Burma’s Favorite Scapegoat

Both government and opposition see bashing the besieged Rohingya minority as a sure-fire path to electoral success.

Prosters carry banners during a protest against UN Security General Ban Ki-moon in Sittwe in the western Myanmarese state of Rakhine on November 23, 2014. Myanmar's parliament early November lambasted UN Security General Ban Ki-moon for using the term 'Rohingya', accusing him of interfering in the country's affairs during his visit early November that has kicked off fresh furore over the Muslim minority. AFP PHOTO/STR        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Prosters carry banners during a protest against UN Security General Ban Ki-moon in Sittwe in the western Myanmarese state of Rakhine on November 23, 2014. Myanmar's parliament early November lambasted UN Security General Ban Ki-moon for using the term 'Rohingya', accusing him of interfering in the country's affairs during his visit early November that has kicked off fresh furore over the Muslim minority. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Burmese government recently came under fire for back-pedaling on a pledge to grant the country’s beleaguered Rohingya minority the right to vote. On Feb. 12, the government announced the imminent suspension of all temporary ID cards held by over half a million Rohingya Muslims in western Burma, dashing hopes that they might be allowed to vote in Burma’s first general election in over 50 years, scheduled for the end of this year.

The proposal to grant the Rohingya voting rights — aggressively promoted by Burma’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and passed by parliament on Feb. 2 — had been seen as a flicker of hope for the stateless Muslim minority squeezed into apartheid-like conditions near the Bangladeshi border. But President Thein Sein quickly bowed to a growing Buddhist protest movement and withdrew his support. A spokesperson for the U.S. government criticized his decision as “counter to reconciliation in Rakhine [state],” where outbursts of religious violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have claimed dozens of lives since 2012. The sad reality is that the proposal was never more than a cynical political ploy to harness votes for the military-aligned USDP ahead of the highly anticipated elections. The government’s rapid U-turn only exposes its two-faced policy toward the Rohingya.

Indeed, the military and its proxy parties have simultaneously suppressed and courted the Rohingya vote since 2008, when the military welcomed their support to help rig a referendum approving a controversial new constitution. In the flawed 2010 election, many stateless Rohingya were offered the prospect of citizenship in exchange for casting their ballots for the USDP, which subsequently grasped power in three Muslim-majority constituencies in northern Rakhine State. Once in office, President Thein Sein’s government quickly reneged on these commitments.

There are currently six ethnic Rohingya legislators representing the USDP in northern Rakhine: three at the state and three at the national level. These politicians, who took up their posts promising to secure greater rights and freedoms for their people, have proven troublesome for the ruling party. Shwe Maung, a Rohingya member of the national parliament, has drawn considerable ire for his unapologetic activism on behalf of his constituency. Last year a presidential spokesman accused him of “defamation” for implicating local police officers in an alleged massacre of Rohingya in the western town of Maungdaw.

Nonetheless, in 2010 the Rohingya vote was essential to the USDP, with nearly half of its legislators in Rakhine elected by the minority (while several more seats were obtained through electoral fraud). The USDP’s overtures to the Rohingya also provoked hostility from the Buddhist-majority ethnic Rakhine — another minority group long persecuted by the military junta — who mostly view the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” from neighboring Bangladesh, and see the government’s courting of their vote as a betrayal of their state for political profit. Buoyed by hostility toward the Burman-dominated military, a nationalist Rakhine party (now known as the Rakhine National Party or RNP), won a majority of seats in the national and regional parliaments. The RNP and other Rakhine nationalist parties have since spearheaded efforts to marginalize and disenfranchise the Rohingya, whose plight became more acute in 2012, when religious violence forced some 140,000 of them into cramped, disease-infested camps. With its new influence in parliament, the RNP has successfully pushed through a law banning undocumented Rohingya from forming political parties.

As in 2010, the RNP now poses a significant electoral threat to the USDP in Rakhine State, where the ruling party is likely to lose most of its remaining seats in the 2015 poll without the Rohingya vote. This is why the USDP once again turned — briefly — to the Rohingya in an effort to attract voters in the region this year. This is not without a small tinge of irony, considering the government’s oppression of the minority, who Thein Sein has repeatedly threatened to deport from Burma.

