Muslims Barred from Voting in Myanmar's Elections
  • Mon, 10/19/2015
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19 October 2015

For the Rohingya Muslims strung along the cyclone-battered Bay of Bengal in wretched and sprawling internment camps, Burma's unpredictable experiment in democracy next month is already a non-event.

The Rohingya may not be able to cast a ballot in the 8 November elections, but they are still at the centre of an election campaign increasingly tainted by anti-Muslim sentiment fuelled by Buddhist nationalist politicians and radical monks.

Even the famous nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), kept her distance from the camps in her first campaign foray into Rakhine state at the weekend.

She has been criticised on the international stage for her failure to speak out about the desperate plight of the Rohingya, largely confined to internment camps since the 2012 violence.

However, inside Myanmar (Burma), she has been attacked by Buddhist hardliners for being too sympathetic to the Muslim minority. In Rakhine, she made her clearest call yet for an end to religious hatred and discrimination.

"It is very important that all people regardless of religion living in our country must be safe", she declared.

She also criticised a Buddhist constituent who asked her about rumours that the NLD would oversee a “takeover” of the country by Muslims, who form about five per cent of the population.

It is a fear expressed repeatedly by Buddhist nationalists across the country. But Ms Suu Kyi was forthright in her response, saying the question itself risked “inciting racial or religious conflict.”

Many Rohingya have risked their lives fleeing on rickety trafficker boats.

"We can't go anywhere," one community elder told The Telegraph. "At least the blacks in South Africa could leave the bantustan homelands created by the Afrikaaners to go to work, we can't even do that. We're trapped."

Rohingya leaders insist that they have roots in Burma dating back centuries, but the country's government has long viewed them as illegal Muslim interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh. The Burmese do not even accept the name Rohingya, instead calling them "Bengalis".

Leading the political onslaught against them has been Ashin Wirathu, a militant Burmese monk once dubbed "The Buddhist Bin Laden". "Muslims are only well behaved when they are weak," he once declared. "When they are strong they are like a wolf or a jackal, in large packs they hunt down other animals."

Burma's military-backed ruling party has sought to harness such sectarian feelings. Thein Sein, the general-turned-president, this year supervised the whole-scale disenfranchisement of Rohingyas by confiscating their identity cards.

Ms Suu Kyi has taken a political calculation to say little about their fate, for now at least, and her party has no Muslim candidates.

"We have qualified Muslim candidates but we can't select them for political reasons," said Win Htein, a senior NLD MP.

"It's racism and religious discrimination, straight and simple," said Kyaw Min (pictured above), leader of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, a mainly Rohingya political grouping, who was among dozens of disqualified Muslim election candidates.

"I am 70 and my parents were born here when Britain ruled Burma. I stood as a candidate and won in 1990, but now they say I'm not Burmese."

But Rohingya leaders said that they understood the political pressures that have shaped Ms Suu Kyi’s decision not to talk about their suffering or name Muslim candidates, even while she is assailed internationally for her stance.

“I would not say that I am disappointed with her because she has to operate in this country with the mood here now,” said Kyaw Min. “I am sure that things will be better for us if the NLD wins the elections.”

Sources:

"Election Time in Burma, But Not for its Muslims" The Daily Telegraph October 19, 2015

Philip Sherwell, "In Burma’s historic elections, a Muslim minority is banned from voting but still the focus of the campaign" The Telegraph UK October 19, 2015

"Rakhine Muslims: Suu Kyi Keeps Silence" BBC News October 19, 2015