Myanmar’s election last Sunday has been hailed, by the world, as a major step forward for the country’s young democracy. The excitement on the ground in Myanmar in the days leading up to the election, and on Election Day, was intense---Myanmar residents reported a kind of giddy feeling in many cities and towns, as people thrilled to the idea of voting in a real national election for the first time in twenty-five years. On the campaign trail, Aung San Suu Kyi and other National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders drew enormous and often jubilant crowds, similar to the situation before the 1990 national elections. When Suu Kyi gave a press conference at her home in Yangon, just before Election Day, reporters scrambled to get inside as if they were in a rugby scrum.
But in western Myanmar, in Rakhine State, the mood was far more ominous. The situation in Rakhine State remains extremely tense; many aid workers believe that large-scale outflows of refugees from western Myanmar are about to begin again, potentially leading to another high seas crisis. Many Muslim Rohingya could not vote, since they had been removed from voter rolls months ago, in what Rohingya experts believe was a clear effort to disenfranchise Rohingya voters. (In August, the New York Times reported, “Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who cast votes in elections five years ago have been struck from the electoral rolls, election commission officials have confirmed.”) Those who could still vote could make little impact on the election, since they were isolated in small communities, in camps for displaced persons, and in remote locations. Few political parties attempted to woo the Rohingya vote.
Meanwhile, parties that tried to run Muslim candidates anywhere in Myanmar often found their candidates rejected by national election commission. As Thailand’s Khao Sod reported, “Of the more than 6,000 candidates running in the elections, the overwhelming majority of them are Buddhist, and only 28 are Muslim, representing just 0.5 percent of candidates, according to the final list of candidates released by the Union Election Commission.” What’s more, a hard-line, Buddhist, ethnic Rakhine party seemed to have little problem registering candidates, and campaigned vigorously throughout western Myanmar. The party’s rallies frequently drew large crowds, and it seemed to enjoy more support throughout western Myanmar than even the National League for Democracy did.
In the run-up to Election Day, neither the ruling party nor the NLD provided much hope for the Rohingya. Apparently fearful of efforts by hard-line Buddhist monks to tar the NLD as pro-Muslim, in the days before Election Day Suu Kyi carefully distanced herself and her party from the Rohingya and other Muslims in Myanmar. (The same monks had, in September, pushed through apparently anti-Muslim legislation at the national level.) At the press conference before Election Day, Suu Kyi cautioned reporters and the world not to “exaggerate” the challenges faced by the Rohingya, even though a recent report by Yale Law School’s human rights clinic suggests a genocide against the Muslim minority group may be underway.