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By Siegfried O. Wolf
October 6, 2015

Global attention to the Rohingya issue is rising, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

To respond to the alarming rise of stranded persons in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, the Royal Thai Government organized the “Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean” on May 29, 2015 in Bangkok. The meeting was convened to address the continuing exodus of migrants and refugees from Myanmar. These refugees are mainly Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. They have been treated as “second-class” and”non citizens,” suffering from social discrimination, massive violent repression, human rights violations, and political exclusion. In addition to repressive policies by the central government, the Rohingya have also faced extremely anti-Muslim sentiments fanned partly by government-supported Buddhist fundamentalism in Myanmar.

The Southeast Asian and South Asian region has witnessed tremendous human movement – including hundreds of thousands refugees from Myanmar trying to enter neighboring countries illegally – especially Bangladesh. However, despite the increasingly dire humanitarian crisis, most of the potential host states are reluctant to accept more Rohingya refugees. One of the major reasons for this is an increasing trend in the region of viewing the Rohingya issue not solely as a humanitarian issue, but also a security and political one. As awareness has grown in both dimensions – humanitarian and security – there is a growing recognition among the international community of the need to do more than just ignoring the worsening situation of the Rohingya.

Historically, the Rohingya are predominantly Muslim and closely related to the Bengali people. Originally, many of them migrated from the Indian subcontinent towards the east into ‘Theravada Buddhist Myanmar,’ especially during the British colonial time. Relations between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar started deteriorating during the country’s liberation struggle. Relatively soon after gaining independence, the new rulers in Myanmar identified the Rohingya as economic refugees, a move that would be significant to the socio-economic composition and political power structure of the country. A policy of repression soon followed, which treated the Rohingya as illegal migrants subject to eviction.

The severity of the Rohingya migration issue can be understood as a clear result of three intermingling factors. First is the emergence of authoritarian (military) regimes in Myanmar. Second is the consequence of a cultural confrontation between different ethnic-religious communities in Myanmar. This conflict gained significance after the military rulers attempted to assimilate religious-ethnic minorities into the mainstream Burmese culture. A strategy of an enforced cultural unification, namely Burmanization, was used as a way of “National Reconsolidation.” Third is the initial ignorance and inaction from policymakers worldwide despite the fact that the Rohingya issue was increasingly having international implications.

Today, it would seem that awareness of the Rohingya and their illegal migration is finally rising within the international community. In part, however, this new attention to the Rohingya issue stems from the tendency to identify Rohingya refugees as a “non-traditional security threat.”

In particular, there is a growing conviction among analysts that the massive influx of the Rohingyas during the last decades is creating a multidimensional security crisis. As stateless refugees, they have become the face of security threats as well as various forms of psycho-social and human security challenges in Myanmar and in their new host countries across the region like Bangladesh.

Most Rohingya who have migrated to other countries live in extraordinarily deplorable conditions. Living in forms of involuntarily and illegal self-settlement, they have to deal regularly with security forces, the unease and resistance of local communities, and restricted access to food, drinking water, sufficient shelter, and clothing. Partly as a result of these circumstances, they are often more easily targeted by criminal networks, illegal businesses, and Islamic fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), or Harkat-ulJihad-al Islami (Huji).

This in turn leads illegal Rohingya migrants – particularly those living in illegal camps or unregistered as refugees – to be perceived as the cause of conflict. The movement of Rohingya refugees begins to be viewed through the prism of the rising challenge of controlling Islamic terrorism and political Islam in the region.

At the heart of this view is the following worry: the Rohingya problem is contributing to and is partly responsible for the rise of international jihadist movements. In more operational terms, there is the claim that the Rohingya are helping to support Islamic fundamentalism by acting as a (passive) recruiting base for Islamic militant extremists and through direct support for religious fundamentalism.

It is claimed that some radicalized sections of the refugees actively maintain links with banned Islamist groupings like JMB or Huji. Some radicalized Rohingya are accused of not only sympathizing with their fundamentalist worldview but also actively providing resources for these Islamist outfits, for example, providing training on arms and explosives. Additionally, there is the accusation that the Rohingya are using their international network to allocate funds from like-minded international organizations for militant groups operating in their host countries, especially in Bangladesh.

Rohingya have also been held responsible for the undermining of the general law and order situation in their host societies. Besides terrorism, extremist violence, and religious extremism, the Rohingya crisis is also seen as being associated with all kinds of criminal activities including narcotics, human trafficking, illegal trade in SALW (small arms and light weapons) and ammunition, stealing, armed robbery, and maritime piracy. Other major concerns are smuggling and illegal cross-border infiltrations.

Additionally, Rohingya have increasingly linked with growing rates of crimes related to extortion, sexual harassment (including prostitution and sexual slavery), killings for organs, domestic servitude, and forced labor by criminal networks in their host countries.

However, there is the tendency among authorities of host countries to ignore the fact that the Rohingya are mostly the victims and not the perpetrators in these scenarios. Rather, it seems that the general tendency up to this point has been to focus on the refugee crisis as the causal factor for the increase in security concerns.

Rohingya have also been identified by some host governments and local communities as a negative disturbance to local economies, especially when they are settling in underdeveloped regions. Some fear that the Rohingya constitute an additional demographic pressure on the already densely populated area with scarce resources. Others claim that the (mostly illegal) penetration of the refugees in regional job markets leads to further socio-economic inequalities and reduces employment opportunities for the local workforce.

Still others suggest that security measures are needed because the refugee crisis is causing instability, leading to a real reduction in trade and commerce, especially in the Bangladesh-Myanmar relations. In this context, Rohingya are also blamed by state authorities for delays in enhancing regional connectivity (infrastructure) and hampering the working relationship between Dhaka and Naypyidaw.

With bilateral talks between Malaysia and Indonesia and the earlier mentioned Bangkok conference on “irregular migrations” on May 29, as well as other steps, the international approach to the Rohingya is finally moving from ignorance to action. But it would be naïve to think this trajectory is only due to the humanitarian crisis of the refugees. Rather, the negative impacts of illegal migration – particularly on the security side – have finally convinced the international community to act, even though this may be based on unfounded fears.

Given this, what is most important is to preserve the political will and to strengthen the decision-making procedures in order to work towards a coherent and comprehensive solution to the Rohingya problem. Attending to security concerns cannot be done at the expense of humanitarian needs.

