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UN concerned at rights violations ahead of Myanmar polls

Minority groups face exclusion under discriminatory citizenship and electoral laws

UN concerned at rights violations ahead of Myanmar polls

Supporters of the National League for Democracy party ride on wooden boats on the Yangon River during an election campaign rally on Oct. 28. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

The United Nations Human Rights Office has raised serious concerns about rights violations, particularly of minority groups including Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine, ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.

“While the elections represent an important milestone in Myanmar’s democratic transition, the civic space is still marred by continuing restrictions of the freedoms of opinion, expression and access to information, and the use of language that could amount to incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence,” spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani told a media briefing on Oct. 27.

She said Myanmar’s discriminatory citizenship and electoral laws confer different sets of political rights to different classes of citizens, affecting most clearly the Muslim minorities who are largely excluded from citizenship.

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There has also been significant disenfranchisement resulting from the Union Election Commission’s announcement that elections would not be taking place in 56 townships including Rakhine state.

“The commission did not provide public justification for its decision, which curtails the right to political participation in areas with ethnic minority populations in a discriminatory fashion,” Shamdasani said.

She added that an internet shutdown effectively remains in place in eight townships in Rakhine and Chin states, severely limiting the ability of residents to receive and deliver reliable information,

“Blanket internet shutdowns may be counterproductive and contravene international law. The measure disproportionately affects minority groups including Rakhine, Rohingya, Kaman, Mro, Daignet, Khami and Chin communities,” Shamdasani said.

The UN rights office also voiced concerns over the unrelenting proliferation of hateful speech against Muslims on Facebook.

“We call on Myanmar to take action in line with the presidential directive 3/2020 of April this year to denounce such hateful language publicly and to promote tolerance, non-discrimination and pluralism in speech by public officials and electoral candidates,” the spokesperson said.

Lacking transparency

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the election commission has made critical decisions without meaningful transparency that will affect the election in many ethnic minority areas.

It said over 1.5 million people will not be able to exercise their right to vote following cancellations of constituencies in Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan states and the Bago region.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said the commission is making decisions affecting people’s right to choose their representatives without an iota of transparency.

“Myanmar’s election commission needs to fully explain the basis for its decisions on each of the affected townships, which affect the voting rights of 1.5 million largely ethnic minority people,” Robertson said in a statement on Oct.28.

The rights group said the commission should clearly explain the basis for determining that voting cannot take place in each area cited. It should consult with candidates and political parties in these constituencies to seek solutions that will uphold people’s right to participate in democratic elections, including through delayed voting.

It said that while armed conflict has destabilized many parts of Rakhine sate, the commission’s inclusion of areas where conflict is limited including Shan, Kachin, Karen and Mon states, and the Bago region, raises concerns about the commission’s criteria for canceling elections.

According to HRW, cancellations in Rakhine state account for up to 1.2 million disenfranchised voters, excluding the 600,000 Rohingya who remain barred from voting. Of the nine townships where voting is suspended in Rakhine, seven are held by the Arakan National Party and two by the military-linked United Solidarity and Development Party.

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