By Philip Sherwell, Asia Editor | The Telegraph
For a people who languished in isolation from the world during a half century of military rule, the Burmese election campaign that kicked off on Tuesday marks the launch of an unprecedented experiment in ballot box democracy.
But even as billboards were unveiled, brochures distributed and the first campaign speeches delivered, for one significant proportion of the population the experience is proving hollow.
For among some 6,200 candidates running for office for 92 parties, it seems certain that there will be not a single candidate from the Muslim population, the second largest religious grouping in the predominantly Buddhist country.
In the ethnic troubled Rakhine region, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been denied the right even to cast ballots after being forced to return their government identity cards.
Across the rest of the country, where there are long-established Islamic communities, no Muslim candidate has been chosen by party chiefs at a time when radical Buddhist nationalists are fomenting anti-Muslim sentiments.
That exclusion is most striking in the National League of Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate who spent 15 years under house arrest for her advocacy for free speech.
Her party, which is the overwhelming favourite to win the elections, is fielding some 1,150 candidates at national and local level. But it has found no place for long-time Muslim members, including former political prisoners, who put themselves forwards as parliamentary hopefuls.
Muslims in Burma – also known as Myanmar – make up at least five per cent of 51-million population and have a long history of involvement in public life. But they have faced increasing discrimination since a military-dominated semi-civilian government replaced a junta in 2011.
Extremist monks led anti-Muslim protests which in 2012 turned into pogroms of Rohingyas in Rakhine state. The Rohinhyas are particularly reviled even by moderate Buddhists and are widely viewed as illegal “Bengali” interlopers because of their roots in Bangladesh, although many families have lived in Burma for generations.
The anti-Rohingya sentiment has spilled into a broader ostracisation of Muslims across the country. The NLD’s failure to field a single Muslim candidate is an attempt to appease hardline Buddhists, said Ko Ni, a Muslim lawyer and party member.
U Shwe Maung, a sitting MP with the ruling pro-military party, has found himself the centre of the controversy after he was not just barred from running for office again but stripped of the right even to vote under the new rules.
The election commission decreed that he was ineligible to take part in the elections on the grounds that he allegedly could not prove that his parents were citizens at the time of their births.
Mr Shwe Maung, a Rohingya, said the claim was ridiculous, noting that he had delivered a long paper trail of evidence and that his father had served a senior police officer.
“The commission rejected my appeal without taking even 10 seconds to check my documents,” the MP said. “While they were hearing my case, I requested they look up my documents but they said there was no need to check.”
An estimated 500,000 Rohingya voters have been wiped from voter lists, despite many having participated in previous polls before this “free and fair election”.
The demographic purge of the lists is most dramatic in Shwe Maung’s owm constituency of Butthidaung where the Rohingya vote has been slashed from 150,000 in 2010 to just 10 this year.
Burma’s election commission also rejected 17 out of 18 candidates from a party supporting Rohingya Muslims ahead of the poll. As a party must have three candidates to field a slate, even the sole survivor of the party could not run.
The NLD did try to field one Muslim candidate in Rakhine state, but his nomination was rejected because he had not met the requirement to have lived in the country for the last 10 years as he spent a few months in Bangladesh.
The NLD has voiced muted criticism of the rejection of candidates based on the election law’s citizenship requirements as “unconstitutional”.
But political analysts note that the party made no apparent attempt to recruit candidates from other Muslim communities as party chiefs chose electoral pragmatism over principle in a country where anti-Muslim sentiments are running strong.
Its timidity in challenging the anti-Muslim bias in the election process has mirrored the silence of NLD leaders about the treatment of the Rohingyas, thousands of whom have tried to flee discrimination by sea in Asia’s own “boat people” crisis.
Ms Suu Kyi has come under fire from long-time supporters abroad, including fellow Nobel laureates such as the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for not speaking out. But her aides privately insist that there was nothing to be gained by playing into claims by Buddhist radicals that the NLD is already “soft” on Muslims.
Ms Suu Kyi and her fellow politicians face their own restrictions during the campaign. For a start, they are banned from criticising the military or the junta-drafted constitution in campaign speeches in state media.
And although the NLD seems certain to emerge as the largest party, Ms Suu Kyi is also barred from being elected president by the new parliament.
For a carefully-worded clause in the constitution states that a presidential candidate cannot have a foreign spouse or children, while Ms Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British academic and her two sons are British citizens.
The election nonetheless marks a dramatic transformation in the country. When the last heavily fixed vote was held by the junta in 2010, Ms Suu Kyi was detained under house arrest and her party boycotted the polls.
The NLD leader noted the historic moment in a video messaged posted on the party’s Facebook page on Tuesday morning to mark the start of the campaign.
“For the first time in decades, our people will have a real chance of bringing about real change,” said Ms Suu Kyi, wearing a traditional Burmese green dress with a pink scarf. “This is a chance that we cannot afford to let slip,”
But she also made reference to the challenges ahead. “A smooth and tranquil transition is almost more important than a free and fair election,” she noted.
For many Burmese Muslims, who have seen Ms Suu Kyi and her fellow politicians place pragmatism over principle, the prospect of participating in a “free and fair election” had already passed.