Rohingya Muslims wait for a small ferry boat at a refugee camp outside Sittwe in Myanmar's Rakhine state. After May's deadly refugee boat crisis, observers warn that a new wave of migrants and asylum seekers could soon take to the seas. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

By Jack Wyatt
October 5, 2015

With onset of sailing season, regional governments appear unprepared

There are fears the coming end of the monsoon season on the Bay of Bengal will trigger a new flow of migrants and asylum seekers streaming southward across the Andaman Sea.

Rights groups and advocates for migrants warn that regional authorities may be alarmingly unprepared. Some fear a repeat of the May refugee crisis, which saw thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded at sea, with multiple countries at first reluctant to take them in.

"Normally by the end of [September] or the week following [the Muslim festival of] Eid al-Adha, in early October, we see boats begin to move again," said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which advocates for the rights of Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya.

While the numbers of migrants and asylum seekers who will make the journey remain uncertain, continued factors pushing Rohingya and Bangladeshis to leave make some flow of migrants a near certainty, she added.

In May, thousands of people fled Myanmar and Bangladesh to escape persecution and poverty.

The crisis made international headlines after mass graves of trafficking victims were found along the Thailand-Malaysia border. Governments threatened to crack down on human trafficking, prompting smuggling networks to abandon their human cargo at sea. Thousands of people, mainly Bangladeshi and Rohingya, were left adrift on leaking boats and shuttled between countries.

The U.N. Refugee Agency estimated that 370 people have died making the dangerous crossing in 2015 alone.

After an extended stalemate, an emergency meeting between regional states on May 29 in Bangkok saw many migrants find relative safety in Malaysia and Indonesia. As the monsoon season began, the flow of people soon slowed due to adverse sailing conditions. However, with the season's approaching end, observers warn that a new round of departures could soon begin again.

This May 14 photo shows migrants and asylum seekers on a boat drifting in Thai waters. Rights groups say authorities may be unprepared for a new wave of people trying to reach their countries by boats. (Photo by Christophe Archambault/AFP)

'The picture is not very bright'

"I have a feeling that the crisis will continue and the flow will continue from Bangladesh," said Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, regional coordinator of the nongovernmental organization Caram Asia, which works on health and migration.

The pressing issue, he said, is not only whether governments are ready to house new migrants, but whether all the stakeholders involved, including the international community, are prepared to address the problem.

"We need U.N. agencies to be truthful and we need the international community to say it out openly," he said.

"We cannot play the same politics of the past that we have played — just 'diplomacy, diplomacy,' but in reality nothing is happening … We don't want to see any lives lost on the sea or in mass graves … but the picture is not very bright."

The Arakan Project's Lewa believes that there could be relatively few sailings early on as smuggling networks test the waters.

"The beginning of the season will be very low, not like previous years at all, and there is no typical pattern," she said. "But with Thailand closed, it will not be like it was in the other seasons. I think we will see test boats first. If they are successful, more will come."

During the May crisis, more than 1,100 migrants who landed on Langkawi island in northern Malaysia were taken to detention centers.

Reports from migrant support groups suggest that of these migrants, more than 500 Bangladeshis were returned with the help of Bangladeshi authorities while 200 remain in a detention center. The Rohingya remained in the center because Malaysia was not willing or able to send these migrants back to face almost certain persecution in Myanmar.

The U.N. Refugee Agency recently reported that in the first six months of 2015, 31,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis departed from the Bay of Bengal on smugglers' boats, representing a 34 percent increase from 2014. The rise has been attributed to a number of factors, including political developments within Myanmar prompting more persecuted Rohingya to flee.

Despite increasing migrant numbers, Al Rashid says regional governments have an opportunity to reduce the impact of trafficking networks — but they must act quickly and together.

"Trafficking networks are multinational companies" made up of large and small operators, he said. "If the big shots come back, the operation will continue. If governments act within the next month, no one will be able to come in, but cooperation is needed."

A Rohingya woman from Myanmar offers prayers during a rally over the refugee boat crisis at a hall in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur on June 3. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP)


One particular area of concern is Bangladesh's lack of enforcement on trafficking cases. According to Al Rashid, authorities in Bangladesh have failed to complete prosecutions on a single trafficking case related to the boat crisis.

"Out of 1,681 cases of trafficking in Bangladesh, from those filed, those who have died, disappeared, or been killed, there has been no judgment yet," he said. "That is the failure of Bangladesh. With failed enforcement, traffickers will certainly use it to continue."

Thailand has arrested and issued warrants for more than 15 officials accused of involvement in trafficking, including army Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen, a provincial mayor and a number of policemen. Thailand has also announced that it will seal the border between Myanmar and Ranong province, through which human traffickers have smuggled thousands of people.

The attempted shutdown of the overland routes has changed the flow of people throughout the region. This, combined with the detention of roughly 500 Rohingya migrants in immigration detention centers, has made Thailand a less desirable transit or destination point for migrants and smugglers.

According to the Arakan Project, which has spoken with Rohingya migrants following the May crisis, Indonesia is also not a desirable destination. This should keep the focus on Malaysia as the preferred destination country for migrants from the Bay of Bengal.

Regional governments and international agencies have been slow to identify a timely and effective response to these movements.

The migrant flows from the Bay of Bengal are known as "mixed flows," meaning there are asylum seekers in the group — Rohingya, for the most part — and mainly Bangladeshi migrants who are leaving to find undocumented work abroad.

As such, the responses and solutions for each group differ widely. The Rohingya on the one hand, are fleeing persecution in Myanmar, where anti-Muslim sentiment has sparked deadly riots and displaced tens of thousands.

Bangladeshi migrants, on the other hand, often view Malaysia as a land of opportunity, and the Malaysian government has done little to dispel this image.

Ultimately, the problem can't be solved unless authorities deal with the factors pushing more and more migrants and asylum seekers to leave their homes in the first place.

"Unless the root causes driving people to leave Myanmar and Bangladesh are addressed, we can expect more people to risk their lives on smugglers' boats," Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Refugee Agency, told

Myanmar President Thein Sein (C) gestures as he visits on U Paing Bridge in Mandalay, on 27 September 2015. Photo: Bo Bo/Mizzima

By Hein Ko Soe
October 5, 2015

U Zaw Htay, the director of Myanmar's President's Office, said the Myanmar government does not need to respond to the lawsuit filed by the Burma Task Force in the Manhattan federal court in the United States against President U Thein Sein over alleged discrimination against Bengalis.

“Whatever the court said, our country is an independent country, so the leader and the government do not need to deal with the case in which the ‘Myanmar-Bengali’ filed the lawsuit in court. There is no reason to respond to the summons, no reason to go there,” he said.

