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Elections in a divided city

Rohingya Muslims pray in Baw Du Pa IDP camp (PHOTO: CARLOS SARDIÑA GALACHE)

November 13, 2015

Sunday was a day of heady celebrations in many cities and towns throughout most of Burma, as people in the country could vote for the first time in 25 years in an election where the results were not predetermined by military generals. Most of downtown Sittwe, the dusty capital of Arakan State, was not an exception.

But in this deeply divided city, the contrast between those who exercised their right to vote and those who have been disenfranchised could not be greater. The way the two communities view the election, the issues they discuss, and what is actually at stake for them are so separate that they barely touch.

On one side, the citizens eligible to vote, the overwhelming majority of them Arakanese, went en masse to the polling stations. In some stations, the turnout was so huge and the voting process so slow that when closing time arrived there were some chaotic scenes of people pushing to get inside the stations to cast their ballots.

“This election is our chance to build a democratic federal state and share everything equally with the Burmese,” Maung Thin Khane, the Arakan National Party (ANP) Lower House candidate, told DVB. The ANP was widely expected to sweep most of the state, and Maung Thin Khane won his seat.

On the other side of the divide, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims living in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) near the city and in Aung Mingalar, the Muslim ghetto downtown, had little to celebrate. The Rohingya, who have been suffering persecution by the Burmese government for decades and were rendered stateless by the controversial Citizenship Law passed in 1982, were disenfranchised in this election, thus furthering their marginalisation from mainstream Burmese society.

“My heart was broken in many pieces because we couldn’t vote. Now we are afraid of not having any representatives or any voice in parliament. It means we are definitely excluded in Burma,” said Kyaw Hla Aung, a 76-year-old Rohingya retired lawyer who was a candidate in 1990 elections for the National Democratic Party for Human Rights, and has been imprisoned four times by the military regime and Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration for his activism.

A Mostly Arakanese Election

The heat and the punishing sun did not prevent thousands of voters from going to polling stations throughout the day to cast their ballots. In every polling station visited by DVB, there were long queues throughout the day. Many left the buildings showing proudly their little finger stained with indelible ink to confirm that they had already voted.

For many Arakanese, it was the first chance to cast a ballot. Aung Nyein is a 21-year-old who was not able to vote in 2010 because he was working in Singapore. “I hope our country will change for the better with this election,” he told DVB. “I have voted for the ANP because I think its leaders will do what is best for Arakanese people,” he said after leaving his polling station in South Lammadaw Quarter.

Ma Sein Nyo, a 77-year-old mother of nine, was voting for the third time in her life, after the elections in 1990 and 2010. While she said she also had voted for the ANP, she showed less enthusiasm than the young man. “I haven’t seen much change during my life, so I can’t say that things are going to change with this election,” she said at the exit of the same polling station. “I have voted because it’s my duty as a citizen, but politicians will do whatever they like,” she added.

Later in the day, as closing time approached, there were still dozens queuing at that polling station, and some chaotic scenes ensued when the authorities announced that they were going to close its doors. Eventually, voting time was extended by a few hours. Down the road, only one hundred metres from the polling stations, dozens of ANP supporters gathered at night in front of the party’s headquarters, cheering as the provisional results from some townships were coming in.

The Arakanese have a strong sense of their identity, and the ANP presents itself as the representative of the nationality. While the National League for Democracy (NLD) appear to have won the most seats in all parliaments representing Arakan State, they may be willing to strike an alliance with the ANP. “I trust the NLD a little. There are no ethnic minorities represented in the top of the party, it is a Bamar [Burman] party, but we think that they believe in the rights of the Burmese minorities. The father of Daw Suu, Aung San, believed in federalism,” explained the candidate Maung Thin Khane.

The Ghetto

The atmosphere contrasts sharply in Aung Mingalar, the only Muslim quarter left in downtown Sittwe. Around 4,000 people are confined there since a wave of communal riots swept the city and many other areas in Arakan State in 2012, with the Rohingya Muslims facing the brunt of the violence.

The feeling of despondency was palpable in this ghetto the day after the elections. Unable to get out and work, the residents seem to wander aimlessly through the streets without having much to do. As they are not technically internally displaced persons, or IDPs, they receive virtually no aid from foreign agencies and the economy of the place depends largely on remittances from relatives in Rangoon or abroad.

In the small market, several stalls display fish that few can afford. The price is ten times more expensive than in the main market in town, as it is necessary to pay a bribe to police manning the checkpoints located in every street leading to the quarter.

An acute sense of insecurity also pervades the slum. According to a local leader who asked to remain anonymous, during the days ahead of the election, the community organised a group of 70 young people to provide security at night, fearing an attack from “Arakanese extremists.”

Baser is a 26-year-old Rohingya man who lives with his wife and three children within the limits of Aung Mingalar. Only a few metres of land separate his home from a row of houses owned by Arakanese Buddhists. According to him, a dozen of people gathered some 50 metres from his house the night after the election to shout abuse at his family, singing Arakanese nationalist songs and throwing stones at his windows.

The Votes from the Ghetto

While Arakanese Buddhist voters in Sittwe are counted in the tens of thousands, only a few Muslims could cast their ballots. They are the Kaman, a Muslim minority which, unlike the Rohingya, is included in the list of 135 ethnic groups officially recognised by the Burmese government.

The Kaman are Burmese citizens and are not regarded as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh like the Rohingya, but many of them suffer the same apartheid-like conditions as their fellow Muslims since the already fragile coexistence between the Arakanese and Rohingya communities was further poisoned three years ago, perhaps irremediably, by successive waves of violence.

