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Myanmar: Sectarianism threatens democracy

The leader of the Catholic Church in Myanmar, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, speaks out against recent discriminatory voting rules that could lead to violence as the national Election Day on November 8 nears. The following artice was published in the November-December 2015 NewsNotes.

Myanmar is preparing for historic elections in which Nobel-prize-winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is a leading candidate. Yet the government’s support for racial and ethnic persecution by extremist Buddhist groups and its failure to negotiate a promised cease-fire with all armed ethnic groups in a decades-old civil war threatens prospects for peace and democracy in the former Burma.

President Thein Sein is touting a national cease-fire agreement on October 15 as a historic step toward peace. Yet the failure to include key combatants – including one of the largest groups – has many observers claiming that authorities have not delivered on their promise to end fighting ahead of the highly anticipated November elections. In fact, only eight of 15 groups who participated in the national peace process signed the agreement.

Large parts of Christian-majority Kachin state, in Myanmar’s north, effectively remain in a state of civil war. At the same time, human rights groups denounce a mass disenfranchisement of persecuted Rohingya Muslims, which is seen by many observers as a test of the country’s quasi-civilian government’s democratic reforms.

Earlier this year, the government effectively disenfranchised about 700,000 people, mostly Rohingya, when it declared holders of “white cards” ineligible to vote. The cards had been issued as temporary identification documents, and white-card holders had been permitted to vote in the 2010 election. In October, thousands of Rohingya Muslims who cast ballots in previous elections were left off the voting lists.

Before the campaign began, the country’s election commission disqualified most of the candidates running for a predominantly Rohingya party. A prominent Rohingya parliamentarian who previously won a seat with the military-backed ruling party was also disqualified.

The government and the Buddhist Rakhine community do not recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s official ethnic groups, and instead require them to identify as “Bengali” since they are considered illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh – even though many Rohingya have served in the government and lived for generations in Myanmar.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the government’s actions, remarking on September 29: “I am deeply disappointed by this effective disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and other minority communities. Barring incumbent Rohingya parliamentarians from standing for re-election is particularly egregious.”

In August, Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur for human rights, expressed “grave concern” about the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of potential voters.

“More must and can be done to address the legal status of the Rohingya and the institutionalized discrimination faced by this community,” she said in a statement.

According to a Union of Catholic Asia News  (UCAN) article on September 10, Cardinal Bo condemned a package of legislation known as “the race and religion laws” or “Black Laws.” Rights groups and faith leaders fear the laws will be used to persecute religious minorities in the Buddhist-majority country.

“Parliament was coerced by a fringe group of religious elite to enact four black laws, virtually fragmenting the dream of a united Myanmar,” the cardinal said in a strongly worded statement on September 11: “(It) is a dangerous portend for the fledgling democracy.”

President Sein signed into law the last of the four divisive bills on Aug. 31. The restrictive legislation had been championed by hardline Buddhist monks from a group known as Ma Ba Tha, or the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion.

The laws include a population control bill imposing mandatory “birth spacing” between a woman’s pregnancies; a monogamy law setting punishments for people with more than one spouse; an interfaith marriage law requiring Buddhist women to register their marriages in advance if they want to wed a non-Buddhist man; and a law regulating religious conversions.

Rights groups and faith leaders fear the laws are an attempt to target Myanmar’s Muslim minority, particularly the often persecuted Muslim Rohingya.

Cardinal Bo declared the Buddhist teachings of universal compassion and mercy for all were being threatened by “peddlers of hatred.”

“We need peace. We need reconciliation. We need a shared and confident identity as citizens of a nation of hope,” Cardinal Bo said. “But these four laws seemed to have rung a death knell to that hope.”