According to a report on Reuters: “The complaint filed on Thursday in Manhattan federal court accused Thein Sein and top officials of planning and instigating hate crimes and discrimination amounting to genocide” against Muslim Rohingya.

The Myanmar government refuses to use the word Rohingya, claiming the Muslim minority, living primarily in Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh, are illegal Bengalis.

“We did not receive any letter. Anyway, whether they send letter or not, our country is an independent country, so we reject the case. The lawsuit was filed by a Bengali group in exile led by Htay Lwin Oo. We heard that the court has accepted the case with two charges,” said U Zaw Htay.

Burma Task Force, comprised of 14 Muslim organizations in the US, filed the lawsuit against President U Thein Sein and other Myanmar leaders. Burma Task Force is a US-based organization which says it is combating discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar, and working to secure equal rights for them.

Wunna Maung Lwin with Ban Ki-moon on September 24, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

By Laignee Barron
October 5, 2015

After nearly a week of taking blows for everything from the peace process to “atrocious” conditions at internally displaced persons camps to the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority voters, foreign minister U Wunna Maung Lwin struck back at the UN this weekend.

Taking the floor at the 70th UN General Assembly, U Wunna Maung Lwin questioned the effectiveness of the intergovernmental body, and called for wide-sweeping reforms to keep pace with the “daunting challenges” of social and economic conflicts inherited through the divisive “colonial legacy”.

“Time is now opportune to do soul-searching on the future of the organisation,” U Wunna Maung Lwin told the 193 gathered member states on October 2.

In particular, he called for an overhaul of the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council, UN arms with which Myanmar has had a checquered relationship. In May, during a regional trafficking crisis, the Security Council held its first-ever, closed-door briefing on Myanmar, focusing on the treatment of the Muslim minority in Rakhine State. In a statement following the brief, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein held Myanmar responsible for the root cause of the smuggling route due to “widespread and systematic human rights violations”, against the Rohingya, who, he added, deserve a “rightful place in the country where they were born.”

As the body responsible for appointing the special rapporteur on Myanmar, the Human Rights Council has drawn ire from Nay Pyi Taw, which rejects the critical reports regularly issued by the rapporteurs. The position has been especially contentious in Myanmar, where the volunteer appointees have sparked protests and been personally attacked with gendered hate speech.

“Human rights issues are increasingly politicized and exploited,” said U Wunna Maung Lwin. “Myanmar firmly believes that the Universal Periodic Review is the forum where promotion and protection human rights can be best addressed with objectivity and impartiality on an equal footing.”

Earlier in the week, the foreign minister also compared the temporary white-card holders to foreign residents allowed to live and work in the United States through “green cards”.

“I think that those holding these [white] cards cannot be eligible to vote in the elections … I don’t know whether the green card holders in the United States are allowed to give votes in the elections in America also,” he said during a discussion at the Center for Foreign Relations just ahead of the UN General Assembly meeting.

During his own statement on Myanmar at the General Assembly, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the government’s last-minute decision to revoke the white cards and strike an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 ethnic minority voters from the electoral rolls just ahead of the elections “a step in the wrong direction”.

“I am deeply disappointed by this effective disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and other minority communities,” he said, adding that the disqualification of Muslim parliamentarians up for re-election “particularly egregious”.

High commissioner on human rights Ra’ad Al Hussein also reiterated concern for minority voters during his summary of rights abuses in Myanmar.

“Given that a whole sector of the population has been disenfranchised by these measures, this raises serious questions as to the fairness and integrity of the upcoming elections,” he said.

By Aabid Saki
October 5, 2015

Sanoora, a 24-year-old woman, she is jovial and blissful, easy to mix with others. Although, she sometimes finds it hard to understand the things in the way we understand them. She is clever and picks things on body language and perceives them in her own way. Her eyes tell hundreds of stories, all filled with fear and trauma and her moist eyes have questions that arise every time in her mind. The answers of those questions lie hidden on some forgotten ways unseen behind the wires and borders.

As I entered the house, she immediately came and greeted me as if she was waiting for someone near to come and talk to her. This was actually my second meeting with Sanoora. She is shy with others and takes time to speak. Her world is now small, she left everything after a man, she never knew.

She smiled coyly adjusting herself on the floor. After a while she poured tea in the cup and forwarded a plate of biscuits towards me. The vapours filled in the narrow room and an eerie silence prevailed, engulfing the dryness of the room. Sanoora pushed the plate a little more forward. I took a biscuit and munched it to break the bizarreness of the silence, but nothing happened and the biscuit went dry in my throat. I immediately took a sip and gulped the biscuit down. I looked at Sanoora, she raised her moist eyes that were ready to flow.

Somehow, I managed to start our conversation that began with tales of childhood, youth and then horror in which she saw nothing than bloodshed. Sanoora lost everything, her family, house, her state and country.

When violence erupted in Rohingya, Myanmar, Sanoora was one of the thousand girls living with her family that saw one of the deadliest bloodshed of the twentieth century. Sanoora spent her childhood along with her five siblings. She was a bright student in school and wanted to go college for higher studies but fate had something else stored for her, she had never imagined.

Hundreds of Muslims were massacred in Rohingya, houses were burnt, women raped, children burnt alive and some even chopped. Sanoora’s village was not far from the town and fear soon gripped the nearby areas and reached there as well. Fearing to be killed, Sanoora’s father decided to leave the village and ran for help. It took him a week to a contact a man who agreed to help in escaping the state. Escaping from own house was never an easy task but there was no other option.

Sanoora’s father left house in one misty night under the darkest hour, towards an unknown destination. All he could take was his children leaving his one son and wife behind, so that he could take them on second turn. It took him 15 days to walk away from the human glimpse to reach the Bangladeshi border. Another man there helped him to cross the border along with Sanoora and other children. Though it was better in Bangladesh but in a state of shock of losing everything Sanoora’s father felt sick and soon died in Bangladesh.

Sanoora’s one sister and brother decided to leave for Malaysia while Sanoora and other brother Noor-ul-Haq decided to move forward towards India as the police was regularly verifying their identities and scolding them round the clock threatening them to deport them through sea.

So, for Sanoora and her brother India was the only option left and they bribed some unknown persons to cross the border into India. Under the shades of the dusk, walking every mile by foot, Sanoora and her brother ultimately reached the border and managed to sneak through the wires. It was a dream come true but in reality the journey never ended for them. Finding it hard to live in the Indian cities where everything was alien to them. Noor-ul-Haq decided to go Jammu where he heard about other people of his community. They reached Jammu and gladly joined other people of their community with same ethnicity. Thought they had never met each-other in Rohingya but here everyone was known.

