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Myanmar’s Disenfranchised Rohingya

A list of eligible voters in the city of Mandalay. Credit Hkun Lat/Associated Press

By U Shwe Maung
November 2, 2015

YANGON, Myanmar — The world is watching Myanmar as election day nears. The governments of the United States and other countries, which view this contest as a potential watershed for democracy, hope that Sunday’s voting will be “inclusive and credible.” But with just days to go, the election is shaping up to be just the opposite.

A central issue has been the deliberate exclusion of Myanmar’s Muslim minority, including my people, the Rohingya. Like other ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar, the country’s Rohingya — estimated to number over one million — suffered under years of repressive military rule. Today the pseudo-democratic government continues to treat us as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though our people have been in Myanmar for centuries.

Unlike many other ethnic minorities in the country, we have no armed group fighting the government. Still, we are being prevented from participating in the election.

As a current member of Myanmar’s Parliament, I was planning to run for re-election as an independent candidate. But when I went to file my paperwork with the local election commission in August, I was told I was not eligible, ostensibly because my parents were not citizens of Myanmar at the time of my birth.

The claim is laughable. Both my parents held valid proof of Myanmar citizenship when I was born. My father was a prominent police officer. And I was elected to Parliament in 2010 under the same eligibility rules. I challenged the decision to disqualify me, but was not allowed to defend myself at a hearing before the Rakhine State Election Commission.

I wish I could say I am an exception. But Rohingya, along with most other Muslims in Myanmar — who together make up at least 4 percent of the population — are being deliberately targeted for exclusion. Neither I nor the other two Rohingya lawmakers currently in Parliament will be back when the new assembly convenes in January. Only a handful of Muslims nationwide even have the chance to compete, after the election authorities disqualified dozens of Muslim candidates.

The Rohingya have not only been blocked from standing for election; many have also been denied the freedom to vote. In February, President Thein Sein revoked 750,000 temporary identification documents known as “white cards,” most held by Rohingya, and subsequent legislation and court rulings explicitly denied suffrage to former white-card holders. This is the case even for people who had been allowed to vote in previous elections, and despite the fact that Rohingya make up 95 percent of some constituencies, including Buthidaung Township, in Rakhine State, which I represent.

Political exclusion is not the only problem, of course. The majority of Rohingya live in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where they lack basic rights. They cannot freely move from their villages or from camps for internally displaced people. They must request permission to marry and are prohibited from having more than two children. They face daily abuses by government authorities. A flawed citizenship law explicitly prevents us from ever gaining full rights.

Earlier this year, the Myanmar Parliament passed four bills pushed by Buddhist hard-liners claiming to protect Buddhism, the majority religion in Myanmar. These laws discriminate against religious minorities, placing restrictions on interfaith marriage and religious conversion, and allowing the government to limit birthrates in specific regions.

The climate of fear that these laws produce, combined with political exclusion, persecution and poverty, is driving many Rohingya to try to leave the country. These individuals then often fall into the hands of human traffickers and experience unspeakable horrors.

The Rohingya’s dire situation reflects a broader hostility toward all minorities in Myanmar. Religious extremists are driving a nationalist agenda, abusing Buddhism to spread xenophobia. As candidates for office like me are being pushed out of the race, the anti-Muslim rhetoric of political and religious leaders is increasing. Prejudice is so entrenched that even the opposition National League for Democracy, widely considered to be a champion of democratic values, chose not to nominate a single Muslim candidate for fear of backlash from Buddhist hard-liners.

The United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar recently called attention to the disenfranchisement of Rohingya. This is a step in the right direction. But governments around the world must also resist the temptation of endorsing this election. They must denounce its exclusionary nature, and then push the Myanmar government to correct course by rejecting religious extremism and reforming its discriminatory laws.

This election, which has been touted as historic for its potential to be the freest and fairest in over two decades, could have been a breakthrough for democracy in Myanmar. Instead it is poised to institutionalize and entrench the longstanding persecution of minorities.

U Shwe Maung is a member of the Myanmar Parliament and a board member of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

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