Thein, one of Burma’s very few Muslim election candidates

Khin Maung Thein is the only Muslim candidate in Mandalay allowed to take part in Burma's upcoming elections. Image via Reuters.

By Jo Lane
November 5, 2015

KHIN Maung Thein is the sole Muslim candidate in Mandalay, a thriving Buddhist religious centre in northern Burma (Myanmar) and a place of much religious tension between Buddhists and Muslims. Despite this, Thein’s party, the United National Congress (UNC), has been able to do what so many other parties have chosen not to do – field a Muslim candidate.

Not even Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has done that, afraid of backlash from Buddhist clerics and other powerful voices that speak out against Muslims. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has no Muslim candidates either, and the election commission has rejected about 100 applications, many of whom are Muslim.

An article by Radio Free Asia noted last month that 17 out of 18 candidates for the Islamic Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP) in Rakhine state and Yangon had all been rejected, many on the basis that their parents were not citizens when they were born, or for other discrepancies. As a result the DHRP party may have to disband according to electoral laws.

Despite the UNC’s success in fielding him as a candidate, 71-year-old Khin Maung Thein knows his boundaries. He campaigns only in mosques and not on the streets.

“I can’t show up openly and hold campaign rallies,” he said. He also has no offices and instead campaigns from the family home, a family printing business.

Thein is Pathi, a Muslim group with Persian blood that have been centuries in Burma and he is keen to “restore our ethnic pride” in the elections. The UNC party was established in 2012, at the time the only party in the country to represent the nation’s Muslims. While they are unable to include the word Pathi in their name they hope to follow in the political footsteps of Myanmar-Muslim martyr U Razak, assassinated alongside Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San in July 1947. They also participated in the 1990 election.

Hardline Burmese monk Wirathu. Pic: AP.

However candidates like Thein are cautious because Mandalay in particular is also home to the Committee to Protect Race and Religion, known locally as Ma Ba Tha, and its most outspoken monk U Wirathu.

While 90 percent of the nation’s 56 million people are Buddhist and only four percent are Muslim (matched by the number of Christians) Monk U Wirathu said Muslims are the greatest threat to his faith. He told CNN:

“Their law requires Buddhist women who marry into their religion must convert (to Islam). They take many wives and they have many children. And when their population grows they threaten us. And they are violent.”

Ma Ba Tha has actively campaigned against the NLD, which they believe will hurt the country’s culture, race and religion and is promoting the support of candidates who will protect the Buddhist religion.

Another UNC candidate that will contest the upcoming elections is Sann Tin Kyaw, a 49-year-old from Yangon, whose father fought for Burmese independence in the 1940s, just as Suu Kyi’s father did. Like his more famous countrywoman, Sann Tin Kyaw was imprisoned repeatedly for his pro-democracy protests.

He told Asia Nikkei he wanted voters to remember Muslims fought against colonialism too.

While politically active since he was 14 he kept a low profile until he decided it was time Muslims in his township in eastern Yangon, Mingalar Taung Nyunt, may want a fellow Muslim to look out for their interests. His district is roughly half Muslim and he will run for a seat in the lower house of parliament against the sitting NLD member.

While they may be able to contest the upcoming elections, Thein and Kyaw have a lot of work to do to improve the position of Burmese Muslims. Recent laws passed in July restrict interfaith marriage and Buddhist women must seek the permission of authorities to marry men of other faiths, or risk imprisonment.

Rohingya Muslims and other minorities and migrants are unable to vote and many have been rendered stateless. Muslims that want to vote have been told to list their race as Indian or Pakistani to get an identity card.

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