The problematic path to democracy in Arakan

The National League for Democracy (NLD) may be celebrating their landslide victory in the November 8 general elections, but in Sittwe, Arakan, the name Aung San Suu Kyi is unpopular.

The popular vote in Arakan, formerly Rakhine state, went to the Arakan National Party (ANP)- with 45 seats secured in the western state of Myanmar. The NLD performed poorly and the results send Aung San Suu Kyi a clear warning that pro Muslim sentiment is unwelcome in Arakan.

The incoming government will face a tough balancing act as it confronts the issue of citizenship for the Rohingya Muslim minority amongst increasing international pressure in Arakan’s conservative climate. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will need to tread carefully in a state where religion and politics are difficult to separate.

“Democracy is inclusive”

In Arakan, more than 800,000 people lack citizenship. The majority of these people identify as ‘Muslims’ or ‘Rohingya Muslims‘ and make up nearly two percent of the country’s population of 53 million that are predominantly Buddhist.

Religious tension between the Arakanese and Rohingya Muslims erupted in 2012 when angered locals, Buddhist extremists and incumbent authorities responded to the alleged rape of two Arakanese women by forcing thousands to flee their home and congregate in many of the IDP camps on the outskirts of the capital.

Rohingya Muslims were stripped of their citizenship ID cards earlier this year, and were denied the chance to partake in the November 8 democratic elections that were deemed as ‘free’ and ‘fair’ by international observers.

In Arakan, the exclusion of the Rohingya, a third of the state’s populous, helped the ANP secure an overwhelming majority of seats in the state.

U Kyi Thar Tun, a member of The Lady’s NLD party in Sittwe, recognises that a democracy has not yet reached maturity and inclusivity in the state.

“We don’t know how to use democracy. It’s democracy only in word, not in reality,” he said.

The committee member said the people of Arakan are nervous about the NLD majority in parliament and possible changes in the state’s minority policies.

“If she doesn’t meet our needs the people will not support her,” said U Kyi That Tun.

The Lady and the Rohingya

The group attracted international attention in May when a boatload of Rohingya Muslims were found drifting in the Andaman sea in an attempt to flee violence and find resettle in Malaysia. The UNHCR estimates that more than 110,000 people attempted the risky journey to Malaysia but this year, the number of fleeing Rohingya has doubled.

The Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, came under international pressure for her silence in the wake of the Rohingya boat crisis. Within the country, extreme buddhist groups and the military accused her of taking a ‘pro Muslim’ stance.

Former Australian ambassador to Myanmar and visiting fellow at the Australian National University, Trevor Wilson, said it was unrealistic to expect The Lady to respond otherwise.

“Aung San Suu Kyi is not unsympathetic to the problems of the Rohingya… but when it comes to the Rohingya, the NLD policy and her thinking is very close to the national consensus that the Rohingya are immigrants from Bengal,” said Mr Wilson.  

It will be up to the new government to respond to the contentious issue of the Rohingya Muslims and prevent further polarised violence in Arakan but a shift in policy and attitude will take time and an early solution to the Rohingya issue is unlikely, said Mr Wilson.

“Myanmar’s people and political leaders have not yet realised that they need to find a solution… but the pressure to make this a high priority or to make this some kind of test of the Myanmar government is an unrealistic expectation of the government,” he said.  

With the ANP in a stronger position in the next term of politics, the conservative and pro-Buddhist views will mean the NLD cannot ignore the Rohingya issue for long.

“Religion and politics are separate”

The Myanmar government does not recognise the Rohingya Muslims as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic minorities and they remain without citizenship. The term ‘Rohingya’ is disputed and for locals in Arakan, the people are seen to be illegal working immigrants from Bangladesh, but some have lived in Myanmar for generations.

In the post-election landscape, the new government will need to revisit the 1982 Citizenship Law that defines the parameters of citizenship and determines who is eligible. Groups ineligible for citizenship are denied freedom of movement, access to education and the ownership of property.  

In an interview with The Irrawaddy, elected independent MP in Arakan, Kyaw Zaw Oo said the state will need to scrutinize those in line with the Citizenship Law and decide how to treat non-citizens.

“I don’t see it as a racial issue, but an issue between a legal ethnic group and illegal immigrants whose citizenship has not been determined…,” he said.

ANP leader in Myanmar
Daw Aye Nu Sein, ANP

The next government’s choice of terminology will decide the support of the Arakan population and may risk aggravating the predominantly Buddhist community, but Daw Aye Nu Sein, Vice Chairperson of the ANP, denies the influence of religion on local politics.

“The state is secular. Religion and politics are separate,” said Daw Aye Nu Sein.

“From the point of the ANP, the recent violence is not religious, it’s a political problem. The problem begins with illegal immigrants…They invented the name ‘Rohingya’. The ANP does not recognise the name. It doesn’t belong to any race in history,”  she said.  

Daw Aye Nu Sein said Muslim extremism is an existent threat to the community and is likely to mirror the intentions of the IS by controlling the northern part of Arakan state, but denies the possibility of terrorism from a Buddhist extreme group, like the Ma Ba Tha.

The Ma Ba Tha is a radical Buddhist group that spearheads violence against Muslim communities and advocates an anti-Muslim agenda in the country’s policies.

Daw Aye Nu Sein denies Buddhist extremism could be a threat to the Arakan community.

“Ma Ba Tha helps protect people from Muslim terrorism and extremism. They won’t attack our community,” she said.

Law lecturer and Asia researcher at the University of New South Wales, Melissa Crouch said the success of the NLD in the most recent elections demonstrate that people in Myanmar aren’t persuaded by radical groups like Ma Ba Tha who advocate for legal restrictions against Muslims or religious minorities.

“People generally don’t think that’s an appropriate way forward. Aung San Suu Kyi should take that with greater confidence.”

“The challenge is that groups like Ma Ba Tha are inciting violence… but the other dynamic you need to keep in mind is that armed groups in Rakhine people have already been in conflict with the Bamar people. It’s not just a Rohingya and non Rohingya issue, there are a whole lot of other tensions there. The conflict with Rakhine armed groups need to be dealt with first,” she said.

Ms Crouch said the constitution favours Buddhism but also enforces the equality of all religions. The courts in Myanmar have not yet addressed how the clause coexists.

“You only have to look at the constitution which says Buddhism has a special position and that clearly demonstrates the state is not secular.”

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