By Bill O’Toole
November 03, 2014
In the lead-up to the 2010 general election, the Union Solidarity and Development Party faced a problem in Rakhine State.
A Muslim woman sits in front of temporary shelters in Sittwe township, Rakhine State. (Ko Taik/The Myanmar Times)
Replicating their strategy elsewhere in the country, they sought to recruit influential locals to stand as candidates in the election, which was touted by the military as a key step in the nation’s road to democracy. However, they ran into well-organised opposition from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.
Though established just a few months earlier, following the release of election laws in March, the RNDP had managed to generate significant local support by tapping into widespread animosity toward the central government from ethnic Rakhine.
The USDP needed allies in the region. Controversially, they turned to the Rohingya.
“USDP approached us, they said we should participate,” said U Shwe Maung, a community leader who became the USDP representative for Buthidaung in the Pyithu Hluttaw. “They said, ‘The government has changed its policy [toward Rohingya rights].’”
Several Sittwe residents who identify as Rohingya told The Myanmar Times last week that USDP delegations from Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon made several high-profile visits to their communities, and promised that voting for the military-aligned party would usher in a new era of freedoms and rights for the Muslim minority.
“Of course, they gave many promises at that time,” recalled a former civil servant who self-identifies as Rohingya and asked not to be named. “They said, ‘You can get Rohingya [citizenship] cards,’ … so that the people would vote for them.”
U Aung Win, a Rohingya activist based in Sittwe, said the message was always the same: “You can live peacefully and you can cooperate with the government … [if you] vote for the USDP.”
This generated legitimate popular support for the USDP in Rohingya communities, and several Muslim candidates were elected: U Shwe Maung and two others into the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw in Nay Pyi Taw, and three more into the Rakhine State parliament.
The RNDP, however, still fared better than any other ethnic minority party in terms of the proportion of seats won. The party, which merged with the Arakan League for Democracy to become the Rakhine National Party in 2013, took out 35 of the 44 seats it contested in state and national legislatures.
The Muslim representatives and their constituents had upheld their part of the bargain. However, they say the government put in place by the USDP has turned its back on them.
“In that context we joined the USDP,” said U Shwe Maung. “Since we became elected in 2010 we have pushed [Rohingya citizenship rights]. Then [when] the Ministry of Immigration started to say ‘no’ … we were confused.”
U Shwe Maung said that discussion about the Rohingya in parliament became all but impossible after June 2012, when Buddhist and Muslim communities clashed around Sittwe. Another outbreak of violence that year took the death toll above 200 and left more than 100,000 displaced, mostly Muslims.
“Since 2012 June this issue became very hot, and Rakhine MPs keep giving pressure to the Union government, the parliament and the media.”
The Rohingya politicians are now facing perhaps their toughest political challenge: a series of amendments to electoral laws proposed by the RNP that would strip those holding temporary identity documents, known as white cards, from taking part in political activities, including voting and joining a party.
While the amendments do not single out the Rohingya, they hold the majority of the white cards issued by the government. If approved, the laws would strip more than 1 million people of the right to vote in Rakhine State alone.
The first of these amendments – to ban white-card holders from forming or joining a political party – was passed in September, with support from the USDP.
Another RNP proposal that would remove all voting rights from white card-holders and naturalised citizens appears to be gaining traction with the USDP leadership.
One member of the RNP, who asked not to be named, said his party had already engaged in informal talks with the USDP over the text of the amendment.
According to the MP, the USDP has no issue with taking voting rights away from white-card holders, but would like the law to be amended to ensure all other citizen categories still have the right to vote.
The MP said the proposal had been submitted to the hluttaw office but because the parliament has a full agenda this session – including lengthy discussions over constitutional change and electoral reform – he suspects the bill will not be discussed until the first session of 2015.
The office of Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann – who is also chair of the USDP – did not respond to requests for comment last week.
USDP central committee member U Hla Swe said his personal view was that the party “must follow the desire of the majority” but declined to discuss the issue further.
Asked about his party’s campaign in Rakhine state in 2010, U Hla Swe downplayed USDP efforts to court Muslim voters and claimed white-card holders only accounted for a small proportion of the votes the USDP received.
White-card holders concerned about losing voting rights could apply for citizenship under the nation’s 1982 Citizenship Law, he said.
“I want to suggest that they should apply … as soon as possible because it is sure that they become [citizens].”
However, Rohingya community leaders say the white-card issue has arisen only because the government has not properly implemented the citizenship law. When the government switched from National Registration Cards to Citizenship Scrutiny Cards in the early 1990s, it refused to issue CSCs to many Muslims in Rakhine State, they said. Several years later it began issuing white cards, which are not mentioned in the law.
The Rohingya civil servant said both he and his wife hold CSCs but their adult children have only been issued white cards, despite applying for citizenship documentation more than a decade ago. Under the 1982 law, the child of two CSC holders is automatically entitled to citizenship.
U Shwe Maung said he was disappointed that the promises of 2010 had never been upheld but said he believes the fault lies with the government and Ministry of Immigration rather than the USDP.
“I am disappointed with the government, especially with the Immigration Department,” he said. “They are a powerful department with the full power to tackle these issues.”
But others see political motivations in the USDP’s backtracking on promises to Rohingya voters. Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based political analyst, said that anti-Muslim sentiment – in both Rakhine and other parts of the country – could result in the USDP turning away from the voters it once actively courted.
“Given the rise of Burman-Buddhist nationalism,” he said, “the USDP may decide that the Rohingya vote brings more problems than benefits.”
Additional reporting by Ei Ei Toe Lwin