Many of the Kaman living in Sittwe lost their houses and businesses during the violence and now live in camps outside the town, while others are confined in Aung Mingalar. Twenty-six Kaman from Aung Mingalar and around 70 from the IDP camps had the opportunity to vote on Sunday.

Ma Ma Lay is a 50-year-old Kaman woman who lives in a house in Aung Mingalar with seven relatives. “I voted with Arakanese people in a polling station nearby. It was the first time I saw some Arakanese acquaintances since the violence in 2012. They asked me about my family and I was happy to see them. I don’t feel hatred in my heart,” she said.

“I voted for the National League for Democracy and the Kaman Development Party. What we need is peace, to work and live our lives with tranquility. I think Aung San Suu Kyi will help Muslims in Burma, but our fate is in the hands of God,” she added.

Ba Thin is another Kaman who had the chance to vote on Sunday. The 50-year-old man lives with his family in That Kal Pyin camp for IDPs near Sittwe. He lost all of his properties during the violence in 2012. As other Kaman voters interviewed by DVB, he has pinned his hopes on the NLD. “Aung San Suu Kyi is an experienced leader and won a Nobel Peace Prize, so I think a victory for her party would be good for Muslims in Burma,” he said.

The chief of the camp, Ozan, a 38-year-old Rohingya man who was not allowed to vote, also expects that an NLD government will bring improvements for Rohingya people and other Muslims in Burma. “I feel very sad because we couldn’t vote, but I think that a victory for the NLD will bring change for us. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father was a friend of the Muslims; U Razak was very close to him, for instance, and I think she will follow in his footsteps. I think she will change the 1982 Citizenship Law,” he said.

When asked by DVB during a press conference several days before the election whether she had any plan to try and change the Citizenship Law, Suu Kyi answered: “This is something that I don’t decide on my own. When it comes to laws, it is something that will be decided by the legislature in full.”

Other Rohingya interviewed by DVB were more skeptical about the NLD. Kyaw Hla Aung, a veteran lawyer and activist, said that he did not think that Suu Kyi would improve the situation for his beleaguered people in the camps. “She has never come here, but she is denying the existence of the Rohingya. She is denying the genocide against Rohingya. She didn’t come and study what’s going on in this area,” he said.

“We have no choice. There are two parties: USDP and NLD. USDP is torturing Rohingyas, so we have to take the other side. She won the Nobel Prize and the international community is supporting and giving advice to her, so our Rohingya people expect that we can get something from her,” he added.

In any case, what many Muslims in Arakan State fear the most is a victory for the ANP. When asked about a possible alliance between ANP and NLD, Kyaw Hla Aung said, “The situation would become worse for Rohingyas and Muslims in Burma.”

“If the ANP wins in Arakan, they could ask the government to wipe us off from Arakan. Dr. Aye Maung [the ANP chairman] led the violence against us before, but the government didn’t do anything about it,” said a community leader in Aung Mingalar who asked to remain anonymous.

According an investigation carried out by Reuters in November 2012, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), the previous incarnation of the ANP before it merged with the Arakan League for Democracy, organised the attacks against Muslims in October 2012, which left entire Muslims quarters destroyed in towns like Kyaukphyu.

‘A Fragile Peace’

Three years after deadly violence swept Arakan State, the situation remains deceptively calm in Sittwe. Except for Aung Mingalar, the city has been completely cleansed of any Muslim presence, and the separation between communities has been entrenched to become the status quo, which could prove extremely difficult to change: the camps and the ghetto-isation of Rohingya seems to be here to stay indefinitely.

“We have peace now in Arakan State,” says Tun Myint Thein, one of the directors of Wan Lark Foundation, a local Arakanese NGO loosely associated with the ANP and working with rural communities in the state. “The problem with the Muslims happened because of the government. The Muslims are the rope that the government has put around the neck of our people,” he said.

“Only the ANP can defend our people. We support the NLD and we support an alliance between the ANP and the NLD, but we can’t believe Aung San Suu Kyi on the Muslim issue, because she’s under pressure from the western world. We don’t believe the USDP can solve this problem either, because they created the problem in the first place,” he explained.

But for Tun Myint Thein, the main issue at stake for Arakan in the elections was not so much the ‘Muslim problem’, but the development of the state and their benefits it can reap from its natural resources. “Arakanese people don’t benefit from the gas offshore. It belongs to the government; they sell the gas to the Chinese and get all the profits. We hope that the ANP will try to change that,” he explains.

But those problems seem to be far from the minds of the Rohingya. And what looks like peace on one side of the divide is a hopeless sense of resignation on the other. Little has changed in the camps since they were set up three years ago. Healthcare, education and food are still woefully inadequate, but they are turning into an ecosystem which is deeply affecting the morale of many, particularly the youth.

“I worry about the children; their character has changed. Now they are used to begging because they see that everybody lives from handouts by aid organisations, so they don’t feel the need to work. The schools are not good because they are staffed with people from the camps without proper preparation and it’s difficult to keep children going,” explains Ozan, the chief of Tat Kal Pyin camp.

While the election has offered hope to millions of Muslims, for many Rohingya the meaning is very different: the last proof of their exclusion. “I don’t think it will be possible to live together again with the Arakanese,” says Kareem, a young teacher in Aung Mingalar. “So I think the only option we have is to go to a third country, because there’s no future for us here,” he adds.

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