Naypyidaw: The upcoming poll in Myanmar on November 8 has been touted as the freest and fairest in decades but, with religion an increasingly sensitive issue in the country, many Muslims from ordinary voters to experienced politicians are coming up against barriers to participation in the election process, The Guardian reported.
The vice-president of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Mandalay, a hotbed of religious tension, Win Mya Mya is one of dozens of Muslims who applied to run for parliament but were rejected on the basis of their faith.
“Our leader Aung San Suu Kyi said I have to go to the country and persuade the Islamic people (to vote for the party) for the election but she doesn’t want me to apply as a candidate,” says Win Mya Mya.
Although they make up at least 5 percent of the 51 million population, no Muslims will appear on ballots for either the ruling party or the opposition. The NLD admits it struck them off following pressure from the increasingly powerful ultranationalist Buddhist movement.
Meanwhile, more than one million members of the Rohingya Muslim minority, a persecuted ethnic group from Western Myanmar, have been rendered stateless and are ineligible to vote.
Among the wider Burmese Muslim community there is alienation and disenfranchisement compounded by disputes over identity documents.
“Burmese Muslims have told us that they always thought of themselves as Burmese but now suddenly they are being treated as foreigners,” Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, tells the Guardian.
“It is creating a feeling of alienation and there is a definite move away from integration and towards more concentrated areas in towns and cities where Muslims choose to live.”
Recently, Muslims have been told to register their race as Indian or Pakistani (irrespective of whether they have relatives there) in order to obtain national registration cards, a senior immigration official told the Guardian.
Haj Yan Aung, a shop owner whose family has lived in Mandalay for generations, says he refused to identify himself as Indian or Pakistani, and was denied the document. As a result, he is unable to vote.
“They denied that I was Burmese,” he says, his eyes filling with tears. “I said race has nothing to do with religion. They said: if your religion is Islam, you are automatically mixed blood, according to their new immigration policy.
“Insane! Do you know how old the mosques are in Mandalay? Some of them are over 200 years and the youngest one is over 150 years. We’ve been living here a long time. If I have to write my race as Indian, I won’t take that card.”
There is a climate of unease among Muslims in Mandalay, some of whom fear a repeat of the violence tied to the polls. Whatever happens after the election, it will likely usher in the first parliament in the country’s history without any Muslim MPs.
Nonetheless, many Muslim voters are pinning their hopes on Suu Kyi, who they hope – despite her silence on the issue – will work to ease religious tensions if her party comes to power.
She has asked voters to forget about individual candidates and cast their ballots for the party.
“If the NLD wins the election, our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the kind of person who would never discriminate against other religions,” says Win Mya Mya.
In the meantime? “We will sit and worry,” Mya Mya noted.