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Myanmar's Rohingya minority sceptical about Suu Kyi, new government

Myanmar's Rohingya divided over Suu Kyi and new government - © Bennett Murray, DPA

By Bennett Murray
January 30, 2016

A new opposition-led government augurs hope for many in Myanmar after decades of military dictatorship, but a stateless ethnic minority has seen no signs of change in their situation.

Sittwe, Myanmar -- Adu Lakim says he has nothing to do these days but to while away the time sitting outside his shack in an internment camp Myanmar's Rakhine state.

The recent national elections meant nothing to 61-year-old member of the stateless Rohingya ethnic minority, who has been denied citizenship and confined to the camp after his house was torched during sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012.

"We don't know about the NLD or other parties, because we don't believe in them," said Lakim, referring to the National League for Democracy led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi that won November's national elections by a landslide.

"I don't know anything about change, it's decided by Allah," he said.

With the first NLD-dominated parliament set to convene on Monday, hopes are high across the country that five decades of military dictatorship are coming to an end.

Among Rohingya Muslims in the south-western region, Suu Kyi's victory was met with optimism by some but apathy by others, who doubt that it will lead to much of an improvement for their community.

Suu Kyi has been regarded as a defender of democratic rights, especially in the West, after spending more than a decade under house arrest. But she has been silent on the plight of the stateless.

Around 140,000 Rohingya have been living in a guarded complex of squalid camps outside Rakhine's state capital Sittwe since conflict erupted almost four years ago. Barred from leaving by armed guards, the residents are given little access to food or medicine.

Suu Kyi, whose party was under pressure from anti-Muslim nationalist groups aligned with the former ruling party on the campaign trail, has barely mentioned the group's plight.

Nevertheless, some Rohingya still hope that Suu Kyi's reputation as a civil rights activist will be realised in Rakhine.

Omar Sidik, 44, said he was encouraged by the legacy of Suu Kyi's father Aung San, who is nationally revered as Myanmar's founding father.

"The NLD may take action for us, because her father did good things for both communities, and gave full rights to humans," he said.

Although Aung San was assassinated in 1947 just prior to independence, the Rohingya enjoyed citizenship rights under his successors until a new law took effect in 1982.

Sidik said he was hopeful that the new parliament would return to the relatively harmonious days of Myanmar's early independence. But he cautioned that Buddhist nationalists could influence the party against the Rohingya's interests.

"We've never expected the Bamar to take action for us," he said, referring to the nation's ethnic majority, also known as Burmans.

"If extremists interfere, then the UN must take action."

Kyaw Hla Aung, a 76-year-old retired court stenographer and Rohingya community leader, said he took the NLD's silence as evidence that the party had sided with the anti-Muslim camp.

Suu Kyi "wants to hand over this problem to her party, and Win Htein is denying that all Rohingya are from this country, that we are from Bangladesh," said Aung, referring to comments made by a senior NLD official to media shortly after the election.

The citizenship law excludes the Rohingya from the 135 legally recognised ethnic groups, and the camp dwellers were not permitted to vote in November.

"She is avoiding this problem," Aung said, noting that the Rohingya have resided in Rakhine for generations.

Ronan Lee, a researcher at Australia's Deakin University, said the Rohingya have reason to be impatient.

"Circumstances in the camps have barely improved for the Rohingya, who have lived like this since the time of the 2012 violence - that's a long time to wait for changes that might bring your human rights," he said.

At the On Daw Gyi West camp on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, 44-year-old Abu Sidik said the situation had become hopeless.

"I'm thinking we have no future here, only darkness, just because we are Muslims," he said, adding that local police had recently tried to rape his daughter while she was collecting firewood.

Hobir Ahamand, 22, said he would take any opportunity to leave even if it meant risking his life fleeing across the ocean.

"It would be better for us to drink poison and die than stay here," he said.

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