Myanmar's northern state

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.”

Tourists defy govt travel warnings

First published in Bangkok Post.

In mob territory, amid the colourful attire of street protesters, galleries of local food and the energetic blasts of whistles, there are no shortages of tourists and Bangkok remains open for travel.

Marcel and Sarah pose for a photo at Siam Square. They are confident the area, occupied by anti-government protesters, is safe for shopping.

Siam Square, Silom and Ratchaprasong are strategic areas of the anti-government protests now gripping Bangkok, but on most nights these areas host tourists from around the globe.

When asked what they were doing at Siam Square in the late evening, Sarah Menn and Marcel Schulz from Switzerland and Germany, said they had been shopping in the area.

”The protests have not stopped our plans, we still go shopping,” said Ms Menn.

She mentioned that the only minor disruption to her itinerary had been the early closing times of Siam Square’s major shopping complexes.

When Ms Menn first learned of the mass street protests in Bangkok, she was diving off one of Thailand’s picturesque islands.

The Swiss government along with the United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, Russia and other countries have issued warnings to their citizens, urging them to reconsider travelling to Thailand.

Ms Menn says she has since received many calls from her worried parents back home, but continues to reassure them that she is fine.

”The international media will say something is happening, don’t go but I think it’s okay,” Ms Menn said.

After three weeks of island hopping around Thailand, Ms Menn and Mr Shulz are spending their last few days in the protest hotspot, Siam Square, next to the Pathumwan intersection where the main rally stage is located.

”We were still interested in coming to Thailand because we thought it would get better, but it has been getting worse over the past two weeks. We don’t know what will happen after the elections so we are happy to be leaving soon,” said Mr Schulz.

Supaporn Prachumpai, managing director of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, says new bookings are still being received from Western countries but she is expecting a decrease in tourists visiting Thailand if the state of emergency is prolonged.

There has already been an approximate 70% drop in bookings in the Chinese market for Bangkok, she said.

”We are really worried about the situation on election day and afterwards,” said Ms Supaporn.

Further down the road, Bert and Ingeborg Sanders from the Netherlands are peering at a map of Bangkok and refer to Silom’s protest zone as a ”night market”, because of the festive atmosphere and vivid attire of protesters.

The couple say they were aware of Thailand’s political situation from media coverage in the Netherlands but still chose to visit Bangkok because of its food, people and temples.

”We have no worries about our safety. None at all,” said Mr Sanders.

”It is our first time in Thailand and it is quite exciting with the protest because we can use public transport instead of taking a taxi. The skytrain system is super,” said Mr Sanders.

Since the proposed shutdown of the city on Jan 13, Bangkok has been congested with traffic and anti-government protests, but among tourists in Bangkok, sentiment is vastly different from that expressed in the international media and

Thailand is still the Land of Smiles.

”There is something exciting happening in the country. I think it’s admirable that the Thai people can organise themselves and get together to rally for change,” Mr and Mrs Sanders said.

”We still like it and we say to each other, we will come back here,” they both said.

Sawadeeka, Thailand

First Published in Parallax.

Returning home to Australia, the land of pristine beaches, crisp air and safe drinking water, Bangkok seem worlds away.

It has been exactly one week since I have touched down in Sydney and after a smooth overnight flight, it is uncanny to think that in eight hours you can arrive somewhere so different to where you left off.

Leaving the dusty, chaotic and exhilarating city of Bangkok was not easy as it meant saying farewell to the independent and autonomous lifestyle I had adjusted to.

The five week fellowship at the Bangkok Post and Australian Embassy in Thailand was a life altering journey that refined my passion for advocacy and journalism, and equipped me with valuable lessons, both practical and experiential.

The internship in Thailand was a prime opportunity to apply three years worth of media theory and experience first hand, the dynamics of a newsroom.

Working full time in Thailand’s leading English daily paper, I quickly learnt to adapt in a new work environment, muster up the confidence to actively request feedback and develop the initiative to pitch story ideas to news editors and journalists.

Although it was challenging to work with pervasive language barriers in the newsroom and during interviews, the experience was rewarding and I left Thailand with three articles published on page 2-3 of the national news section and another story featured in the Sunday paper.

The stories I produced for the Post included colour/feature stories, interviews and some hard news topics. I most enjoyed working an article about the Rohingya, one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world, as reported by the UN. Prior to this internship, I had no knowledge of this ethnic minority group and after a week of thorough research, I was surprised to see that Thailand was also struggling to deal with their own ‘boat people’. The process of researching and drafting this article was rewarding, to say the least, sparking a new niche interest and passion for human rights reporting.

