RANGOON — Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday rejected a joint statement issued by nine embassies urging tolerance and equal application of law in the lead-up to a general election in November.
State-run newspaper The Global New Light of Myanmar reported on Friday that the ministry was “concerned that the Joint Statement could bring about unwarranted, negative impacts on the efforts being made by all the people of Myanmar.”
“The Ministry, therefore, categorically rejects the implications in the Joint Statement that instigate misunderstanding and doubts among the people,” it concluded.
On Tuesday, the embassies of nine foreign governments present in Burma issued a public statement calling the Nov. 8 vote a “critical marker” in the transition to democracy. Burma’s former military regime initiated a switch to quasi-civilian rule in 2011 when President Thein Sein took office.
The country has since undertaken a process of political and economic reform, sought a peace accord with ethnic armed groups at war with the government for decades, and welcomed engagement with foreign powers that once ostracized the former hermit state.
Burma’s path toward its self-styled “discipline-flourishing democracy,” however, has been marred by a rise in communal conflict and anti-Muslim sentiment, which has boiled over into deadly violence in several parts of the country since riots broke out in western Burma between Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority in mid-2012.
The embassies’ statement voiced shared concern over “the prospect of religion being used as a tool of division and conflict during the campaign season,” which officially commenced on Sept. 8.
In response, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “the Union Election Commission has already established the mechanisms to address concerns, large or small that may arise in the election process in accordance with the existing laws, rules and regulations in just and non-discriminatory manners.”
On the day the embassies’ statement was issued, an influential group of Buddhist nationalists known as the Ma Ba Tha, a Burmese acronym for the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, began a nationwide tour in celebration of the enactment of four controversial laws restricting interfaith marriage, childbirth, polygamy and religious conversion.
The legislative package, initially drafted by the Ma Ba Tha, was staunchly opposed by the international community and domestic rights groups. Critics claim the laws risk violating women’s rights and could be used to target minorities.
Also on Tuesday, Buddhist monk U Wirathu, a central figure in the organization, told The Irrawaddy that the Ma Ba Tha had begun analyzing parliamentary candidates and plans to “inform” the public of their findings so voters can better “choose who deserves to win.”
Expressing gratitude to Thein Sein for his passage of the laws, Wirathu said he was especially grateful that the president defied international opinion on the matter in the interest of what he termed “the country’s security.”
A video shared on the President’s Office Facebook account last week further fortified the Burmese government’s indifference to international pressure. The four-minute clip detailed the president’s achievements, including passage of the four laws, securing visits from Western officials such as US President Barack Obama—who was pictured several times throughout the bulletin—and enabling the proliferation of mobile technology.
The video message maintained that “there are no Rohingya in Myanmar,” and that Thein Sein would not allow the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to open an office in Burma.
The move to disqualify some 100 candidates, through an opaque and discriminatory process, risks undermining the confidence of the Burmese people and the international community.”
Anti-Muslim rhetoric has become a fixture of Burma’s social discourse in the years since the reform process began, exacerbated by what is viewed domestically as an increase in immigration from neighboring Bangladesh.
Rohingya Muslims, who the government and much of the population consider illegal “Bengali” immigrants, lost their right to vote earlier this year despite suffrage rights in all prior elections since the country’s independence from British colonial rule.
Beyond the disenfranchisement of what is believed to be hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, the Burmese government has also faced scrutiny over the disqualification of a number of Muslim candidates wishing to compete in the November poll. Of more than 100 rejected hopefuls, at least half were turned down on the basis of poorly understood citizenship criteria, many of them Muslim.
US State Department spokesperson John Kirby announced on Thursday that the United States was concerned by the vetting procedures, urging the Burmese government to “redouble their efforts” to address the issue.
“The move to disqualify some 100 candidates, through an opaque and discriminatory process, risks undermining the confidence of the Burmese people and the international community in these elections,” Kirby said in a statement.
The joint statement released earlier this week was backed by the embassies of Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Norway, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. When contacted on Friday, a full third of the embassies that endorsed Tuesday’s joint statement said they did not wish to comment on the government’s rejection of their concerns, remarking only that the statement produced earlier this week “speaks for itself.”
Additional reporting contributed by Kyaw Phyo Tha.