In 2015, the National League for Democracy won Myanmar’s first democratic election in decades in a landslide, catapulting Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to de facto head of state and heralding a new era of anticipated democratic reforms.
The heady optimism all came crashing down in 2017, when some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims were driven out of the country in a brutal campaign of arson, rape and murder which has since been described as a genocide. Shockingly, to some, Aung San Suu Kyi refused to condemn the atrocities and even defended the Myanmar military.
But even in 2015, there were already signs of religious tensions in the predominantly Buddhist country.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD controversially refused to pick a single Muslim candidate for that election, passing over stalwart members of the party, who had previously served time as political prisoners for their role in the fight for democracy.
Two of those omitted Muslims are now contesting this year’s election, representing a small step towards progress, even as the Rohingya remain almost entirely excluded from politics.
Sithu Maung, 33, and 77-year-old Win Mya Mya, both of whom are non-Rohingya Muslims, are running for parliament on Sunday under the NLD, which is widely expected to cruise to another victory. Both have been subjected to anti-Muslim abuse on the heated campaign trail.
Sithu Maung has been targeted by the main opposition party, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party. Maung Myint, a prominent USDP parliament member and hardline nationalist, singled out Sithu Maung by name, calling him a “kalar”, a derogatory term for people of South Asian, or Muslim heritage.
He falsely claimed that Sithu Maung was one of 42 Muslim candidates selected by the NLD, adding the governing party cannot “control” its Muslim members who may cause “trouble” in parliament. Maung Myint also said the USDP did not allow its Muslim members to grow beards.
Meanwhile, hundreds of monks signed a petition demanding that Win Mya Mya be removed as a candidate. Both candidates declined to comment in detail to Al Jazeera, although Win Mya Mya briefly said, “I am confident that I will win. People know me very well”.
Myanmar’s upcoming election has been widely criticised for failing to meet a host of international democratic standards. Opposition parties have been censored by state media, websites critical of the government have been blocked, and people boycotting the election were threatened with arrest.
Polls were cancelled across Rakhine state, disenfranchising more than a million ethnic Rakhine voters and giving the NLD an edge in a state where it is deeply unpopular.
Just days before the election, Myanmar’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing refused to commit to honouring the results, raising the spectre of a coup.
But no controversy has received more criticism than the exclusion of the Rohingya on grounds of citizenship, which activists claim are discriminatory, arbitrary, and retroactive.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said Myanmar “is enforcing laws that undermine the very lifeblood of democracy” by excluding the Rohingya.
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Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin told Al Jazeera he had believed the NLD would restore Rohingya citizenship when it took power, only to be bitterly disappointed.
“Many thousands of Rohingya joined NLD when it was formed in 1988. Four Rohingya candidates represented NLD in the 1990 election. But now NLD members including Aung San Suu Kyi are pretending as if they didn’t know a single Rohingya,” he said.
One of those candidates was Kyaw Min, who successfully won a seat in the annulled 1990 election as an NLD candidate, but was barred from contesting this year’s election for the minor Democracy and Human Rights Party.
“The fact is that under this law I was allowed to contest the 1990 election but today, they say your parents were not citizens,” he said.
He said before the 1982 Citizenship Law, everybody in Myanmar used the National Registration Card, which was retroactively downgraded to not confer citizenship, specifically to disenfranchise the Rohingya.
“They don’t want to give rights to the minorities or acknowledge the existence of Muslims in Myanmar. They want to expel all Muslims from Rakhine State,” he said, adding that he feels abandoned by the international community due to a lack of pressure on the government.
“We have no friends in the world,” he said.
The Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) released a report detailing pre-election hate speech and disinformation, finding that most of it “alleges conspiracies between the NLD and Muslims”.
Sithu Maung was a common target – one post falsely claimed he was demanding that school curriculums include Arabic lessons while another called him a “Muslim liar” and “communist cowboy”.
Another post attacked Kyaw Min’s daughter Wai Wai Nu, baselessly alleging she would take power from Aung San Suu Kyi if the constitution is amended. The report warns that “the hatred lingering after the election will easily be used to justify mass violence and conflict”.
BHRN, the human rights watchdog, said the content was primarily driven by “nationalists and pro-military posters”, scaring the NLD into adopting more explicitly anti-Muslim stances, sometimes even more extreme than the previous USDP government.
For example, the report claims that restrictions on Muslim places of worship have become more severe under the NLD government than the USDP. Kyaw Win, BHRN’s president, said the NLD has “never come up with a better strategy to counter the military propaganda,” other than adopting the same positions to avoid being cast as pro-Muslim.
Both major political parties appear united in their desire to portray themselves as anti-Rohingya.
Aung San Suu Kyi went to the International Court of Justice to defend the military against accusations of genocide, while the USDP chairman recently called the Rohingya “useless people” whom he cannot accept in Myanmar.
Political analyst David Mathieson said having two Muslim candidates this year is “obviously progress, just not much improvement”.
“I don’t see that two Muslim candidates herald a near-future inclusion for the Rohingya, who are widely seen as not belonging in Myanmar. ‘Myanmar’ Muslims are seen quite differently, as belonging but under strict conditions of inferiority and mistrust,” he said.
Mathieson said the government should “prioritise facing down forces of religious and racial hatred and make the political system safe for Muslims”, but he does not “foresee major improvements any time soon” either for the Rohingya or other Myanmar Muslims.
Nay San Lwin said the NLD only included two Muslim candidates “to avoid international criticism” but does not think it marks significant progress for Muslims in Myanmar, especially the Rohingya.
“I don’t think one day Rohingya could have more political rights unless the ruling party decides to stop ongoing genocide and restore the rights of Rohingya. If NLD had a will to include us in this election, all Rohingya candidates would be approved,” he said.
Nay San Lwin said without Rohingya representation, Myanmar’s elections “will never be free and fair”.
Mathieson added that it is not just the Rohingya and other Muslims who have suffered under the government’s discriminatory policies, but other ethnic groups also feel “betrayed” by the NLD, which many now see as “synonymous” with the military in its treatment of minorities.
He said to make progress, the NLD needs to stop seeing ethnic minorities as “line-items on a dystopian master-list of identity hierarchy crafted by a race-obsessed military regime in the early 1990s.”
Additional reporting by Cape Diamond