Noor-ul-Haq soon met a Kashmiri driver Mukhtar and developed friendship with him and soon both began to spend a lot of time with each-other. Mukhtar helped Noor-ul-Haq to find a job and with this friendship became more sacred. It was in Haq’s house that Mukhtar saw Sanoora and developed a wish to marry her. Without wasting time Mukhtar asked Haq for Sanoora hand in marriage to which Haq gladly accepted.

On 15 of Ramzan, Mukhtar and Sanoora wedded each other. On second day Sanoora came to Kashmir to join Mukhtar’s family. Sanoora has a family now, a husband, a house and in-laws. She is happy and has a place to live.

Her language was different and a little bit of Urdu she speaks is hardly understood by her in-laws, as they are not educated enough to pick up words Sanoora uses. However, she managed to understand a few Kashmiri words and use them to please her in-laws in absence of her husband who more often stays out of the town for work.

Living under the shades of the bloodshed had deeply influenced Sanoora. Whenever she sees any Indian soldier on the street, she locks herself in the room for protection. The trauma of the war is still fresh in her mind and a country barrier that stays in front of her only makes things difficult for her. There is no one to talk to her or understand her world.

As I was talking to her, she felt happy and her emotions came out as if she was waiting for someone to understand her and listen to the stories of horror that changed her world forever. Now once a week, her sister from Malaysia and her mother from Rohingya call her and that moment she lives all her life, talking and discussing things to which she tries to adjust. Though her brother also lives in Jammu but he has only visited her once.

Sanoora wants to go home and see her mother. It has been three years since she is living in India. Deep inside she knows, it is not possible for her to go back.

There are hundreds of girls like Sanoora who have escaped and reached the unknown destinations, some perished at sea, some raped and murdered. Those who survived have horrific stories like Sanoora to tell in which only one can see darkness and destruction.

I wish Sanoora would adjust to her new life in Kashmir and find it home to live it as it was in Rohingya.

The author can be mailed at

By Hnin Yadana Zaw and Antoni Slodkowski
October 4, 2015

Myanmar's firebrand Buddhist monk Wirathu has openly endorsed President Thein Sein's ruling party in the Nov. 8 general election, saying Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party was "full of themselves" and unlikely to win the vote. 

Hardline monks will push for laws banning Muslim dress and other Muslim customs, Wirathu told Reuters on Sunday before a rally held by thousands of members of the radical Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha.

The remarks could stoke religious tension, already high in Myanmar after Ma Ba Tha played a big role in securing passage of four so-called Protection of Race and Religion Laws seen as targeting women and the country's Muslim minority.

The group has emerged as a force ahead of the poll, criticizing Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which opposed the four laws.

"NLD people are so full of themselves," Wirathu, 47, who is a leading ultra-nationalist member of Ma Ba Tha, but does not run the organization, said in an interview. "They don't have a high chance of winning in elections."

Experts say pressure on the NLD can translate into support for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

"If we have to choose the best, it is the President Thein Sein's government," Wirathu added. "They could open the doors and work step by step for peace and development." 

Asked about Wirathu's remarks, a senior NLD member, Win Htein, said, "He should go to hell ... According to the teachings of Buddha, monks shouldn't get involved in political affairs. They should be neutral."

Ma Ba Tha has recently sought to tone down its image, portraying itself as a peaceful and apolitical organization, but Wirathu's endorsement of Thein Sein underscores an appetite to influence politics.

Wirathu denied Ma Ba Tha was campaigning for the USDP, but said it was "grateful" to his party for supporting the race and religion laws.

"If the NLD forms the government and if they try to amend the laws, they will have to deal with Ma Ba Tha," he said.


Wirathu and other monks have been linked to the sectarian violence that spread in Myanmar in 2012, killing hundreds and leaving thousands without homes. Anti-Muslim unrest simmered under the junta that ran the country for nearly half a century and erupted into clashes after the end of military rule.

Wirathu said that next on Ma Ba Tha's agenda were Muslim veils and customs, such as ritual slaughter of cattle during Eid, one of the most important Muslim holidays, and butchering of animals in halal tradition.

"We have plans. We will lobby the government first to stop the slaughter. If necessary, we will go to the parliament," the monk said.

"Slaughtering of cattle makes young Muslims familiar with blood. If they really want peace, they should stop slaughtering animals and the tradition of halal butchering," said Wirathu.

In January, the monk caused outrage by calling a U.N. human rights expert who said persecuted Rohingya Muslims should have citizenship in Myanmar a "whore". Wirathu previously has urged Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and stop interfaith marriages, calling mosques "enemy bases."

Wirathu said he would campaign against the tradition of Muslim women covering their heads, and sometimes, their faces.

"They use the robes in suicide bombings, helping men to pretend they are women," said Wirathu. "It is a security concern and a threat to the sovereignty of the country. We will make that tradition stop."

Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi smiles as she greets her supporters during her campaign in her constituency of Kawhmu township, outside Rangoon, on Sept. 21, 2015 (Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

By Charlie Campbell
October 3, 2015

The Southeast Asian nation hopes to finally throw off the shackles of military dictatorship

Early next month Burma goes to the polls for what are shaping up to be its freest general elections for 25 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD) party of former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, is poised to win a sizeable chunk of the 664 legislative seats. That would be a watershed moment for the former pariah nation, which has opened up politically and economically since democratic reforms were introduced three years ago.

However, significant problems remain. Suu Kyi, who is already a legislator, remains barred from becoming President, owing to her having married a Briton and having two sons who are U.K. citizens. These constitutional provisions were introduced by the former junta specifically to scupper the democracy icon’s political aspirations.

On Tuesday, the NLD announced it had filed a complaint against the country’s Union Election Commission regarding error-strewn voter lists, alleged defamation against Suu Kyi and perceived bias in favor of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

All this will worry Washington. U.S. President Barack Obama has visitedBurma twice in the past three years, championing the democratic transition and rolling back economic sanctions. This is not simply altruism: a free, prosperous Burma (officially now known as Myanmar) would prove a boon to his administration’s much-touted “rebalancing” to Asia. Conversely, any electoral skulduggery would prove embarrassing.

Here are seven factors that may prove decisive as the nation heads to the ballot box on Nov. 8.

