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In Burma’s historic elections, a Muslim minority is banned from voting but still the focus of the campaign

By Philip Sherwell
The Telegraph
October 19, 2015

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi skips Rohingya internment camps on campaign trip to sectarian hotbed of Rakhine, but country’s racial and religious fault-lines still dominate her visit

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a campaign rally at Thandwe city in Rakhine state Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

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

There are no rallies, no posters, not even any candidates, for landmark elections as the minority Muslim community here has been wiped from the voting lists by official decree under controversial citizenship rules.

The Rohingya may not be able to cast a ballot on November 8, but they are still at the centre of an election campaign increasingly tainted by anti-Muslim sentiment fuelled by Buddhist nationalist politicians and radical monks.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who has been drawing huge crowds at rallies across the country, also kept her distance from the camps in her first campaign foray into Rakhine state - the scene of sectarian bloodletting between Buddhists and Muslims.

The Nobel laureate has been criticised on the international stage for her failure to speak out about the desperate plight of the Rohingya, largely confined to internment camps since the 2012 violence.

But inside Burma, also known as Myanmar, she has been attacked by Buddhist hardliners for being too sympathetic to the Muslim minority. And in Rakhine, she made her clearest call yet for an end to religious hatred and discrimination.

People cheer as they listen to Aung San Suu Kyi in Thandwe Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

“It is very important that all people regardless of religion living in our country must be safe,” Ms Suu Kyi declared.

She also gave short shrift to a Buddhist constituent who asked her about rumours that the NLD would oversee a “takeover” of the country by Muslims, who form about five per cent of the population.

It is a fear expressed repeatedly by Buddhist nationalists across the country. But Ms Suu Kyi was forthright in her response, saying the question itself risked “inciting racial or religious conflict.”

While anti-Muslim feelings are growing across Burma, the Rohingya of Rakhine state are particularly reviled. Corralled in camps behind military checkpoints after the communal bloodshed three years ago, many have risked their lives fleeing on rickety trafficker boats as South East Asia’s “boat people.”

“We can’t go anywhere,” one community elder told The Telegraph. “At least 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 migrants in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP

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

Their plight as a stateless unwanted people was already pitiful. But in the former British colony’s venture towards a new, democratic era after five decades of military dictatorship, they are losers before any votes are even cast.

Buddhism has a reputation as a religion of peace and tolerance, but a new breed of firebrand Burmese monk has exerted its political clout by stoking the anti-Islamic feeling during the campaign.

Leading the onslaught has been Ashin Wirathu, a militant Burmese 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.”

Burma's firebrand Buddhist monk Wirathu in Yangon Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

It is precisely this kind of sectarian feeling that Burma’s military-backed ruling party has now sought to harness in its bid to fend off the challenge of Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD and cling to power.

As part of that effort, Thein Sein, the general-turned-president, this year supervised the whole-scale disenfranchisement of Rohingyas – a people allowed to vote in previous elections under the military – after the confiscation of their identity cards.

It might have been expected that Ms Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest for her advocacy of free speech, would have publicly defended the oppressed minority.

But she is now a politician seeking victory in an electorate where there are few votes in speaking out for the Rohingya. So she has taken a political calculation to say little about their fate, for now at least.

Indeed, in Burma her party is still assailed for being “weak on Islam” after it opposed four new “race and religion” laws that were championed by Buddhist clerics and are widely seen as discriminating against Muslims and women.

The intimidating stance of the radical Buddhist Organisation for Protection of Nationality and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) has already exercised its toll on the choice of candidates by the NLD.

"We have qualified Muslim candidates but we can't select them for political reasons," he said. “If we choose Muslim candidates, Ma Ba Tha points their fingers at us so we have to avoid it.”

Buddhist monks attend a victory rally celebrating the passage of controversial 'race and religion' laws in Rangoon Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

And even Muslim candidates who tried to run for other parties were disqualified by the state because they could not prove their parents were eligible to be Burmese citizens at the time of their birth.

“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 Burma,” he said. “I have submitted all the records that I have but still they won’t accept it. I stood as a candidate and won in 1990, but now they say I’m not Burmese.”

But Rohingya leaders said that they understood the political pressures that have shaped Ms Suu Kyi’s decision not to talk about their suffering or name Muslim candidates, even while she is assailed internationally for her stance.

“I would not say that I am disappointed with her because she has to operate in this country with the mood here now,” said Kyaw Min. “I am sure that things will be better for us if the NLD wins the elections.”

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