Unfortunately, a tide of Buddhist nationalism has now made it more politically profitable to vilify the Rohingya than to woo them for their votes. Since the 2012 violence, the unpopular minority has become a rallying tool for both ethnic Rakhine and Burman political parties — boosted by a nationwide crusade to “defend” Buddhism against Islam. The government has never recognized the term “Rohingya” and has been accused of complicity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the minority. President Thein Sein has even publicly defended the country’s most venomous hate preacher, Ashin Wirathu, who has likened Muslims to “mad dogs.”

Wirathu’s powerful Buddhist nationalist group, known locally as the “Ma Ba Tha,” has collaborated with the government to draft a set of “race and religious protection” laws designed to restrict the rights of Muslims. In turn, Wirathu has backed Thein Sein and warned against amending the constitution to allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi a chance at the presidency. This cozy relationship exposes the political value of exploiting, rather than soothing, anti-Muslim sentiments in the run-up to the elections. In this context, it should come as no surprise that the USDP leadership quickly abandoned its flirtations with the Rohingya vote.

The military, which has a long history of pitting the country’s myriad ethnic and religious groups against each other, has even less incentive to support the reviled minority. Since 2012, ethnic Rakhine have welcomed thousands of Burmese troops into the restive state to maintain security. The military’s role has been amplified by persistent rumors — often repeated by the government — that Rohingya separatists are now active along the Bangladeshi border. The threat of instability and violence may thus serve as an alternate strategy to boost the army’s popularity in Rakhine and defend its grip over Burmese politics.

Shwe Maung, one of the Rohingya lawmakers from Rakhine, concedes that the USDP leadership “may have another plan” in place for winning support in Rakhine. He says he feels “betrayed” by the government, and will not stand in the 2015 election unless temporary ID or “white card” holders are allowed to vote. This looks increasingly unlikely, as white cards will be invalidated from March 31, rendering their owners unable to vote under Burmese election law. As some 95 percent of Shwe Maung’s constituency are Muslim Rohingya, the disenfranchisement of its population could be devastating — not least if Rakhine nationalists secured his seat.

The Burmese government continues to push ahead with its controversial nationality verification process, which will require Rohingya Muslims to label themselves as “Bengali” in order to obtain citizenship. The few Rohingya who have accepted this designation have seen no significant changes to their standard of living, remaining confined to peripheral slums or displacement camps with limited access to education and healthcare. All Rohingya “white card” holders will now be obligated to undergo this process after their documents expire next month. Those who refuse risk deportation.

The idea of using the Rohingya as pawns rather than allies seems to have permeated the opposition party as well. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), also fought against the bid to enfranchise the Rohingya, with one of the party’s lawmakers dismissing the proposal as “inconsistent” with other legislation. It is not the first time the Nobel laureate has drawn criticism for her silence on the oppression of the Rohingya or Burma’s escalating anti-Muslim sentiments. In December, the NLD fired one of its leaders for making a public speech criticizing the proliferation of Buddhist extremism. He is now facing a three-year jail sentence for “insulting” religion. Suu Kyi has never spoken in his support.

Her silence has been widely interpreted as a Machiavellian gambit designed to avoid controversy ahead of the 2015 election that, assuming it is free and fair, her party is expected to win by a landslide. The upsurge in religious hostility — which has claimed hundreds of mostly Muslim lives across the country since 2012 — is seen by some as a manufactured attempt to fracture her popular support base. Either way, Suu Kyi – like her uniformed opponents — seems to have prioritized political cunning over human rights.

As Burma’s historic elections draw nearer, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Rohingya have little to gain from the country’s political transition, which ended five decades of military rule in 2011. Neither the ruling party nor the opposition has ever been genuinely interested in promoting their rights. On Wednesday, a UN human rights chief warned Burmese politicians against fanning the “flames of prejudice” to win votes in the upcoming poll. Unfortunately, it would appear that the besieged minority carries far greater political currency as scapegoats than as full-fledged participants in Burma’s fragile democracy.

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Hanna Hindstrom is a freelance journalist covering Burma and Southeast Asia.