Myanmar must give the Rohingya a stake in the country's politics

The decision to contest the polls is critical to achieving the country’s greatest aspirations

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Abdul Rasheed is a businessman who dreams of one day holding elected office in his native Myanmar. Unfortunately for him, he has been disallowed from contesting the November 8 general election. Mr Rasheed is not alone. He is among at least six individuals whose applications have been rejected after they were unable to prove that their parents were citizens at the time of their birth – as mandated by election law. But the underlying factor behind the rejections is far more sinister, as it involves their Rohingya identity and, by extension, their status as full citizens of Myanmar in the eyes of the authorities.

More than a decade after the country's military junta introduced much-needed political reforms, such incidents have made it painfully clear that the forces of majoritarianism and bigotry are threatening to undermine the incremental steps Myanmar has undertaken to realise its democratic ambitions.

In August 2017, chauvinistic attitude towards minorities led the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s powerful military, to carry out an untold number of brutalities – including arson, mass killing and rape – against the Rohingya. More than 740,000 of them were forced to flee to Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries, resulting in the largest human exodus since the Vietnam War.

Rohingya candidate Abdul Rasheed sits next to his mother during an interview with Reuters at his home in Yangon, Myanmar, after his application to run as a candidate from Sittwe constituency was rejected with union election commission claiming his parents were not Myanmar citizens by the time he was born, August 22, 2020. Picture taken August 22, 2020. REUTERS/Shoon Naing NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
Abdul Rasheed is one of a few aspiring Rohingya candidates barred from contesting in the Myanmar elections this year. Reuters

A refugee crisis continues to this day, with few able or willing to return to Myanmar, despite international pressure on the government to rehabilitate them and a provisional order by the International Court of Justice to cease violence against them. Even as they live in refugee camps in Bangladesh – where they have little freedom to move and, at one point, were even denied internet access – they fear for their safety on return.

The situation is unacceptable, but sadly, unsurprising. At the heart of the crisis is identity: the Myanmar government does not recognise the existence of the Rohingya, considering them to be Bengalis who illegally immigrated from Bangladesh, rather than a minority group that has inhabited Myanmar's Rakhine State for centuries. It has not helped that successive governments have taken away their legal documentation, making it difficult for them to show any proof of origin.

And so, three years after looking the other way as its armed forces committed their atrocities, the Myanmar government has shown its refusal to rehabilitate this group of mostly Muslims into the Buddhist-majority country. It has also shown little willingness to include the more than 600,000 Rohingya who continue to live in the country in the political process. The recent rejections of the candidatures of people like Mr Rasheed have made clear the limits of reform.

It is important to remember that the same Aung San Suu Kyi who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for human rights currently helms Myanmar's government. While she has acknowledged the Tatmadaw's atrocities, she has shown little contrition. The scale of the challenge facing supporters of a freer, more pluralistic and tolerant Myanmar is daunting.

And yet, as the nation continues transition away from military rule, a handful of Rohingya have rightly and rightfully sought to contest the polls. Their decision to do so is a statement to the authorities that the participation of minorities in the political process is critical to achieving Myanmar’s greatest aspirations.