Under pressure from the United States and eight other governments, which had urged Myanmar to hold “a credible, transparent and inclusive election” while expressing concerns “about the prospect of religion being used as a tool of division and conflict during the campaign season”, the Myanmar government has bowed down to allow contesting from 11 Muslim candidates in the upcoming November election.
One Western diplomat called the reinstatement of the 11 candidates an important development and credited U Tin Aye, the ex-general heading the Union Election Commission (UEC), with resisting pressure from the Union Solidarity and Development Party to exclude them. The UEC had disqualified 124 would-be candidates earlier this month, many of them Muslims, following a murky vetting process. Two of those rejected were incumbent members of parliament, including a Muslim representative of the USDP who had applied to run as an independent.
“Perhaps the statement by the nine embassies had some influence,” U Khin Maung Cho, one of the 11 who is running as an independent candidate in Yangon’s Pabedan township, told The Myanmar Times.
But the 64-year-old lawyer, who is of the ethnic Bamar majority, also stressed that the UEC had no legal grounds to disqualify him when it alleged there was no concrete evidence to prove the ethnicity of his parents.
“I hope to get the Muslim vote,” he said, although he noted that the election code of conduct effectively bars him from touching on religion in his campaign rallies. His religious affiliation is however listed on leaflets he is preparing to distribute.
The lawyer’s campaign slogan is “genuine democracy” and he has chosen the scales of justice as his logo.
The rise of Buddhist fascism, fuelled by a terrorist group of monks (under the banner of MaBaTha), is widely seen as having persuaded Myanmar’s two largest parties - the USDP and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy – to exclude all Muslim candidates from their ranks.
Fascist pressure was also behind the government’s U-turn last February when it disenfranchised an estimated 800,000 holders of “white cards” or temporary IDs, mostly ethnic Rohingya in Buddhist-majority Rakhine State. Ma Ba Tha has also been the force behind the passage of bigotry-ridden laws in the assembly that targeted Muslims. In recent days the group has put up large rallies of Nazi-like supporters of the fascist movement.
Rights activists indicate that Ma Ba Tha is receiving favorable treatment from authorities who must grant permission to groups to hold public gatherings and rallies. They point out that many authorities forbid smaller groups, such as worshippers and students who meet in classroom to host small film festivals, to hold such gatherings.
U Khin Maung Cho said one of the main reasons he had decided to run as an independent for a seat in the lower house was the “pre-meditated policy” of exclusion adopted by the two big parties. He said Ma Ba Tha would surely “interfere” in the elections with its “anti-Muslim propaganda” but he hoped its influence would be limited.
The 11 candidates reinstated this week number two independents, four from the National Unity Congress Party, two from the National Unity Party, two from the Democracy and Human Rights Party and one from the New National Democracy Party.
They join just a handful of Muslim candidates who were cleared initially by the UEC among a total of more than 6000 politicians running for seats in the national and regional parliaments.
An official of the Democracy and Human Rights Party said that it now had three approved candidates out of 18 who had applied. Two of the three were ethnic Rohingya, he said.
Muslims make up around 4 percent of Myanmar’s population according to out-of-date official figures, although the community says the real number could be double that.
In a few constituencies in Yangon, including Pabedan where U Khin Maung Cho is running, Muslims make up the largest religious group. However, they are far from one coherent voice, being divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Jewish places of worship lie within a few minutes’ walk of each other, making Pabedan one of the country’s most intensely mixed communities, as it has been for over a century.
Naeem, an activist of the National Democratic Party for Development, a mainly Rohingya party, said the objective of the ruling party and most Bamar Buddhist parties, including the NLD, was “to declare a Muslim-free parliament to Ma Ba Tha”. His party had only one candidate accepted by the UEC, a Bamar Buddhist.
“Muslims in Burma, Rohingya as well, have been in parliament since 1936, long before independence, and are even in the current parliament. This is a very dark page for Myanmar by excluding Muslims and Rohingya in this election. It is a big blow to the democratisation of the country,” he said.
The full report of the Myanmar News can be viewed by clicking here.