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Rakhine top job tussle about more than politics

By Tang Chee Seng
February 25, 2016

SINGAPORE — The closely watched appointment of the Chief Minister in Myanmar’s Rakhine state would have implications on both the humanitarian situation for Rohingya Muslims and the country’s parliamentary composition, said a prominent Rohingya activist.

In an interview with TODAY earlier this week, Mr Maung Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, noted that the political jockeying for Rakhine state’s top post was being played out between the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), the ultra-nationalist Arakan National Party (ANP), and the country’s military — which remains a potent political opposition in Parliament.

“The ANP is saying that if the NLD is really democratic, (the latter) has to select someone from ANP,” he said, referring to the fact that the ANP beat the NLD at the state-level polls last November.

“But if there is an ANP Chief Minister, there will be more policies of persecution that will be pursued to eliminate the Rohingya,” said Mr Tun Khin. He explained that the Chief Minister would be able to dictate local policies — including whether international aid agencies will be allowed additional access to Rohingya camps.

He noted that Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD is in a difficult position, as the ANP, which is pushing for the Rohingya to be moved into camps or deported, has threatened to “give problems” to the ruling party.

“If NLD does not appoint a Chief Minister from the ANP, the ANP will stand with the opposition,” said Mr Tun Khin. But he emphasised that as the ultra-nationalist party’s warning was vaguely worded, the threat could involve the ANP working with the remnants of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and possibly the military lawmakers in Parliament to form a coordinated opposition bloc to oppose the NLD.

At the same time, said Mr Tun Khin, the military — which occupies one quarter of the seats in Parliament — has been pushing to appoint Chief Ministers in some resource-rich and strategic areas, including the Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, among others. If the military pushes to retain the incumbent Rakhine Chief Minister General Maung Maung Ohn, the humanitarian situation for the Rohingya will continue to remain dire.

Although having grown up in Myanmar, Mr Tun Khin, who is a Rohingya himself, was forced to leave the country to pursue his tertiary education overseas after Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law — which rendered 1.1 million Rohingya effectively stateless — curtailed his right to further education, freedom of movement and employment.

The activist, who is regularly in touch with internally displaced Rohingya and fellow human rights advocates in Myanmar, warned that since 2012 there has yet to be any improvement in the conditions of the Rohingya currently confined in camps.

“Children and pregnant women are dying day by day because the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is not able to provide enough medical aid,” said Mr Tun Khin, adding that although MSF was allowed back into Myanmar months after being kicked out in 2014, humanitarian access by the aid group was severely curtailed by the then-USDP government.

Since communal violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya broke out nearly four years ago and displaced some 140,000 people, tens of thousands have left Rakhine state by boat. Last year, thousands of desperate Rohingya fled on smugglers’ ships, sparking a crisis in South-east Asia after other countries initially turned the boats back, leaving the migrants to starve at sea.

Dr Melissa Crouch, a legal expert on Myanmar, agreed with Mr Tun Khin’s assessment that the Rohingya humanitarian situation going forward would be dependent on who becomes the next state Chief Minister. She said the NLD is likely to be deep in negotiations with the military.

“If the NLD is going to enter into any sort of bargaining with the military on constitutional amendments, perhaps the only thing that they have to give away in return, for example, is a military person to be appointment as Chief Minister in Rakhine state,” she said, referring to how Ms Suu Kyi is seeking to change the country’s military-drafted Constitution, which bars her from being President as her children are not Myanmar citizens.

Dr Crouch, who is a lecturer in the law faculty at the University of New South Wales in Australia, was speaking to TODAY at the side-lines of a seminar organised by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) yesterday on “Understanding Religious Diversity in Myanmar”.

“Certainly, it would be important to watch who will be elected at the state level as Chief Minister, because they do have significant power,” she said.

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