The Lady and the Trampled
Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingyas want more from the country’s most popular politician.
SITTWE, Myanmar — While Myanmar’s presidential candidate and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was campaigning in the southern part of the restive state of Rakhine on Oct. 16, Mohammed Allam was leaning back on a plastic chair in a refugee camp on the outskirts of the state’s capital, Sittwe, bemoaning his fate. “I had a good business in Sittwe; I had a shop. But after the violence, I had to live here,” he said.
Like roughly 140,000 other members of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority, Allam was forced into one of many squalid refugee camps after ethnic riots broke out in Rakhine in 2012. Since then, he says, he has stayed with eight family members in a nine-square-foot room. “A human being cannot live like this,” said Allam, who is in his mid-40s. Around him, on the main street running through the camp, people sat in the dusty entrances to their homes — many just tiny shacks cobbled together with bamboo and corrugated iron — drinking tea and talking. There is little else to do. “It is so hot inside the room, and we get many kinds of diseases,” Allam said, shaking his head and looking at the ground. “I feel as if I am living in hell.”
Myanmar’s first fully democratic election following decades of military rule is just weeks away on Nov. 8, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is widely expected to win. When the party last participated in elections in 1990, it secured more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament — though the ruling military junta refused to recognize the results and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she spent much of the last few decades. Released in 2010 as the government sought to show it was democratizing, Aung San Suu Kyi remains the country’s most popular politician. Since the campaign season officially started on Sept. 8, thousands of supporters across the country have crowded into rallies to see the 70-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner give impassioned speeches and wave the flag of her party, a fighting peacock and a star on a red background. But her visit to Rakhine was different. The crowds were there, but so were more than 1,000 security personnel. When a Buddhist audience member asked if her party’s election would usher a Muslim takeover of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi responded with a rare flash of anger. That question risked “inciting racial or religious conflict,” she said.
Rakhine, a sprawling coastal state of 3.2 million people that hugs the Bay of Bengal, is riven by conflict between the majority Rakhine and the Rohingya minority, a Muslim ethnic group which, along with several other smaller Muslim communities, makes up roughly 30 percent of the state’s population. (Of the more than 56 million people living in Myanmar, Buddhists account for at least 80 percent of the population, while Muslims make up less than 5 percent.) Violence broke out between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhines in 2012, sparked by the Rohingya gang rape and murder of a Rakhine woman and the murder of 10 Muslims by a mob of Rakhines a week later. At least 88 people died in the ensuing riots, and more than 2,500 homes were burned.
Although both sides spilled blood and destroyed property, it is the Rohingya who have fared the worse since. By the end of 2012, the local government had forced many of the state’s Rohingyas into refugee camps or in segregated villages and towns across the northern end of the state. The Myanmar government denies them freedom of movement and basic human rights: fathers and mothers cannot reach their jobs, children cannot reach their schools, and the sick cannot reach medicine. (The government provides a limited amount of aid; international NGOs are present as well.) So desperate are the conditions that, over the past year, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled the region. Many boarded overcrowded fishing boats bound for Thailand or Malaysia in a bid to escape, enduring horrific conditions and an incredibly risky journey. Hundreds, if not thousands, died in the process. Earlier this year, the government stripped identity cards from many Rohingya, rendering them stateless and barring them from voting in November’s election.
Allam is angry about this step backward. “In the last election, we could take part and vote,” he said, referring to the country’s last general election in 2010. This time, he said, “we are not included because of demanding our rights.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, affectionately known as “the Lady” in Myanmar, has faced severe international criticism for not speaking up for the Rohingya. In late May, the Dalai Lama urged her to do something about the problem, and in late September, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “appalled” by the conditions in the Rohingya camps. And yet, Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to publicly use the term “Rohingya” to avoid alienating her more right-wing Buddhist constituents. She does not go as far as the ruling government, however, which prefers to call Rohingyas “Bengalis” — implying that they are Bangladeshi and not Burmese — and paint them as illegal immigrants living in “relief camps.” In June, on one of the rare occasions in which Aung San Suu Kyi referenced the controversy, she said only that the protection of ethnic minority rights was an extremely “sensitive issue” and should be treated “very carefully.”
On this trip, the Lady did not visit the north of the state, where most of the Rohingya live. Instead, in a speech in Toungup — a town in south Rakhine, where violence flared in 2012 — Aung San Suu Kyi referred obliquely to intimidation and power, suggesting the only way to change things is for the Rohingyas to take part in a democratic election. “If the government understands that the people can remove it, the authorities will be forced to work in the interest of the people — not only for themselves,” she said.
Some Rohingyas are surprisingly understanding about the pressures she faces in trying to win and keep the support of Buddhist voters. “I am upset that Aung San Suu Kyi has not talked about the Rohingya, but I hope after the election, she will do it,” said Mabia, a Rohingya woman who only gave her first name. “I hope things will be a little better if Aung San Suu Kyi wins,” she added. She said that her oldest son recently died trying to flee Rakhine to Malaysia in a rickety boat — one of thousands who attempted the desperate journey this year.
But other Rohingya are less forgiving — including some who are living in Aung Mingalar, a ghetto near the center of Sittwe, with thousands of inhabitants crammed into a few blocks. Before 2012, those people lived among their fellow Rakhines. But now, roadblocks covered in barbed wire stand at Aung Mingalar’s entrances, and guards prevent Rohingya from leaving. Khin Khin, 27, worked on a shrimp farm before 2012. “Now I just sit here and eat nothing,” she said. “We have hope, but it has been three years now, and we still have no change. We want to live in peace. We want to go outside freely.”
Zaw Zaw, a 38-year-old imam who saw his Sittwe school burned to the ground during the 2012 violence, questions whether Aung San Suu Kyi can bring the change his community needs. “She can cry for the human rights and stability here, but if she doesn’t come into power, she can’t do anything,” he said.
There are many obstacles to getting that power. Even if her party beats the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, Myanmar’s constitution bars her from leading the country under rules that say a president’s immediate family must not be foreign (her children and late husband are British).
There are other political obstacles specific to Rakhine. Whatever happens nationally, in Rakhine it is not Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party that is expected to triumph, but the Arakan National Party (ANP). The party, named after the ancient kingdom of the state, takes an anti-Rohingya stance: It successfully lobbied for the Rohingya to be disenfranchised and has said it wants “Bengali immigrants” deported or placed in camps. The Rohingya themselves have had a political party, called the National Democratic Party for Development, which some in the camps said they would have liked to vote for if they could — but the face of such repression, the party is barely surviving.
Htoo May, a 36-year-old ANP candidate for the Rakhine townships of Ann and Ramree, 80 miles southeast of Sittwe, says she respects Aung San Suu Kyi because the ANP also wants democracy. However, Htoo May says the Western media only tells one side of the Rohingya story. Although some Rohingya are law-abiding, she says, others are violent and expansionist. “Muslims and Bengalis have a lot of children, and the population needs more land and more land for food. We can see this,” she said. “We Rakhine people never rape Muslim women, but Muslim men and Bengalis rape Rakhine woman — and kill. They are not living there peacefully.”
There is, of course, intense mistrust from the Rohingya toward the Rakhines as well. When asked about their Buddhist neighbors, some faces darken. “When I remember being attacked, I am angry,” says 30-year-old Jamil, who lives in one of the refugee camps and asked to be referred to only by his first name. “I don’t know if we can live together. I do not trust the Rakhines. Some are good, but some are not.”
But even he hopes Aung San Suu Kyi could help. “If she wins, she could negotiate between the communities and keep a reconciliation,” he said. Perhaps that is because, otherwise, there would be no hope at all.
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images