The election is another important test for Myanmar as it makes a transition away from military rule.
The country has been under the leadership of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who in her role as State Counsellor has overseen a government accused of human right abuses against minorities.
Rights groups say the disqualification of Rohingya candidates demonstrates the limits of reform.
“Everyone in Myanmar, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, must have the same opportunity to contest in elections,” said Tun Khin, head of the Burma Rohingya Organisation UK, urging international donors to halt funding to the electoral agency.
In his apartment in Yangon, Rasheed leafed through reams of identity cards and letters.
“We have all these documents that the government issued, and they don’t accept the fact that my parents are citizens. I feel bad about that and concerned,” he said.
Myanmar does not recognise the term Rohingya or the community as an indigenous ethnic group.
Instead, they are derided as “Bengalis”, implying they illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite tracing their history in Myanmar’s Rakhine state back for centuries.
Successive military governments that ruled Myanmar stripped the Rohingya of identity documents, leaving many with no proof of their origins.
More than 730,000 fled from Myanmar in 2017 after a military crackdown the United Nations said was carried out with genocidal intent. Myanmar denies genocide, saying its security forces were engaged in a legitimate campaign against Rohingya insurgents.
Several hundred thousand Rohingya who remain in the country are mostly confined to camps and villages and subjected to curbs on movement and access to healthcare.
Aye Win, one of the six Rohingya who have been approved to stand in the election, said there was little hope of victory unless many more Rohingya were granted citizenship ahead of the vote.
“If not, the situation is not good,” he said.
Monywa Aung Shin, a senior official from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said the electoral organisations that rejected the candidates were just following the law.
“Whether Bengali or not, foreigners and non-ethnic people are not allowed to run in the election,” he said.
Tin Hlaing, chairwoman of the Rakhine state election commission that rejected Rasheed’s application, said it was “certain” his parents were not citizens at the time he was born.
In his apartment, Rasheed held up the documents held by both his parents, which he said once sufficed as proof of citizenship. The cards were withdrawn in the 1990s when many Rohingya found such cards replaced with temporary “white cards”.
In 2015, then-president Thein Sein announced the white cards would also be nullified, stripping Rohingya of the right to vote in that year’s polls that brought Suu Kyi to power.
While excluded from voting or standing in that election, many Rohingya put their faith in the longtime democracy leader’s party.
“We can understand the previous situation, that previous governments backed up by the military did not follow the democratic norms,” said Kyaw Soe Aung, the general secretary from Democracy and Human Rights party (DHRP), one of three Rohingya parties.
“But it is difficult to understand that Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratic government would do the same.”
The party chairman, Kyaw Min, 72, was also rejected this week, despite winning a seat in a 1990 election, that was nullified by the former military government, and spending years in prison along with other democracy activists.
Abu Tahay, an independent Rohingya candidate who was also barred from the polls, said the exclusion of Rohingya people from the election – as candidates and voters – meant they would feel thwarted in trying to reach their goals of securing citizenship and living in “peaceful coexistence” with all citizens.
“They don’t have any hope for their future,” he said.
While voter lists have been posted across the country, none has appeared at the camps outside the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, where about 100,000 Rohingya are confined, community elder Kyaw Hla Aung said.
“In 2015, about 200 people appeared on the voter list but this time, there is no voter list,” he said.
On the even of the anniversary of the crackdown that sparked the exodus across the border, Bangladesh said it would lift internet restrictions imposed on nearly a million Rohingya refugees.
The Bangladesh government has been under pressure from the United Nations and aid groups to end the restrictions over fears they are hampering efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus and provide a basic education to thousands of children.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary said the government had banned high-speed internet in the camps last year because it could be used to spread “baseless rumours and misinformation” that could “create panic and destabilise the camps”.
“Responding to requests from our friends … we have taken a decision on lifting the restriction,” said Masud Bin Momen during a webinar on the crisis, referring to pressure from the United Nations and human rights groups.