People in Myanmar’s troubled western state are battling a surge in coronavirus in the midst of escalating conflict.
Tens of thousands of minorities in Myanmar remain without the right to vote, while access to information has been hampered due to internet restrictions and the coronavirus lockdown, rights groups told the United Nations in Geneva on Wednesday, saying the situation raises questions about the integrity of Myanmar’s November election.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) called on the UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur to Myanmar to “safeguard the integrity” of the poll and ensure that political rights are respected.
The newly-designated UN human rights investigator Thomas Andrews said earlier that the elections would fail to meet international standards because hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims had been disenfranchised.
As well as the Rohingya, thousands of other people from ethnic minorities have been forced from their homes because of armed conflict between the Myanmar military and armed rebel groups, including in Chin and Rakhine states, where the internet remains cut off.
ICJ, a human rights watchdog, called on Myanmar’s election body to consider “appropriate alternatives” to in-person voting to avoid voters risking their health to cast their ballots amid the pandemic.
Myanmar has been rocked by a surge in coronavirus cases since mid-August and a “stay home” order began this week in the Yangon region. Officials reported 334 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday night, bringing its total to 7,292. Some 130 people have died from the disease.
“Stay-at-home orders have compelled voters and electoral candidates to rely on social media for political campaigning,” the statement noted.
But slow connectivity to the internet in conflict-hit areas “significantly limits online engagement of affected communities”, the group said, noting the continuing clashes between the military and ethnic rebel groups.
Earlier, UN Special Rapporteur Andrews said that the upcoming elections could not be free and fair because of the exclusion of Rohingya of voting age living in western Rakhine and in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.
“The results of an election cannot accurately reflect the will of the people, when the right to vote is denied because of a person’s race, ethnicity or religion,” he told the Geneva forum.
“And, I have seen no evidence that the government is willing or prepared to facilitate the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of voting age Rohingya located in Rakhine state or in refugee camps in Bangladesh,” he said.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar for Bangladesh in 2017 during a military-led crackdown the United Nations has said was executed with genocidal intent.
Myanmar has denied the allegations and says it was targeting armed fighters who attacked police posts.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya remain in Rakhine where they are mostly confined to camps and villages.
For its part, the ICJ urged the Myanmar government to urgently amend its 1982 Citizenship Law, which the group says has disenfranchised ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya, from participating in the political process.
Kyaw Tun, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, told the UN Human Rights Council that the country’s electoral body had “set forth criteria for the elections to be free, fair, transparent, trustworthy and reflective of the desire of voters”.
He said the body had scrutinised applications to ensure all could take part in the process equally.
“Every citizen without any discrimination who meets the criteria set in the election law can run for a public office,” he said.
Of at least a dozen Rohingya who have applied to run as candidates in the election, six were rejected after officials said they failed to prove their parents were citizens at the time of their birth, a requirement under the election law.
Myanmar does not recognise the term Rohingya, or the community as an Indigenous ethnic group.
Instead, they are derided as Bengalis, implying they are migrants from Bangladesh, despite having a centuries-long history in Rakhine.
Successive military governments that ruled Myanmar stripped the Rohingya of identity documents, leaving many with no proof of their origins.