1. NLD fumbling
On May 27, 1990, two years after mass student-led democracy protests shook the nation, largely free and fair polls saw the NLD secure 60% of the popular vote and 80% of parliamentary seats (392 out of 485). But the military refused to honor the result and Burma returned to suffocating dictatorship. In the interim, Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest. The euphoria that accompanied the Nobel Laureate’s release and subsequent election to parliament in April 2012 by-elections, during which the NLD won 43 out of 45 contested seats, raised hopes that the party would romp home if the 2015 polls were similarly unfettered.

However, the mood has soured markedly since then. A controversial party list saw some potential big name candidates — including celebrated former political prisoners — shunned, and not a single Muslim among the 1,090 names, a testament to the party’s cowing to an increasingly vocal, hard-line Buddhist clique. Several senior party members have been expelled for questioning these decisions, prompting accusations of a lack of democracy within a pro-democracy party. Last week, the NLD leadership reportedlybanned candidates from speaking to the media for three weeks. And even though Suu Kyi remains barred from the presidency, no alternative candidate has been proffered for the top job. “You are not voting for individuals,” Suu Kyi told supporters last month. “You are voting for change.” An election manifesto has finally been published but is sparse on how exactly this change is to be achieved.

2. USDP rumblings
Given the abuses suffered during more than half a century of dictatorship, few expected the USDP, staffed by former junta generals, to remain a political force once Burma made the transition to democracy. However, the party has recast itself as a bulwark against largely chimerical Islamic fundamentalism, aligning itself with prominent figures in the right-wing Buddhist clergy, and is far from spent.

At the same time, the party remains riven between the old and new guard, as illustrated by last month’s dramatic purge of Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, the party chair and formerly No. 3–ranked junta general. Shwe Mann apparently paid a price for conciliatory overtures to Suu Kyi, which angered many conservative and military elements within his party.

Meanwhile, other key figures have also departed, including popular President’s Office Minister Aung Min, the government’s chief negotiator with ethnic armed groups, who is widely seen as a moderating force. Along with Soe Thein, an influential former Minister for Industry, Aung Min quitthe USDP to run as an independent after being refused a safe seat.

3. Ma Ba Tha
Radical Buddhist nationalism is increasingly defining postreform Burma. The earlier 969 movement to boycott Muslim businesses and services has grown into the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha. It crusades for Buddhist supremacy and Buddhist-Muslim apartheid. “It’s led by some of the biggest abbots in the country,” says David Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch.

Four pieces of highly discriminatory legislation were passed in July, forbidding interfaith marriages, prohibiting Buddhist women (but not men) from changing their religion, restricting the number of children designated groups can bear, and outlawing polygamy. “They basically want to control women’s bodies,” says Mathieson.

Ma Ba Tha is growing increasingly influential, claiming (although the facts are widely disputed) to have 250 chapters and 10 million members around the country. Ma Ba Tha remains close to the UDSP — party officials are not shy about donating large sums to the cause — and has aimed barbs at the NLD. Cognizant of the group’s swelling influence, even Suu Kyi has refused to outright condemn its unashamedly bigoted agenda.

4. Rohingya genocide
The plight of Burma’s million-strong Rohingya Muslim minority underscores the limits of reform. Deemed “one of the world’s most persecuted peoples” by the U.N., around 140,000 Rohingya currently fester in squalid displacement camps in western Arakan state after pogroms began flaring up in May 2012. Deprived of adequate food, shelter and medical supplies, thousands have attempted to flee in rickety boats, often cast adrift by people-smugglers.

During the last widely condemned elections in 2010, the central government cynically bestowed voting rights on the Rohingya, who expressed support for the USDP. But they only did this for the politically expedient goal of seeing off the challenge of the ethnic Rakhine parties, the Rohingya’s longtime foe. This even saw some Rohingya MPs in parliament.

This year, those voting rights have been stripped away and no Rohingya have been allowed to register as candidates. This has led to an “unparalleled tide of despair,” says Matthew Smith, founder of the Fortify Rights NGO, who has just returned from three weeks documenting the human-rights situation in Rakhine state. “People are planning to take to the seas again.” Sadly, the partly U.S.-funded Union Election Commission has not overturned the Rohingya’s state-level systematic disenfranchisement.

5. Ethnic unease
Burma boasts 135 official ethnicities — although the Rohingya were axed from this list in 1982, depriving them of even that bare minimum of recognition.

The nation’s seven main ethnic groups boast namesake states that share frontiers with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. Virtually since independence in 1948, these minorities — currently comprising a third of Burma’s 51 million population — have complained of persecution by the central government, which is dominated by the Bamar ethnic group. Aligned rebel militias have waged the world’s longest running civil war to seek greater autonomy. The Burmese military, in turn, has exploited the specter of Balkanization to maintain its grip on power.

Clashes continue unabated despite recent peace talks, particularly in Kachin and Shan states by the Sino-Burmese border. As a result, more than 300,000 people have been displaced since President Thein Sein took power and reforms began. This is in addition to the 140,000 refugees that languish in nine main camps across the Thai border, many having been there since the 1980s.

Sporadic violence entails the likely suspension of voting in constituencies where security cannot be guaranteed. Already marginalized communities thus feel excluded from the democratic transition. Frustration is building. “The local populations have more animosity towards the Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] now than we’ve seen in a very long time,” says Smith, “Elections are only going to increase tensions.”

At the same time, ethnic parties maintain largely cohesive support in their home states, and could team up to become a political force within the new parliament, perhaps striking a deal with the NLD, with which they share the goal of a federal state with power devolved to the regions. This would certainly worry military figures, who profit from exploiting jade, teak and other natural resources found in regional areas. But then it is the military that ultimately decides whether peace deals remain intact, and votes go ahead.

6. Economic faltering
Burma’s return to the international fold saw a rash of Western businesses jostling to exploit the nation’s cheap workforce, abundant natural resources and enviable geographical position between regional superpowers India and China. Although there have been certain cosmetic changes, such as shiny new cars on the streets of Rangoon, the rolling back of economic sanctions has not heralded the kind of resurgence many expected.

Professor Sean Turnell, an expert on Burmese economics at Australia’s Macquarie University, says the stalling was due to pre-election politicking and the lobbying of powerful regime cronies opposed to increased competition. This “was all made manifest by the surprising number of significant economic bills left ‘unpassed’ when the parliament was closed down at the end of August,” says Turnell, citing Burma’s “antediluvian” system of bank regulation and Company Law that dates back to a Colonial Act of 1914. Tellingly, though, while the government lacked the energy to push much-needed economic legislation, “it did find time to pass all four discriminatory and divisive religious laws,” adds Turnell.

