Myanmar’s leaders are touting Sunday’s election as the nation’s most inclusive in decades. Yet for the 1 million Rohingya Muslims who live in Rakhine State, near Myanmar’s western border with Bangladesh, it’s not a free election. It’s not even an election.
Over the last three years, thousands of Rohingyas have seen their homes burned or confiscated in deadly clashes with Buddhists and security forces. Tens of thousands have been confined to crowded villages and camps for “internally displaced persons,” unable to leave and – in this election – prohibited from voting.
“We are treated like animals,” said Thein Maung, 45, one of several Rohingya refugees interviewed Friday at the Da Paing camp outside of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state.
Their living conditions cramped, with families of 10 or more crowded into makeshift huts. Camp dwellers said they suffer from shortages of firewood, water and food, and are forced to bribe security guards to leave the camp for medical treatment.
“They say they are just keeping us here temporarily,” said Thein Maung. “But how can it be temporary if we have been here for three years, and we can never leave the camp?”
Although Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has become a far more open society since its last general election in 2010, its ethnic regions, and particularly Rakhine State, are home what human rights groups are calling a growing humanitarian crisis.
More than 140,000 Rohingyas are confined in camps such as Da Paing and nearby villages. This past year, thousands fled in open boats – some to their deaths and others to be exploited by human traffickers. Many more are expected to attempt the ocean crossing next year if their conditions do not approve.
Originally from India and Bangladesh, Rohingya are thought to have come to Myanmar starting in the 19th century, but many lack documentation to prove it.
Abu Seedik, 44, is one camp dweller who said he was living a peaceful life in a nearby village with his wife and 12 children when the sectarian violence exploded in 2012.
“They set fire to our house, and then the crowds and security forces surrounded our village,” he said. Seedik said his youngest daughter, eight months old, died in the flames. Without food or shelter, his family moved to the Da Paing camp, where the family now lives in a small thatched hut.
According to several inquiries, the 2012 riots were initially sparked by the arrests of three Muslim men for the robbing, raping and murder of a 27-year-old Rakhine Buddhist woman. Rakhine activists issued calls on the Internet for retaliation. That led to weeks of bloody clashes between Buddhists and Rohingyas, prompting President Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency.
According to human rights organizations, the 2012 riots had been preceded by decades of repressive policies against Rohingya. In their view, the violence provided a pretext for the government to intensify those policies, including rounding up Rohingyas and confining them to certain areas.
For relief groups and journalists, gaining legal access to the camps is a challenge. A McClatchy reporter spent two days at two different Rakhine State agencies, finally obtaining a permit late Friday. Authorities said the reporter would be allowed to also visit on Saturday, but then rescinded permission that morning.
Once inside the restricted area, a visitor passes through two armed checkpoints and a vast, fenced-off security compound recently built to house hundreds of police. At a village market inside the restricted area, Rakhine merchants could be seen hawking their goods, able to pass through the checkpoints that most Rohingya cannot cross.
They set fire to our house, and then the crowds and security forces surrounded our village.
Abu Seedik, recalling anti-Muslim violence
Camp residents say their tent city was originally a squalid place, but has steadily improved, through communal action and charitable donations. Although ramshackle, the Da Paing camp looks cleaner than nearby Sittwe, where dogs pick through burning trash heaps on numerous side streets.
Even so, conditions are harsh for those in the camps, and relief groups are concerned about the health of tens of thousands of children. Few go to school, and some are clearly malnourished, as appeared to be the case for Mohamed Nur.
On Friday, this 11-year-old boy could be seen pushing a bicycle wagon filled with jugs of water from a nearby well. After giving his name, he said he hauls water two or three times a day for his family, and also waits tables at a camp tea shop to make extra money.
“I make about 7,000 kyat a month,” he said, the equivalent of $5.50.
As Mohamed gripped the bicycle handles, his ribs protruded from his shirtless torso.
Originally from India and Bangladesh, Rohingya are thought to have come to Myanmar starting in the 19th century, but many lack documentation to prove it. In Rakhine, government officials and many Burmese refuse to use the word Rohingya. They call the refugees Bengalis – illegal immigrants who should return to their home country. The camps, official say, are designed to provide refugees with “legal protection” until they depart.
750,000 Number of people, mostly Rohingya, whose identity documents were revoked.
In Myanmar’s 2010 general election, tens of thousands of Rohingyas were able to register and vote. But in February, the current government of Thein Sein, a former military general, revoked identification documents for about 750,000 in Myanmar, many of whom are Rohingya. The new policy effectively forces Rohingyas to either prove they have been living in Myanmar for 60 years, or face eventual deportation.
Rohingya activists blame these policies on a extreme strain of Buddhism whipped up by nationalist groups. One of these is the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, or Ma Ba Tha. The group’s figurehead is Ashin Wirathu, a Burmese Buddhist monk who has supported and encouraged Thein Seine’s plan to relocate Rohingyas to a third country.
In an interview, a spokesman for Ma Ba Tha rejected claims his group is a source of the violence. He also disputed the attacks could credibly be called genocide, the word that some human rights groups are increasingly using.
“What I want to ask is, has anyone witnessed people doing this genocide?,” said U Kyaw Sein Win, project manager for Ma Ba Tha in Yangon. “Are there any witnesses to genocide against the Rohingya?”
The Ma Ba Tha spokesman also waved off concerns about the disenfranchisement of 750,000 people, many of whom are Rohingya.
“The Rohingya are guests,” he said. “Nowhere in history can guests vote where they are not originally from.”
Rakhine’s Muslims do have advocates. Numerous groups – including Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights and Burma Campaign UK – have worked for years to highlight their plight. Yanghee Lee, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has recently sharpened her warnings about abuses against Rohingya, including their disenfranchisement.
Yet Myanmar’s leading politician, Aung San Suu Kyi – known affectionately nationwide as “Mother Suu” – has yet to publicly embrace Rohingya rights. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy have been cautious in addressing treatment of Muslims, apparently fearing it could cost them votes. The NLD didn’t fielding any Muslim candidates this year, and it is unlikely a single one will be elected to the nation’s parliament.
In a press conference Thursday, Suu Kyi brushed off questions about Rohingyas being victims of genocide, urging the media not to “exaggerate the problems.”
When asked about Ma Ba Tha, she spoke out against “religion being used for political purposes” but did not criticize the group specifically.
Some of the Nobel laureate’s international allies have urged a stronger stance.
But in the Da Paing camp on Friday, it was hard to find any Rohingyas who would criticize Suu Kyi. It was also easy to find those who support her.
“She’s won prizes for human rights,” said Abu Seedik, who manages local rice harvests for a living. “So maybe she will help us.”
Thein Maung, who is jobless, said he can recall living in Sittwe, with a fishing boat and market stand and friends who were Buddhists.
“In downtown, we were living together with Rakhine (people), house to house, getting along with each other,” he said. “Then the government separated us. Now they can come here, but we cannot go there.”
The former fishermen said he’s awaiting the ballot results and their aftermath to decide his next steps, as are other Rohingyas.
“After two months, if the situation hasn’t changed, people will leave by boat,” he said. “They will take that dangerous journey.”
Mai Hla Aye contributed to this report in Yangon, as did Rohingya interpreters in Sittwe who asked that their names not be used.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth