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Election Time in Myanmar, But Not for its Muslims in the Buddhist Nation

By Philip Sherwell
October 25, 2015

For the Rohingya Muslims strung along the cyclone-battered Bay of Bengal in wretched and sprawling internment camps, Myanmar’s unpredictable experiment in democracy next month is already a non-event.

Campaigning for the November 8 polls in the mountain country has been tainted by anti-Muslim sentiment fuelled by Buddhist nationalist politicians and radical monks.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), kept her distance from the camps in her first campaign foray into Rakhine state recently. She has been attacked by Buddhist hardliners for being too sympathetic to the Muslim minority who form about five per cent of the population. In Rakhine, she made her clearest call for an end to religious hatred and discrimination. “It is very important that all people regardless of religion living in our country must be safe,” she said.

Many Rohingyas have risked their lives fleeing on rickety trafficker boats. “We can’t go anywhere,” one community elder said. “The blacks in South Africa could leave the bantustan homelands created by the Afrikaaners to go to work, we can’t even do that. We’re trapped.”

Rohingya leaders insist that they have roots in Myanmar dating back centuries, but the country’s government has long viewed them as illegal Muslim interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh. The people of Myanmar do not even accept the name Rohingya, instead calling them “Bengalis”.

Leading the political onslaught against them is Ashin Wirathu, a militant Mynamar monk once dubbed “the Buddhist Bin Laden”. “Muslims are only well behaved when they are weak,” he once declared. “When they are strong they are like a wolf or a jackal, in large packs they hunt down other animals.”

Myanmar’s military-backed ruling party has sought to harness such sectarian feelings. Thein Sein, the general-turned-president, this year supervised the wholescale disenfranchisement of Rohingyas by confiscating their identity cards.

Suu Kyi has taken a political calculation to say little about their fate and her party has no Muslim candidates.

“We have qualified Muslim candidates but we can’t select them for political reasons,” said Win Htein, a senior NLD MP.

“It’s racism and religious discrimination, straight and simple,” said Kyaw Min, leader of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, a mainly Rohingya political grouping, who was among dozens of disqualified Muslim election candidates. “I am 70 and my parents were born here when Britain ruled Myanmar. I stood as a candidate and won in 1990, but now they say I’m not Burmese.”

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