7. A jittery military
The hope that November’s elections will be free and fair is curtailed by the constitutional stipulation that 25% of seats remain reserved for armed-forces personnel, giving the powerful military an effective veto over constitutional amendments, which require over 75% of lawmakers to pass. “They’ve already stuffed 25% of the ballots,” says Mathieson. Shwe Mann’s support for changing this clause most likely lay behind his purge, say observers, who remain divided on how much influence former junta supremo Senior General Than Shwe still wields in retirement. Certainly, the generals are not satisfied to be confined to the barracks, and should the ballot box throw up an unpalatable result, they may be spurred to intervene once again. Should the NLD perform well, another coup cannot be ruled out.

Burmese Rohingya Association members protesting as part of World Refugee Rally on June 20, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia. Image Credit: Rohinga protest image via paintings /

By Courtney Weatherby
October 3, 2015

A bias for “real Burmese” candidates (and against minorities) threatens the legitimacy of Myanmar’s upcoming election.

Shortly after the two-month campaign season leading up to Myanmar’s much-awaited national elections started, the Union Election Commission (UEC) announced on September 11 that 124 candidates did not pass scrutiny and would be barred from running for office. Many were opposition and minority members and an estimated one-third were Muslim candidates, raising serious questions over bias in the review process and the exclusion of Muslims from the political process. Though 11 candidates were eventually allowed to rejoin the race after appealing, the current legal framework and a lack of transparency about the decision-making and appeal process could negatively impact the UEC’s credibility as an impartial arbiter in the election process.

The November 8 elections will set the tone for Myanmar’s continued democratic development in the near-term and are widely expected to be competitive, with more than 90 political parties and more than 6,100 candidatescompeting for office in 1,171 constituencies. Fifty-nine of these political parties are linked to minority ethnic groups and religious groups, and one—the Women’s Party (Mon)—consists entirely of women. Though the plethora of political parties ought to be fairly representative of Myanmar’s population, it is notable that Muslims—who make up at least 4 percent of Myanmar’s total population—were under-represented. Growing intolerance and accusation from extremist Buddhists that the major opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is anti-Buddhist kept the NLD from nominating even one Muslim candidate, while the USDP dropped some of its more outspoken Muslim candidates.

Of the 124 rejected candidates, at least a quarter were Muslim candidates—they include six of the Muslim-led National Development and Peace Party’s candidates; 17 of 18 Muslim candidates of the Yangon-based Democracy and Human Rights Party; five Muslim candidates from the National Development Democratic Party; four Pathi Muslims from the National Unity Congress Party; and at least three independent Muslim candidates. Notable among these is Shwe Maung, a self-identified Rohingya Muslim who has been an acting member of parliament and has represented the majority-Muslim Buthidaung district since 2010. By some reports, almost all of the Muslim candidates that were running have been rejected.

Notably, none of the rejected candidates were members of the USDP. While this may partially be due to better in-party screening of USDP candidates, there is at least one case where political bias in favor of the USDP played a role: the UEC admitted that it did not thoroughly investigate the citizenship qualifications of USDP candidate Minister U Thein Nyunt, whose parents were from China and whose father never applied for Burmese citizenship. Despite acknowledging this, the UEC refused to investigate further or take action to disqualify him. They cited that the complaint came in September (after the vetting process) as the reason for not disqualifying him, despite the fact that doing so would be in line with Union Election Commission Law and would show that they apply requirements equally to all parties.

Burmese Nationalism and the Citizenship Question

Most of the 124 candidates rejected by the Union Election Commission were considered ineligible due to questions of citizenship. Myanmar does not follow the jus soli policy adopted in many countries that grants citizenship at birth to children born within national territory. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law instead created a graduated citizenship system. Full citizens are individuals who were born of parents who were citizens or belong to one of the recognized national ethic groups residing in Myanmar prior to the start of British colonization in 1823. Associate citizens are those who do not fit the requirements for full citizenship but were counted as citizens under Myanmar’s 1948 citizenship law. Lastly, naturalized citizens are those who immigrated to or were born in the country after 1948 but did not already acquire citizenship or had at least one non-citizen parent. Section 72 notably excludes foreigners—including new immigrants—from gaining citizenship in Myanmar.

The 1982 Citizenship Law was designed to reflect Myanmar’s original cultural and ethnic identity before the beginning of British rule in 1823 and exclude more recent arrivals, which many Burmese view as foreign immigrants. Burmese nationalism as seen in politics started crystallizing during colonization under the British Raj, partly in response to the distortion of Myanmar’s national makeup during that time. Immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China flooded into Myanmar and particularly into Yangon and the states nearest to the origin countries, with more than a million South Asians registered in the 1931 census. Many were brought into the country by the British to hold governing positions over the locals, which led to growing tensions between local and immigrant communities. This anti-immigrant sentiment influenced the citizenship laws and the decision to exclude South Asians and Chinese from eligibility for full citizenship.

The desire to ensure that “real Burmese” maintained control over the country was also reflected in election laws, which place clear restrictions on who is allowed to run for public office. Election laws place strict limitations on candidates for Myanmar’s hluttaw, or parliament. Myanmar has a bicameral legislature consisting of the Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities) and the Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives). Section 8(a) of the Amyotha Hluttaw Electoral Law requires that any candidate must have resided in Myanmar for the previous 10 years, while section 10(e) states that any individual who had one parent who was not a Burmese citizen at the time of their birth is ineligible for public office. Section 10(m) also notes that associate citizens and naturalized citizens are not eligible for office. These requirements are echoed in the Pyithu Hluttaw Law.

The 124 disqualified candidates were not all rejected on citizenship grounds—there were some instances ofcandidates being rejected for failing to meet minimum age requirements or residency criteria. Some were refused based on alleged links to armed ethnic groups that were counted as unlawful associations under section 10(n)—an accusation which could likely apply to many candidates in ethnic areas, which have been involved in civil war with the Burmese government for decades. However, the vast majority were rejected based on citizenship requirements, many without the opportunity to show evidence otherwise.

Appealing the Disqualifications

Despite strict time limitations of less than two weeks, many candidates appealed—20 of the 34 disqualified candidates in Yangon sought an appeal from the local election commission, as did many candidates in Arakan state. MP Shwe Maung opted to appeal his rejection, but the Arakan State Election Commission rejected him a second time and refused to review proof of his parents’ citizenship. As impacted communities and candidates raised concerns over the rejections, the UEC Chairman publicly stated that “subcommissions will decide the appeals and their decision will be final,” and another UEC official said that only ethnic affairs representatives have the right to request UEC review of their cases. According to section 53 of election laws, the UEC has the authority to review subcommissions as it deems fit—but the final candidate list released on September 11appeared not to have reversed any of the lower-level decisions, despite concerns over bias from local courts.

