The Rohingya Muslim minority, to which I belong, was again disenfranchised during Myanmar’s election on Nov. 8. My community, which has faced violence and discrimination, is being even further erased from our country. Many ethnic Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, and Karen were also not able to vote. An election that excludes entire communities because of their identity cannot be considered credible, free, nor fair.
On Nov. 8, Myanmar held an election that returned the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) to power, but also ensured the Rohingya—an ethnic group that has faced violence at the hands of the military—were excluded.
There are over a million Rohingya in refugee camps in Bangladesh and nearly 600,000 Rohingya in Myanmar. The adults among them were denied their right to vote, despite orders to prevent genocidal violence from the International Court of Justice and consistent calls from international human rights groups and the Rohingya community itself.
This is the second time that Rohingya have been excluded from participating in an election in Myanmar. In 2015 the military-backed government led by former army general Thein Sein revoked their voting rights. Previously, Rohingya in Myanmar were able to vote and run in all elections, even though they faced violence and persecution in other respects.
The Aung San Suu Kyi government has shown no political will to restore Rohingya’s rights in Myanmar. Since coming to power in 2015, her government has had enough time to abolish discriminatory policies and amend election laws. Back in 2015, many Rohingya believed that the NLD would restore their rights but instead, the government has institutionalized disenfranchisement and normalized discriminatory standards against Rohingya.
The Rohingya have endured hate speech and dehumanizing rhetoric for decades and the government continues to refer to Rohingya incorrectly as “Bengali.” This has also enabled the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) to conduct targeted operations against Rohingya civilians, which according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and key U.N officials constitutes genocide.
The Rohingya were denied their rights to participate in the election as a group on the basis of their identity. The election commission rejected at least six Rohingya candidates who were required to prove their parents’ citizenship. Candidates from other ethnicities are also required to do so, but they have not been stripped of their citizenship like the Rohingya were under a 1982 citizenship law.
The rejected candidates included my father Kyaw Min, chairperson of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, who was an MP-elect in the 1990 vote. He allied with Aung San Su Kyi as a member of CRPP (Committee Representing People’s Parliament), an opposition elite group during the democracy movement under military dictatorship. In 2005 he was arrested and sentenced to 47 years with his family, including me.
Even though the election laws had not changed, they were applied in such a way as to keep most Rohingya leaders from running in 2020. The NLD also canceled elections in over 50 townships, suppressing the votes across other ethnic constituencies including Karen, Shan, and Rakhine States.
The UK based Rohingya right’s group BROUK says disenfranchisement of Rohingya is another step to genocide. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s recent report suggests that disenfranchisement of Rohingya based on their identity only solidifies divisions and deepens marginalization of the Rohingya, keeping them at risk of mass atrocities, including genocide.
Many Western pro-engagement groups and governments have demonstrated their willingness to put the promotion of democracy—flawed as it may be in Myanmar—over the protection of the Rohingya and others from future atrocities. But sacrificing the lives and safety of Rohingya in the name of promoting democracy is immoral and short-sighted.
The NLD-led government has continued to restrict the democratic rights of citizens and limit freedom of the press. It has increased the numbers of political prisoners and limited ethnic community participation in this election. At the same time, the military continues to enjoy impunity and is escalating conflict against ethnic armed groups, increasing targeted attacks against civilians in Rakhine State and other ethnic areas.
It is time for Western governments to stop endorsing a fundamentally flawed democracy and put stronger pressure on Myanmar. The formation of the Kofi-Annan Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and investigations set up by the Tatmadaw and government show that Myanmar’s military and civilian government has responded to international pressure.
The world needs to make sure that global pressure can change the Myanmar government’s priorities so that it protects all its people—including the Rohingya—from future atrocities. The international community has a moral and legal obligation to protect and prevent genocide and help restore the justice and dignity of the victims and survivors. We can’t afford to wait until the next election and let this crisis go unaddressed for another five years.