RANGOON — A prominent member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) claims the opposition party has succumbed to growing pressure from Buddhist nationalists by refusing to field a single Muslim candidate in Burma’s upcoming general elections.
Ko Ni, a well-known Muslim lawyer and opposition party member, said the NLD leadership intentionally excluded over a dozen Muslims from its candidate list—presented to the country’s election commission with over 1,000 names earlier this month—to placate Buddhist hardliners.
“There are no Muslim candidates,” Ko Ni told The Irrawaddy. “Around 15-16 Muslim people applied to be candidates but the central committee did not choose them.”
He added that while the party leadership did not offer a formal explanation for its decision, it appeared to be linked to the rise of an aggressive nationalist movement, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, whose supporters have been keen to brand the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi as anti-Buddhist.
The association, known locally by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, has spearheaded efforts to impose fresh legislation discriminating against Burma’s Muslim minority and repeatedly rallied against political parties deemed “unpatriotic.”
“If the NLD chose some Muslim candidates, those campaigning groups can point out that the NLD is a ‘Muslim party’,” said Ko Ni, who stressed he was not speaking in any official capacity as a party member.
But the decision has provoked dismay among many of the NLD’s Muslim supporters, who feel alienated and marginalized by the pro-democracy opposition party.
“The NLD is a democratic party,” said Mya Aye, a former political prisoner and prominent Muslim member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, who briefly sought NLD candidacy earlier this year. “Democratic means accepting multiculturalism but the NLD didn’t accept Muslim candidates. That is very wrong. Muslim people feel discriminated [against] by the NLD.”
Mya Aye suggested the move could lead to a number of Muslims abandoning the opposition party in November’s election,turning instead to independent candidates. One Rangoon-based Muslim resident, who asked not to be named, said he was losing faith in the party but he remained wary of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
“I never supported the USDP—it is a military legacy and not good for Muslims—so I have [previously] supported the NLD,” he said. “But now I am thinking I may support some individual in my constituency.”
Sources say that those excluded rank among some of the most prominent figures within the party and the broader democracy movement.
Among those whose candidacy applications were rejected are Sithu Maung, a former political prisoner and founding member of the Confederation of University Student Unions; Myat Thu, a veteran of the 88 Generation student group; Win Mya Mya, a leading member of the NLD’s Mandalay Division office jailed during the 2007 Saffron Uprising; and Kyi Lwin, chairman of the party’s Rangoon Eastern District office, according to party insiders.
“I don’t want to comment directly, but I can say that there were no Muslim candidates selected by the NLD,” Sithu Maung told The Irrawaddy.
Sithu Maung confirmed the exclusion of Win Mya Mya and Kyi Lwin, neither of whom could not be reached for comment on Friday.
If the NLD chose some Muslim candidates, those campaigning groups can point out that the NLD is a ‘Muslim party.’”
Mya Aye told The Irrawaddy that he preemptively withdrew his candidacy application at the end of July because the NLD was not cooperating with the country’s ethnic groups, reflecting a trend of growing disillusion with the party leadership.
“Ninety percent of Muslims are now upset with the NLD,” said Myo Win of the Burmese Muslim Association. “Even Muslims inside the NLD are disappointed.”
The NLD is expected to make significant gains in the Nov. 8 elections, hoped to be the first free and fair poll since the party’s landslide victory in 1990 was annulled by the military junta. A number of Muslim candidates were reportedly overlooked in the 1990 election as well,a reflection of deep-seated religious and ethnic divides in the Buddhist-majority country.
Religious tensions and outbursts of violence have escalated since the end of military rule in 2011, threatening to overshadow Burma’s landmark election.
Last week, prominent Rohingya Muslim lawmaker and former USDP member Shwe Maung was struck off the candidacy list after the Union Election Commission determined his parents were not Burmese citizens at the time of his birth. Hundreds of thousands of voters from the beleaguered Rohingya minority—who had been permitted to cast ballots in the 2010 election—were stripped of their voting rights earlier this year.
Some activists fear that members of the NLD leadership, most of whom came of age under the xenophobic dictatorship of Gen. Ne Win, tacitly agree with Ma Ba Tha’s virulent anti-Muslim sentiments.
“I’m not sure yet how much racism there is at the NLD top level because the majority of those people were[educated] under the socialist era,” said Myo Win. “I am not sure about [Suu Kyi] and who the decisions go through. She is a Nobel laureate and human rights defender. But I think she is now a power player.”
“We have no hope yet—neither for the NLD nor the USDP—to change the policy for minorities. They are thinking [about] their own power,” he added.
The party has also come under fire for excluding numerous popular figures, including 88 Generation Student Leader Ko Ko Gyi and independent Rangoon Division lawmaker Nyo Nyo Thin, from its candidate list. But Suu Kyi herself has dismissed the backlash as a “blessing in disguise” and urged people to vote for the party instead of hinging their support on individual NLD candidates.
When contacted by The Irrawaddy, NLD central executive committee member and party spokesperson Nyan Win denied that there were no Muslims representing the party.
“There is no discrimination,” he said, before admitting that he could not name any Muslim candidates “off the top of my head”.
Nyan Win clarified in a later conversation that he was unaware of specific decisions on candidate applications, which were ultimately decided upon by the party’s central executive committee. He denied that the party’s candidate decisions had been influenced by Ma Ba Tha.
“We never accept these Ma Ba Tha requests,” he said.
Nonetheless, in the last year the NLD has at times sought to placate Buddhist nationalist sentiment, including on one occasion an incident involving Ko Ni and Mya Aye.
The party cancelled a public event in Rangoon to mark Union Day in February last year, after a group of 40 nationalist monks objected to the planned inclusion of the pair on a discussion panel.
The following week, both men were forced to withdraw from a literary event in Mandalay, after complaints from the 969 Buddhist nationalist group led by senior Ma Ba Tha member U Wirathu. At the time, Mya Aye suggested that the complaints were motivated by the 88 Generation and the NLD’s pledge to cooperate on a constitutional reform campaign.
Ko Ni, who is adamant that no Muslim candidates had been nominated by the NLD, still defended the decision as a political necessity and urged voters to rally behind the party.
“We need to understand this situation and support the NLD,” he said. “If the NLD gets a lot of seats in parliament, at that time we can change the current situation and promote freedom of religion.”
At present, no political party has an official policy on the representation of religious minorities in the diverse country, where Muslims are estimated to comprise between 4-10 percent of the population.
An NLD lawmaker previously told The Irrawaddy that his party had no Muslim MPs in the current Union Parliament, while only three of the USDP’s 336 Union Parliament lawmakers belonged to the Muslim faith.
It is not yet clear how many Muslim candidates, if any, the USDP is fielding in November’s election.
Additional reporting by Moe Myint.