On September 22, after receiving significant criticism from the international community and from opposition parties, the UEC belatedly announced that its tribunal had reviewed 18 cases and decided to allow 11 candidates to rejoin the race. All of these—two from the Democracy and Human Rights Party, four Pathi Muslims from the National Unity Congress Party, two from the National Unity Party, one from the New National Democracy Party, and two independent candidates—were among the Muslim candidates originally disqualified. All of the 11 successful appeal cases were on the basis of citizenship, with the high-level tribunal confirming the citizenship of candidates who had been rejected without basis on multiple occasions by subcommissions.

While this reversal is a positive sign that the national level Union Election Commission is willing to recognize mistakes by the lower courts, many candidates were never given the opportunity to bring appeals to the national level UEC. Given that current citizenship and election laws were designed to ensure that only “real Burmese” can contest elections, it is possible that the remaining 113 candidate rejections are legal, if not in the spirit of free and fair elections. However, it is impossible to verify this because of the lack of transparency on how decisions were made and the apparent inability of most candidates to get a fair appeal from a higher authority.

Myanmar’s Inclusion Issue

Inclusion is a vital factor in the robustness of any democracy, and Myanmar’s future democracy is dependent upon buy-in from minority ethnic groups who make up an estimated 30 to 40 percent of Myanmar’s total population, many of whom have only recently ceased fighting the central government. The issue of Myanmar’s national identity has been central in the lead-up to the election, primarily around questions of how to create a federalist state, the best way to re-integrate ethnic groups back into the Union of Myanmar, and the extent to which the majority Buddhist religion should or should not play a role in politics. The current UEC system’s lack of transparency and oversight is a potential tool for abuse and exclusion of any minority group, on political, ethnic, or religious grounds.

The UEC plays a vital role in Myanmar’s democracy, and has struggled this year not only with vetting candidates but also in managing voter lists and resolving disputes over candidate behavior. This raises questions about the ultimate legitimacy of Myanmar’s election process. Nine embassies have already indicated concerns in the first weeks of the campaign season, and the United Nations expects potentially-destabilizing disruptions as this year’s historic vote takes place due to simmering tensions. Some impacted Muslim communities have already indicated that their exclusion from the political process hurts democratic development. The opposition NLD raised concerns over UEC bias only weeks into the campaign season, and other ethnic party leaders have raised questions over the UEC’s credibility and the fairness of the election.

Myanmar is still developing democratic processes, and the extent of liberalization is restricted by the interests of political elites as well as the ongoing societal debate about the societal and political role of communities who are not “real Burmese.” Even if the election is not entirely free and fair, most analysts expect that ethnic and opposition representation in Myanmar’s hluttaw will increase notably after November 8. Changes in representation will likely allow ethnic minorities and previously unrepresented communities a stronger voice and ultimately support a wider discussion of national identity.

While newly elected members of parliament will not be able to directly answer subjective questions over ‘Burmese-ness’ or define a constantly evolving understanding of national identity, they will be able to address the concrete procedural flaws already observed in the 2015 campaign season. After taking their seats in the hluttaw in 2016, ethnic representatives will have the opportunity to directly raise concerns over requirements in election laws which impact their ability to field candidates. The newly elected representatives should push the Union Election Commission to adopt greater transparency about its decision-making processes, including a clear appeals process that allows for higher-level review of decisions made by potentially biased local election commissions. Doing so will benefit any parties concerned about ruling-party interference in the election process and remove opportunities to limit the freedom and fairness of future elections. Failure to do so will contribute to continued concerns over legitimacy and hinder Myanmar’s future democratic development.

Courtney Weatherby is a research associate with the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Supporters cheer as they wait for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during an election rally near Yangon on Sept. 22. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has shunned Muslim candidates ahead of the November election, according to a senior party member. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

By John Zaw
October 3, 2015

Disenfranchisement continues ahead of November election

Myanmar's main opposition party, led by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has deliberately avoided selecting Muslim candidates as part of the group's strategy to succeed in upcoming national elections, according to a senior figure in the party.

Win Htein, a 74-year-old sitting parliamentarian with the opposition National League for Democracy, said "political reasons" have forced the party to pass over Muslim candidates ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

"We have qualified Muslim candidates but we can't select them for political reasons," Win Htein told in an interview at the party's election canvassing committee office in Yangon. "And Muslim candidates also realize our situation so they understand us."

Growing nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment, spearheaded by hardline Buddhist monks, have put pressure on Myanmar's two main political parties ahead of the elections. In the predominantly Buddhist country, both the National League for Democracy and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party have shunned Muslim candidates.

Win Htein blamed the influence of Ma Ba Tha, whose most prominent members are outspoken Buddhist monks known for fiery speeches against Myanmar's minority Muslim community.

"If we choose Muslim candidates, Ma Ba Tha points their fingers at us so we have to avoid it," he said.

Furthermore, the country's election commission has disqualified 124 would-be candidates, most of them Muslim, following a controversial citizenship process.

One of the rejected Muslim candidates is Shwe Maung, a sitting parliamentarian who won a seat with the ruling party in 2010 elections. The election commission barred him from running in August, claiming he did not qualify because his parents were not citizens of Myanmar when he was born.

'I have no trust in them'

Such cases have alarmed rights groups and the international community, who warn of the disenfranchisement of Muslim candidates.

After a campaign observation mission in Myanmar in September, the Atlanta-based Carter Center noted the disqualifications disproportionately affected religious minorities — especially Muslims.

"Although the number of disqualified candidates is relatively small, restrictive requirements, selective enforcement, and a lack of procedural safeguards call into question the credibility of the process," the organization said in a Sept. 25 statement.

In Rakhine state, where anti-Muslim sentiment has triggered riots and displaced tens of thousands, almost all Muslim candidates were disqualified, the center noted.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also weighed in on the issue.

"I am deeply disappointed by this effective disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and other minority communities," he said in a Sept. 29 meeting. "Barring incumbent Rohingya parliamentarians from standing for re-election is particularly egregious."

On appeal, the election commission later reinstated 11 Muslim candidates who were earlier rejected.