I am extremely grateful for this opportunity, provided by the Australia- Thailand Institute as it has given me a greater insight into the shared values and different cultural practices between Australia and Thailand’s media landscape.

Thailand is a popular destination for Australians, with approximately 600,000 Aussies visiting the South East Asian country last year. After five weeks of full time work in the media sector, I can safely say that I have had a true taste of Thailand’s corporate and cultural life.

The ongoing protests and ‘Shutdown Bangkok’ campaign made for an interesting cultural experience, both as a tourist and as a journalist. It was thrilling and convicting to witness a nation coming to terms with its issues pertaining to democracy, economic inequality and statewide corruption.

I am already missing the delicious Pad See Yew, Papaya Salad and Mango Sticky Rice but there is a reason why hello and goodbye share the same expression in Thai. As cliché and whimsical as it may sound, saying goodbye to Bangkok is only possible when you promise to be back again.

Bangkok wears red, blue and white

First Published in Parallax.

In Bangkok city, shirts bearing the colours of the national flag and merchandise plastered with anti-government slogans such as Reform Before Election have become symbolic of the protests that now occupy much of the city.

It has been two weeks since I have been in Thailand and having spent a week in the serene and tranquil city of Chiang Mai, we were able to successfully avoid the January 13th shutdown of the capital.

Arriving in Bangkok however, the city is still in gridlock and the scale and intensity of the protests have become much more evident and at times, unavoidable.

I landed in the glistening city of Bangkok two days ago. After a week in the colder and greener part of Thailand, the unending skyscrapers, sky trains and department stores were welcoming signs that I had finally touched down in Krung Thep (กรุงเทพ), the city of angels.

On our first night in Bangkok I experimented with the clean and efficient sky trains and underground subway networks to do some shopping and exploring. We reached the central city destinations of Siam and Silom to find a mass of people with Shutdown Bangkok broadcasted on their shirts. The passion of the capital was distinctly different to the north where people seemed aggravated by the protests.

Alarm bells went off in our minds, warning us to stay as far away from the protests as possible.

Upon first inspection, the rally site held a festive atmosphere with crowds of people and clothing stalls and it was difficult to think of the site as potentially violent and disruptive. It was also striking to witness groups of university students dressed in promotional attire in support of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee. I had been told on numerous occasions that Thai people are generally very private in their political opinions but being in the middle of the nation’s capital and witnessing streams of people outwardly expressing their support for anti-government protests was an astonishing experience.

Protests of such large proportion are hard to come by in Australia, so accidentally finding ourselves in the midst of a rally zone was risky but also a little thrilling. Being in Thailand has given me a greater grasp of the public sentiment and I am slowly piecing together Thailand’s contextually and historically complex political narrative.

Sleepless in Saigon

Two weeks ago I left my comfortable home and friendly surroundings for something entirely different.

Travelling abroad has always been on my horizon but with the mark of a new year and an internship opportunity in Thailand, I knew it would be an unforgettable experience to sleep, eat and navigate through a distant city, alone.

It took an 8hr flight and a 2hr transit to reach my destination but in due time, the peaks and troughs of Ho Chi Minh City appeared in my window as a blaze of yellow flashing lights.

Against the backdrop of the night sky, Saigon’s bright lights were like none other- a bright array of pink and orange neon lights towering above the busy streets. I was struck and mystified by the lively lights and knew thereon that this was a vibrant, vivacious and colourful city.

I touched down smoothly and as a first time solo-traveller, I gripped my bags hard and headed purposefully for the taxi stand. I had read that only MaiLinh and Vinasun taxis were to be trusted but I was definitely unprepared for the lack of English speaking drivers, even amongst reputable taxi companies.

Anxiety taunted me as my driver struggled to find my boutique hotel, but with each passing motorbike and street food vendor, Saigon’s beauty and energy stirred my curiousity.

A total of four days was spent wandering around the heart of Saigon city. You would have easily spotted this lone female traveller mimicking local bargaining habits and awkwardly ordering vermicelli in broken Vietnamese. Through visits to historical monuments and cultural exhibitions I also grappled with Vietnam’s violent and turbulent past.

In hindsight, my short Vietnamese getaway taught me the meaning of true security and the worth and value of placing my trust in a steadfast and eternal foundation. It was an unforgettable experience falling in love with Saigon and I was quick to discover a city of organised chaos, delicious food and people who are resilient and persevering to the core.

I spent most of my days trawling the streets of the city, where Saigon’s life and culture are most spectacularly displayed and expressed and I hope that through some of these snaps, I can share some of Saigon’s secret beauty, tucked away deeply yet visibly, in its streets.