Myanmar’s Disenfranchised

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Western governments and human rights organizations watched Myanmar this week as the country experienced its first general election since a nominally civilian government was introduced in 2011, ending 50 years of military rule. But widespread hope of a free democratic election was marred by the exclusion of over one million people from the democratic process.

Myanmar, officially titled The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is the second largest country in Southeast Asia with a population of more than 50 million. One of our previous blog posts on Myanmar outlined the long-standing discrimination against the Rohingya Muslim minority, which comprises at least 4% of the population. The deliberate disenfranchisement and exclusion of the Muslim minority in Sunday’s election was the latest addition to the government sanctioned persecution of the Muslim minority group.

Despite being previously elected into Parliament under the same eligibility rules, current Rohingya lawmakers in Parliament were not permitted to run for re-election. U Shwe Maung was notified by fax he was ineligible because his parents were not citizens of Myanmar at the time of his birth, therefore he was not a citizen.  According to the New York Times, however, both of his parents held valid proof of Myanmar citizenship at the time of his birth. And although he was elected to Parliament in 2010 under the same eligibility rules, the Rakhine State Election commission disqualified him, refusing to allow him to defend himself at the hearing.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were stripped of the right to vote earlier this year in February. Many Rohinyga held temporary citizenship documents known as white cards until President Thein Sein nullified the cards, disenfranchising them. He decreed that Rohingya would have to undergo a citizenship test in order to obtain new cards. Voter registration lists released in June showed that more than 500,000 Rohingya had been struck from the voter rolls. Persecution of the Rohingya has escalated in recent years, but through it all they never lost the right to vote.

At the time of writing, the National League for Democracy, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, was expected to win by a landslide. Ms. Suu Kyi has been criticized for not speaking directly on the issue of the Rohingya. With the political pressure of the election behind her, many are waiting to see if the Nobel Peace Prize winner for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” will remain silent.

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