However, Kyaw Min, chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, whose candidates are predominantly Rohingya Muslims, said the reinstatement of the 11 candidates was merely a token effort by the election commission to appease concerns from the international community.

"Only Muslim candidates were disqualified based on murky citizenship issues, so it is clear that [the election commission] targets a specific religious minority: Muslims," said Kyaw Min, who was himself disqualified as a candidate but not reinstated.

Kyaw Min said the main political parties' apparent refusal to field Muslim candidates is a response to growing pressure from Buddhist hardliners, particularly Ma Ba Tha.

This year, for example, Myanmar's president signed off on a set of controversial laws on race and religion, which critics say will likely be used to target the country's Muslims and possibly other religious minorities, including Christians. The government has already disenfranchised an estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims who had held temporary "white card" identification. The cards had granted voting privileges in the 2010 national elections, but were rescinded earlier this year.

Another mainly Rohingya party, the National Democratic Party for Development, saw five of its candidates, all Muslims, disqualified. The only remaining candidate is a Buddhist.

Unlike other rejected candidates, Hla Thein, a lawyer and a Muslim, decided not to fight the decision.

"I didn't make an appeal to the [election commission] about my rejection as I have no trust in them," he said.

Outside the sole remaining mosque in Aung Mingalar, in the Arakan State capitol of Sittwe, Burma, September 2015. © 2015 David Scott Mathieson/Human Rights Watch

By David Scott Mathieson
October 3, 2015

There is no starker evidence of the ethnic cleansing that rocked the Arakan State capital, Sittwe, in Burma in 2012 than the Rohingya Muslim enclave of Aung Mingalar. Crammed into a couple short blocks in the town center, ringed by police and army checkpoints, Aung Mingalar was a middle-class neighborhood of traders and shop owners with Buddhist and Hindu neighbors before the communal violence that killed hundreds and displaced over 140,000. One village elder told me the people of Aung Mingalar defended the perimeter from Arakanese Buddhist attackers “and the Tatmadaw [Burmese military] arrived in time and we worked together to save our area.”

Since then, Aung Mingalar has been closed off from the rest of the city – and essentially the rest of the world. With the population down from 8,000 in 2012, it now contains 4,500 residents who live in almost total isolation. Many children look malnourished. There are open sewers. Many residents, who might smile at the few foreigners granted permission to visit, look scared and haunted. Many expressed fear of being attacked again by their Buddhist neighbors living just streets away.

Government officials appear genuine in guaranteeing the safety of the people here, and there have been no attacks since 2012. But that approach is clearly operating in parallel to a scheme to make life so miserable that residents will leave for rural camps or join the maritime exodus of Rohingya that dramatically increased in 2015.

The enclave has a primary school and some rudimentary shops. A couple of times a week, residents can visit markets to buy food in the camp zone for internally displaced people that rings Sittwe, where 95,000 Rohingya live – but they have to pay for a police security escort.

The government has presented the people of Aung Mingalar with a cruel Catch-22 in what passes for citizenship policy in Burma. After being granted voting rights in the 2008 referendum and the 2010 elections, many Rohingya were this year stripped of their temporary ID cards, a mass disenfranchisement. They have been urged to enter a verification process to determine their citizenship eligibility, but can succeed only as long as they identify themselves as “Bengali,” not Rohingya, and can miraculously qualify under the draconian 1982 Citizenship Law. Even if some get full citizenship, this is unlikely to guarantee full respect for their rights as anti-Muslim ultra-nationalism grows in Burma.

As the people of Sittwe head to vote in the national elections on November 8, the people of Aung Mingalar, in their isolation and squalor, will look out and see clearly the government’s intention to deny them their basic freedoms.

By Hnin Yadana Zaw and Timothy Mclaughlin
October 3, 2015

A war of words is being fought in Myanmar, largely over social media, between nationalist Buddhist monks and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, highlighting divisions in the run-up to a general election on Nov. 8.

Tin Oo, a founding member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), met prominent nationalist monk Wirathu in the city of Mandalay on Wednesday in a bid to ease the tension as the country prepares for the historic vote.

Since nearly 50 years of strict military rule ended in 2011, underlying tensions in society have arisen and been taken up by different elements, including nationalists in the predominantly Buddhist country.

Wirathu is a leading member of the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, which has been stoking anti-Muslim sentiment.

Suu Kyi's NLD, while mindful of Wirathu's arguments which have struck a chord with many people in Myanmar, has campaigned against intolerance and some NLD supporters have been critical of hardline monks and their anti-Muslim stance.

In their meeting, Wirathu criticized the NLD for not distancing itself from comments critical of monks, according to a video of their encounter, uploaded on Facebook.

"I know that there are Facebook accounts using Aung San Suu Kyi's photos and NLD flags, saying disrespectful words and insulting the monks," Wirathu said. 

"The NLD needs to announce that they do not represent the NLD."

Tin Oo, the 88-year-old patron of the NLD, was shown kneeling in front of Wirathu in a traditional show of respect for monks.

The Ma Ba Tha, which is led by monks, has emerged as a powerful force and it successfully promoted four so-called Protection of Race and Religion Laws seen as targeting the Muslim minority and women.

The group is not represented by any particular political party but it has questioned candidates and parties that it believes did not fully support the laws, in particular the NLD, saying it was failing to protect the country and Buddhism.

Wirathu said if the NLD distanced itself from the social media attacks he would act against Ma Ba Tha supporters attacking the NLD.

He also reiterated his organization's position on reducing the role of the military in politics, a view shared by the NLD.

But he said it did not support repealing a section of the military-drafted constitution that blocks Suu Kyi from becoming president because her late British husband and two children are not Myanmar citizens, saying that was intended to protect the country.

An armed police officer guards as Muslim refugees stand behind him at a refugee camp in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, western Burma. Pic: AP.

October 3, 2015

Burma’s foreign minister says “peace and stability has been restored” in its western state where Rohingya Muslims have long been persecuted.

Wunna Maung Lwin addressed a U.N. gathering of world leaders Friday and did not mention the Rohingya by name.

The Rohingya are considered Bangladeshis by the government in Burma (Myanmar), and in Rakhine state, where most of them live, their rights are stripped and their movement severely restricted.

They are also barred from voting in this year’s Nov. 8 election, for the first time since independence from Britain, and were disqualified as candidates.

The State Department said Secretary of State John Kerry met with Burma’s foreign minister Friday and stressed the importance of “ensuring full citizenship and freedom of movement for the Rohingya.”

The election is considered a test of Burma’s reforms.

Rohingya Exodus