Myanmar Elections: Signs of a Better Life for Muslims after 2013 riots

YANGON, Myanmar — A few months before the general elections here, the military-backed government struck hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the voter rolls. To be reinstated, they would have to prove their citizenship, but without using their government-issued ID cards, which the government had voided.

It was only the latest indignity heaped on the country’s several million Muslims, who face discrimination and have been subjected to murderous campaigns by radical Buddhists. Some Muslim members of Parliament were barred from running for re-election.

In the northwest, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim group, have been denied citizenship rights and areconfined to bleak villages and camps.

As Myanmar’s democracy movement prepares to take power after a landslide election victory last week, Muslims here wonder whether their lives will improve under the new government, led by the National League for Democracy.

“We’ll deal with the matter based on law and order and human rights,” Mr. Win Htein said, “but we have to deal with the Bangladesh government because almost all of them came from there.”

The election on Nov. 8 has been widely celebrated as a breakthrough for the nascent democracy here. But it was a bittersweet moment for Myanmar’s increasingly embattled Muslims, many of whom had put their faith in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate, national democracy icon and leader of the National League for Democracy.

Experts said they expected no drastic changes in government policies toward Muslims, but they held out hope that at least things would not become worse. Though the N.L.D. leaders made no campaign promises to end discrimination against Muslims, analysts said, they did not go out of their way to attack them.

“I think a lot of Muslims thought, sure, the N.L.D. and Suu Kyi haven’t vocally supported us, but they’re much better than the other guys,” said David Scott Mathieson, a Myanmar specialist at Human Rights Watch. “That’s an added governance burden on Suu Kyi that she has to address — we might not support full Muslim participation, but we will ensure that you’ll be treated as citizens, and there will be no further discrimination during her government’s term. She’s got an overwhelming mandate to do that.”

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized abroad for not speaking up for the Rohingya, whose life is so grim that thousands fled on smugglers’ ships in the spring, setting off a regionwide crisis after other countries initially turned the boats back, leaving the migrants to starve at sea. But her reticence is de rigueur in a country where anti-Muslim hatred runs high and any hint of conciliation is seen as political suicide.

Neither her party nor the military-aligned governing party fielded any Muslim candidates, viewing them as a liability. When the new Parliament is seated in late January, the body will have no Muslim members for the first time since the country’s independence in 1948.

One Muslim candidate who, after appealing twice to the election commission, was allowed to run for Parliament, quit the N.L.D., which he joined at its founding in 1988.

The candidate, U Yan Naing, said party members had organized a religiously motivated protest against him in the town of Myaung Mya, where he oversaw the party’s election committee. He said he raised his concerns in many letters to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi but received no response.

“It was discrimination,” he said. “This so-called democratic party. I was very disappointed.”

Instead, he ran on the ticket of a small, predominantly Muslim party, with a simple goal: giving Muslims a voice in Parliament.

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