Human rights defenders slam Myanmar’s ‘apartheid’ election

Activists have said that polling day on Sunday will be an “apartheid election” amid mass disenfranchisement that they warn will deepen racial divides and fuel resentment among ethnic minorities.

The comments from various rights groups come towards the end of an election campaign that has been marred by mob violence, censorship of smaller parties’ messaging, and large-scale vote cancellations.

In a statement on Thursday, the Burma Campaign UK pressure group said that “Aung San Suu Kyi has engaged in activities which will make this election less free and fair than the last one.”

The government has refused to reinstate voting rights for Rohingya living in Rakhine state and in refugee camps in Bangladesh, who were disenfranchised ahead of the 2015 poll. 

And the election commission has taken voting rights away from more than 1.5m others, mostly in Rakhine state, claiming conflict between armed rebels and the military makes it impossible to hold a fair vote in many regions. 

Forum-Asia, a network of human rights groups and legal advocates from across the continent, said on Thursday that the exclusion of minority groups “raises questions on the credibility of these elections.”

“Myanmar’s elections have been characterised by the continued disenfranchisement of its ethnic minority groups, particularly the Rohingya, and the use of the country’s repressive laws to persecute opposition supporters, journalists and human rights defenders,” said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, the forum’s executive director. 

Nang Zun Moe, executive director of the Myanmar-based advocacy group Progressive Voice, said “systemic racism, egregious human rights abuses, and the exclusion of ethnic and religious minorities” posed “major challenges” to a free and fair election. 

Many people from minority groups have seen their lives deteriorate rapidly under the leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD), she noted. 

“Conflict has continued unabated over the past five years and we’ve seen some of the most intense fighting we have observed in decades in ethnic areas, particularly in Rakhine state,” she said.

Ethnic people “continue to see their communities torn apart by the ongoing war despite a civilian government being in power for five years,” she added. “The ethnic youths who dare to speak out and criticise the government or the military are swiftly arrested and their right to freedom of expression repeatedly violated.”

“The greatest shadow over the credibility of the election is the continued banning of Rohingya people being allowed to vote, and the astonishing silence of the international community over this issue,” Burma Campaign UK added in its statement. 

“International donors, including the UK, ignored a UN recommendation to review support for the election if Rohingya were excluded, and provided support to the racist government body, the Union Election Commission,” it added. 

The Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing said in comments published by the Popular News journal on Tuesday that the commission had not done enough to ensure a free and fair poll. 

In response the President’s Office warned that the senior general may have breached a law against civil servants having political affiliations. 

The NLD is likely to win again on Sunday but with a smaller majority than in 2015, Burma Campaign UK said, and so the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party may stand to increase its share of the vote. 

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