No Muslims in majority-Buddhist Myanmar were elected to parliament, final election figures show, with all the current representatives losing their seats and new Muslim candidates defeated in their constituencies.
Officially making up 4% of the country’s 51 million people – although others say the figure is much higher – Muslims found themselves a target of hatred in the lead up to the polls, reports The Guardian.
The hardline nationalist movement the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, has led rallies across the country declaring Islam a threat to Buddhism.
The country’s official Union Election Commission disqualified several Muslim candidates ahead of the polls, questioning whether their parents were born in Myanmar. A longstanding prejudice against members of the faith – who go back generations – is that they are immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
“Of the 6,074 approved candidates, 5,130 are Buddhist, 903 Christian and just 28, or 0.5%, are Muslim, a sliver of the percentage of Muslims in the general population,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“This is only partly due to discriminatory decisions by the [commission]. The main parties have also shown extreme bias: to stave off criticism from the racist and Buddhist nationalist Ma Ba Tha,” she added.
The ruling Union Solidarity and Development party ran no Muslim candidates. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) also bowed to pressure from Ma Ba Tha, asking Muslims in the party not to run.
With 99% of the votes tallied, the NLD has won 390 seats, more than 80% of electable seats in both houses. The incumbent USDP gained 41 seats.
The largest Muslim party, the United National Congress, conceded it will not win any seats.
The persecution of Muslims is most prevalent in western Rakhine state, where more than 140,000 Rohingya live in camps, forced to flee during race riots in 2012. Many have left on boats to other south-east Asian nations but those who stay remain stateless.
The minority Rohingya, who voted in 2010 and the 2012 byelections, were not allowed to vote as they were not considered full citizens. Officials allowed some Rohingya to vote if they declared themselves as “Bengali” and not from Myanmar.
Asked before the polls about the Rohingya, Suu Kyi told journalists not to “exaggerate” the issue.
Yet some Muslim voters in Myanmar’s biggest city of Yangon told the Guardian on election day they would vote for the NLD.
“I like Suu Kyi because I want a good leader who is respected internationally. I don’t care if there are no Muslim candidates running for the elections,” said Mohamed, a 70-year-old retired member of the military.
Although Suu Kyi has not prioritised Muslim rights in her campaign, the 70-year-old has promised to protect the minority and to prosecute those who inflame hatred.
International election observers from the European Union said the election was “well-run” but expressed concern over the disenfranchisement of Muslims.
“We trust that the newly elected government will improve the democratic governance of the country and will promote a more inclusive society by addressing the increase in religious extremism and radical room and its impact on certain minorities and ethnic groups, in particular Muslim citizens, and specifically the Rohingya,” European parliament member Ana Gomes said last week.