Muslim candidates will compete in Myanmar’s parliamentary elections in greater numbers than they did in the last elections five years ago, with some of the current 25 contenders in November’s race openly advocating for Muslim minority rights in the predominantly Buddhist country.
The candidates say they aim to tackle discriminatory policies that in many cases deny native-born Muslims citizenship in Myanmar, a country that has seen waves of anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2017 and treats Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“We, as a minority, have always been voiceless,” Nyi Nyi, chairman of the Equality Election Victory Committee (EEVC) told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We have been discriminated against, persecuted, and tortured. We have lost our rights. Some of us are minorities within a region, and some are minorities on account of religious beliefs,” he said.
The 25-member EEVC is providing support to the Muslim candidates until registration ends on Friday, after which they will undergo evaluations by electoral officials.
Fifteen of the Muslim candidates are in Yangon Region, while the other 10 are in western Myanmar’s volatile Rakhine state, where a 20-month-long battle is raging between national forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA).
These candidates are running on the tickets of the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS), New Society Party (NSP), National Unity Congress Party (NUCP), and Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP).
“We will join hands with anyone who holds the same ideal of achieving equality among all citizens,” Nyi Nyi said.
EEVC member Phoe Hlaing said the inclusion of Muslim candidates in the elections will raise awareness about issues that affect Muslims, such as discrimination, in the constituencies in which they run.
“Through our campaigns, people in the townships will come to know the problems our minority group faces,” he said.
Citizenship and human rights
Some of the Muslim candidates are running against popular candidates from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Yangon and others against influential parties in Rakhine state.
Several candidates from the DHRP, which represents the Rohingya, are entering races in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships of northern Rakhine state, where a military-led crackdown in 2017 left thousands of Muslims dead and drove more than 740,000 others across the border and into Bangladesh.
The DHRP comprises mostly Muslim members who are contesting the 2020 elections, and has consistently advocated for Rohingya rights in northern Rakhine state. More than 300,000 Muslims still live in the northern Rakhine townships of Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and Rathedaung, according to electoral authorities.
It is chaired by Kyaw Min, the father of Rohingya rights activist Wai Wai Nu and a former legislator from the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament (CRPP), a political alliance that included ethnic political parties during the latter phase of Myanmar’s military rule from 1990 to 2011.
Kyaw Min won a parliamentary seat in the 1990 elections as a candidate from Buthidaung township.
Of the total of 26 DHRP candidates planning to run for parliamentary seats nationwide, seven are contesting in Rakhine’s Maungdaw district, four in Sittwe district, and five in Yangon region.
DHRP secretary Kyaw Soe Aung said the party’s mission in contesting the elections is to improve democratic rights, citizenship rights, and human rights that people in the country are losing.
“The major party with democratic values won the [last] election, but so far, we haven’t seen the party working effectively to improve democracy and citizen’s rights,” he told RFA, referring to the NLD.
Some Muslim candidates won parliamentary seats in the 2010 general elections, but there were none following the 2015 election that the NLD won by a landslide, even though the party had put forward about two Muslims for low-key regional seats.
By that time, however, public sentiment concerning Muslims had nosedived following racial and religious tensions that gripped parts of the country, while radical Buddhist monks stoked anti-Muslim tensions in the run-up to the vote.
Two Muslim candidates are running for parliamentary seats on the NLD ticket in this year’s elections.
Rejected based on religion
NUCP secretary Aye Ko said that most of the candidate applications submitted by party members have already been rejected because the contenders said on the forms that they adhered to Islam.
The party has selected four candidates to run in Yangon region and one to contest in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region, he said.
“We submitted 12 candidates, and 11 of them were rejected,” Aye Ko said, adding that the rejections were based on the candidate’s religious beliefs, though the stated reason was that electoral officials questioned the authenticity of the citizenship of their parents.
“They rejected all Muslim candidates,” he said. The only one who had not been rejected is the son of a famous person. We have submitted appeals.”
The lack of full citizen rights that are denied to the Rohingya and other Muslims along with rampant discrimination are fueling the party’s “passion for contesting this election,” Aye Ko said.
“We are discriminated against all the time based on our religious beliefs,” he said. “I want to change this situation. I want to show that we can exercise our rights as citizens to vote and to be elected.”
Kyaw Nay Min, an independent Muslim candidate running in Yangon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt township, where Muslims and Buddhists live side by side, said he wants to be a lawmaker so he can make sure that parliament addresses issues of concern for Muslims.
“Whenever it comes to our minority group’s issues, everyone shows the same attitudes,” he said. “Muslims are affected by several events occurring in the world, but the parliament doesn’t raise any issues related to Muslims.”
While official estimates put Myanmar’s Muslim population at roughly 4 percent, Kyaw May Min said the real figure could be as much as 10 percent of the Southeast Asian nation’s population of 54 million — high enough that lawmakers should take up matters of interest to the minority community.
Whenever issues related to Muslims come up, the ruling NLD, the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and military lawmakers who are appointed rather than elected lawmakers under the constitution, have all taken the same stance, he said.
“So, we would like to be in parliament to speak for the voiceless,” Kyaw May Min said, adding that he will raise issues concerning the persecuted Rohingya minority if he wins a seat.
Myanmar has 96 registered political parties whose candidates will compete for 1,171 seats available in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures on Nov. 8.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.