Shortly after the two-month campaign season leading up to Myanmar’s much-awaited national elections started, the Union Election Commission (UEC) announced on September 11 that 124 candidates did not pass scrutiny and would be barred from running for office. Many were opposition and minority members and an estimated one-third were Muslim candidates, raising serious questions over bias in the review process and the exclusion of Muslims from the political process. Though 11 candidates were eventually allowed to rejoin the race after appealing, the current legal framework and a lack of transparency about the decision-making and appeal process could negatively impact the UEC’s credibility as an impartial arbiter in the election process. The November 8 elections will set the tone for Myanmar’s continued democratic development in the near-term and are widely expected to be competitive, with more than 90 political parties and more than 6,100 candidates competing for office in 1,171 constituencies. Fifty-nine of these political parties are linked to minority ethnic groups and religious groups, and one—the Women’s Party (Mon)—consists entirely of women. Though the plethora of political parties ought to be fairly representative of Myanmar’s population, it is notable that Muslims—who make up at least 4 percent of Myanmar’s total population—were under-represented. Growing intolerance and accusation from extremist Buddhists that the major opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is anti-Buddhist kept the NLD from nominating even one Muslim candidate, while the USDP dropped some of its more outspoken Muslim candidates.
Of the 124 rejected candidates, at least a quarter were Muslim candidates—they include six of the Muslim-led National Development and Peace Party’s candidates; 17 of 18 Muslim candidates of the Yangon-based Democracy and Human Rights Party; five Muslim candidates from the National Development Democratic Party; four Pathi Muslims from the National Unity Congress Party; and at least three independent Muslim candidates. Notable among these is Shwe Maung, a self-identified Rohingya Muslim who has been an acting member of parliament and has represented the majority-Muslim Buthidaung district since 2010. By some reports, almost all of the Muslim candidates that were running have been rejected.
Notably, none of the rejected candidates were members of the USDP. While this may partially be due to better in-party screening of USDP candidates, there is at least one case where political bias in favor of the USDP played a role: the UEC admitted that it did not thoroughly investigate the citizenship qualifications of USDP candidate Minister U Thein Nyunt, whose parents were from China and whose father never applied for Burmese citizenship. Despite acknowledging this, the UEC refused to investigate further or take action to disqualify him. They cited that the complaint came in September (after the vetting process) as the reason for not disqualifying him, despite the fact that doing so would be in line with Union Election Commission Law and would show that they apply requirements equally to all parties.