19 October 2015
For the Rohingya Muslims strung along the cyclone-battered Bay of Bengal in
wretched and sprawling internment camps, Burma's unpredictable experiment in
democracy next month is already a non-event.
The Rohingya may not be able to cast a ballot in the 8 November elections, but
they are still at the centre of an election campaign increasingly tainted by
anti-Muslim sentiment fuelled by Buddhist nationalist politicians and radical
Even the famous nobel laureate 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 at the weekend.
She 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.
However, inside Myanmar (Burma), she has been attacked by Buddhist hardliners
for being too sympathetic to the Muslim minority. In Rakhine, she made her
clearest call yet 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 declared.
She also criticised 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.”
Many Rohingya have risked their lives fleeing on rickety trafficker boats.
"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 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".
Leading the political onslaught against them 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 military-backed ruling party has sought to harness such sectarian
feelings. Thein Sein, the general-turned-president, this year supervised the
whole-scale disenfranchisement of Rohingyas by confiscating their identity
Ms Suu Kyi has taken a political calculation to say little about their fate,
for now at least, 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 (pictured above), 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. 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.”
"Election Time in Burma, But Not for its Muslims" The Daily Telegraph
October 19, 2015
Philip Sherwell, "In Burma’s historic elections, a Muslim minority is banned
from voting but still the focus of the campaign" The Telegraph UK
October 19, 2015
"Rakhine Muslims: Suu Kyi Keeps Silence" BBC News October 19, 2015