Many Muslims claim racism against them is worse now than under the military junta.
MEIKTILA: One of Myanmar’s five million young adults, May Thandar Maung had been excited to cast her ballot for the very first time in November’s election.
But the 18-year-old is Muslim and says that means she will remain voiceless.
“My religion means I haven’t been able to get an ID card,” she tells AFP in her hometown of Meiktila in central Myanmar – and no ID means no vote.
She describes how local officials have obstructed her attempts for over a year, while Buddhist peers faced no such delays, in a town where memories of brutal inter-communal violence in 2013 are still raw.
The majority-Buddhist nation is widely expected to return Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party to power on Nov 8 in the second polls since Myanmar emerged from outright military rule in 2011.
The country’s Rohingya Muslims – whether in Bangladeshi refugee shelters or confined to camps and villages in Myanmar – will nearly all be completely disenfranchised.
But Myanmar also has many more Muslims of other ethnic heritage – about 4% of the population –whom the country, in theory, accepts as citizens.
In practice, however, it can be very different.
Muslims complained to AFP of systemic corruption, detailing how they are forced to pay backhanders of hundreds of dollars – exorbitant rates in a country where a quarter of the population lives in poverty.
Three members of Maung Cho’s family had to pay US$370 each, the 53-year-old says, many times higher than the token sums of ‘tea money’ demanded of Buddhists.
Their experiences are echoed by Muslims across the country, says Yangon-based analyst David Mathieson.
“Anti-Muslim sentiment is ever-present with discrimination in schools, the workplace and access to government jobs,” he says.
Challenges continue even for those who obtain an ID in a country where these cards state the holder’s ethnicity.
Many Muslims say false ethnic identities, usually from South Asia, are increasingly being foisted on the community.
Maung Cho’s family has lived in Myanmar for generations, yet when his renewed ID card came back, it labelled him as “Indian-Muslim”.
“It must have been my beard,” he tells AFP, ruefully.
Like other so-called “mixed bloods”, he now faces extra scrutiny at every ID check and must even stand in a separate queue at immigration offices.
Myanmar Hindus – who number about 250,000 – are also often branded as “mixed bloods” and face similar problems.
Yangon-based Tun Min, 28, tells AFP it took him 10 years to get an ID card.
Last week he chose to speak out, posting a video on Facebook explaining the discrimination his community faces.
“I drove a taxi for eight years but only used to work at night because I couldn’t apply for a licence without an ID card.”
The ‘B’ word
The least desirable label, however, is “Bengali”, a pejorative term normally used to refer to the persecuted Rohingya.
Myanmar faces charges of genocide at the UN’s top court after the military drove out about 750,000 Rohingya in a supposed crackdown on militants in 2017.
Many of the 600,000 who remain in Myanmar live in what Amnesty International calls “apartheid” conditions, refused citizenship and deprived of rights.
Mathieson says there have been numerous reports in recent years of other Muslims across Myanmar also being coerced into adopting “Bengali” as an identity.
He blames “racist and discriminatory” bureaucratic procedures rather than an official policy but warns the government has not tried to stamp the practice out.
The NLD has “more important agendas than pursuing a reverse engineering of a racist system many of their supporters are comfortable with”.
An immigration department official, asking not to be named, refuted allegations of corruption and discrimination, insisting ID cards were granted in accordance with the law.
But Maung Cho says he thinks racism against Muslims is worse now than under the military junta, describing his community as “disappointed and depressed”.
Many people he knows feel so disillusioned they plan not to vote in the upcoming election.
A campaign to boycott the vote is gathering pace.
Former student leader and political prisoner Sithu Maung is one of just two Muslims out of 1,143 NLD candidates. In 2015, the party fielded no Muslim candidates at all.
He says he understands his community’s disappointment but denies times are worse than under the military.
“They should be optimistic about the future. The NLD has only had five years in power.”
But optimism is in short supply among young people like May Thandar Maung.
“Even though I was born here, I can’t vote and that’s discrimination,” she says.