Disenfranchisement of minority populations will make the 2020 general elections not fully free and fair. The next administration must be encouraged and supported to prioritize addressing the issues of racial and religious conflict and discrimination.
As Myanmar is preparing for upcoming parliamentary elections in November 2020, SMILE Foundation – a Yangon-based think tank advocating for inter-religious harmony and minority rights – has been monitoring experiences of religious and ethnic minorities exercising their right to participate in the elections and the various barriers and forms of discrimination they face. SMILE’s analysis concludes that the Myanmar Government and the Union Election Commission (UEC) are using laws and legal practices to discriminate against ethnic and religious minorities, denying Rohingya and Muslim candidates – as well as other religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar – the right to stand for election.
Many more minorities are being denied the right to vote as part of restrictions on access to citizenship based on their ethnicity. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the country also face difficulties in exercising their right to vote due to ongoing armed conflicts between ethnic armed groups and the Burmese military (Tatmadaw), and many IDPs are being denied the right to vote despite being identity card holders.
This disenfranchisement of the minority populations of Myanmar is in direct contravention of the 2008 Constitution and an infringement of their fundamental human rights. Consequently, SMILE's analysis concludes that the November 8, 2020 Elections in Myanmar will not be fully inclusive, free, and fair.
Over the last five years, the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government has failed to tackle institutionalized and systemic racism and discrimination in the country, leading to the increased marginalization of minority groups. The perseverance of violations against minority rights and discrimination in policy and practice is having a significant bearing on the 2020 election landscape. It threatens Myanmar’s democratization process as well as the future stability of the country.
At the core of this remains the issue of access to citizenship. The passing of four so-called “Race and Religion Protection Laws” in 2015 (still under the earlier Thein Sein government, but not removed or removed by the NLD in power) have also served to further entrench racial and religious discrimination, rather than address it.
Under the NLD government, hate speech has proliferated on social media and other media forms and led to increased tensions and instances of violence. The underlying tensions remain and have fed into the rhetoric and policies of political parties vying for seats in the November 8 elections. Such rhetoric could risk igniting further conflicts or violence around the election period. Voting on religious and ethnic grounds may also lead to further polarization of Myanmar society.
Stakeholders supporting the Myanmar elections must use their influence to ensure the November elections are fully inclusive, free, and fair; this includes ensuring all Myanmar people, regardless of ethnicity or religion, can exercise their right to vote and participate in the electoral process.
The next administration and Government of Myanmar must be encouraged and supported to prioritize addressing the issues of racial and religious conflict and discrimination.
As immediate measures, the Myanmar Government and the Union Election Commission (UEC) must ensure the political participation of ethnic and religious minorities in the November elections: this includes addressing issues around the unfair disqualification of political candidates, notably those from Rohingya political parties, and addressing UEC regulations on documentation required to vote which disproportionately disenfranchises those from ethnic minority groups
Post-election, the incoming administration in 2021 must prioritize amending the country’s citizenship laws in line with international human rights standards and ensure legal guarantees on fundamental rights for people of different religious beliefs; this includes reviewing and amending or repealing existing laws that are incompatible with international human rights standards. The government must also take proactive measures to address institutionalized discrimination within the country, promote interfaith dialogue and intercommunal reconciliation programs and end hate speech.
(The full text of SMILE Foundation's Briefing "2020 Election Concerns and the Right to Citizenship and Freedom of Religion or Belief in Myanmar" is available for download.)