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Muslim candidate has high hopes despite obstacles

Sann Tin Kyaw, center, ​who is running for parliament for the United National Congress, is campaigning in Yangon on ​Oct. 31. He is one of the only Muslims approved to run in Myanmar's election. (Photo by Aung Naing Soe)

By Joe Freeman and Aung Naing Soe
November 1, 2015

YANGON -- Aung San Suu Kyi and Sann Tin Kyaw have a few key things in common. In the 1940s, their fathers fought for independence. In the 1980s, their activist offspring joined pro-democracy protests. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for a combined 15 years. Sann Tin Kyaw says he has gone to prison 10 times. They are both running in elections scheduled for Nov. 8. But there, the similarities end.

Suu Kyi, 70, is campaigning as the leader of the National League for Democracy, which has declined to nominate Muslim candidates. Sann Tin Kyaw, 49, is a Muslim running under the banner of a historically Muslim party, the United National Congress.

"I said that I would work for minority groups to get equal rights," he told the Nikkei Asian Review at his campaign office in Yangon as UNC songs blared from trucks outside. "So if minority people will vote for me, I will win.

By "minority people," he meant Muslims.

The election will determine whether the military-backed ruling party can cling to power in the face of broad support for Suu Kyi and the opposition. But in the battle for ballots, the two biggest parties have sacrificed religious pluralism for votes.

Bowing to pressure from influential monks who envision a Buddhist country untainted by Islam, lawmakers and authorities have approved discriminatory policies in the run-up to the election. These include harsh new "race and religion" laws which, among other things, require Buddhist women to seek permission from local authorities before marrying non-Buddhists.

Most of the Rohingya Muslims in the north have been stripped of key identity documents that would have allowed them to vote despite their stateless status. The government considers them immigrants from Bangladesh but they have been allowed to participate in previous elections.

Running for office as a non-Buddhist is problematic. Muslim candidates face increased scrutiny, whether from election officials or from their own parties. Rohingya lawmaker Shwe Maung is a sitting member of parliament, but his application to run this year was rejected on citizenship grounds, which he claims have no basis. The NLD has admitted to avoiding Muslim candidates to avoid a fight with Ma Ba Tha, the most influential of the Buddhist groups. 

Sann Tin Kyaw is one of about 20 Muslims who passed the rigorous screening process, although not without a little humiliation. He smiled at the memory of being asked to prove his citizenship even though he is the son of a war hero.

His father was 101 Kyaw Win Maung, who put the numbers of the celebrated U.S. 101 Detachment, with which he cooperated during World War II, at the front of his name. His funeral in 2012 was covered prominently in Burmese language media. Tin Oo, now a patron of the NLD, delivered a eulogy and called him his brother.

Sann Tin Kyaw wants voters to remember that Muslims were intimately involved in the fight against colonialism. On his campaign brochures are photographs of his father draped in war medals, but there are also images of Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, and U Razak, a Muslim official who was assassinated alongside Aung San in 1947. The UNC was inspired by Razak's legacy. 

With his family history, Sann Tin Kyaw was destined to get involved in the pressing issues of the day. "I was active in politics since I was 14," he said.

Pro-democracy protests

Born and raised in Yangon, he was at high school when pro-democracy protests broke out on the streets in 1988. He seized the opportunity to show what Muslims could do for their country when given a chance. "I wasn't covering my face in the revolution because I wanted people to see that a Muslim student was participating in the revolution," he said.

He was in and out of jail until 1990, when he fled to Thailand, following a path trodden by other exiles. He decided to return in 2000 but kept a low profile. The next nine years were difficult. "Between 2000 and 2009, I was doing almost nothing as it was a really hard time to move around," he said.

The years were marked by a series of odd jobs. He worked as a therapeutic masseuse for a while. He also made hand towels for a domestic airline, Air Mandalay. In 2009 he decided to start an interfaith group, which has occupied most of his time until now.

Although he was politically active as a teenager, this is his first shot at elected office. He said he decided to run because he thought Muslims in his township, Mingalar Taung Nyunt, might want a fellow Muslim to look out for their interests. The township in Yangon's eastern district is roughly half Muslim. Sann Tin Kyaw is running for a seat in the lower house of parliament against six candidates from other parties, including the NLD.

The prospects of victory seem dim, especially since the NLD's candidate, Phyu Phyu Thin, is the sitting MP for the township and is well-liked in the community. An NLD rally there in October attracted hundreds of diverse supporters who danced and sang to campaign music.

For lack of choice, or out of a belief that Suu Kyi can turn the tide on religious extremism if given more power, many Muslims still support her. "I will just vote for NLD," said Soe Aung, a heavily bearded 55-year-old wearing a hat emblazoned with the letters of Suu Kyi's party. "Since the 1990 election, our whole family has voted NLD." Even so, he added, "it really hurts that there are no Muslim candidates" in the party.

Another problem for the UNC is a lack of resources and name recognition -- a significant challenge in an election with more than 90 political parties and more than 6,000 candidates.

"I haven't heard very much about the UNC," said Myo Thant, as he watched a band perform atop an elaborate float at the rally. "I think they are not doing it right." On a popular election app in the Burmese language, every candidate has a photograph next to the party's name. The space for the UNC's candidate for the township is blank.

One of Phyu Phyu Thin's selling points is the calm that has prevailed in Mingalar Taung Nyunt among Buddhists and Muslims compared with some other parts of the country that have suffered religious violence . "Our township has no problem even as other areas had conflicts. And everyone in this township is already united," she said in an interview on the sidelines of the rally.

Despite the daunting task ahead of him, Sann Tin Kyaw remains optimistic. "I am passionate about this election," he said.

The UNC candidate may have more support than social media or rallies suggest. At his office before the interview, a local religious teacher and UNC supporter stopped by to greet the candidate. "It is time to speak out," said Maulawi Ismaili, channeling the mood among some supporters. "We were silent for half a century."

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