Burma's Rohingya Muslims are the clear losers from the country's general election—and this before a single vote has even been cast. While the community has suffered systematic persecution for decades, the election has unleashed a frightening level of sectarian hatred against them.
Earlier this year—egged on by an extremist Buddhist group known as the Ma Ba Tha, and in an act of flagrant discrimination - the national parliament and the country's President Thein Sein stripped the Rohingya of voting rights in the November poll and disqualified their parliamentary candidates. Over the last 12 months he's also signed into law four odious 'Race and Religion' laws that discriminate against all Muslims in the country. What's more, by limiting access for international aid agencies, and through wider restraints on the Rohingya in terms of their movement and opportunities for employment, his government has compounded the suffering of some 140,000 displaced people. These Rohingya have now lived for over three years in overcrowded camps for the internally displaced in Rakhine State, following inter-communal violence and sectarian killings that forced them to flee for their lives.
I witnessed this first-hand last week, when visiting camps around Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital. Conditions there were dreadful and, in many places, there was a palpable sense of fear. The plight of children was particularly depressing. Most were clearly not in school and many looked hungry. While they were initially reluctant to talk, one little girl answered our questions. How long had they been here? "Three years." Why had they come? "Because they killed our neighbours". What did they need? "Food, medicine." What did they want for the future? "To go home, but it's not safe".
But this was not the worst of it. In another part of the sprawling camp we came across children who were completely naked and covered in dirt. The sanitary conditions were dire—with makeshift huts separated by open sewers. Many of the children looked ill, and one had a severely bloated belly and shockingly thin legs. We were told that some aid workers come to the area each day for a few hours, to help with the more pressing cases, but that lots of people did not get seen. We observed this later. Scores of mothers and children, waiting in line, sheltering from the blistering midday sun underneath a tarpaulin cover, hoping to see a doctor or nurse. Whatever medical aid is getting through is clearly woefully insufficient.
In the midst of these appalling conditions, we encountered—rather incongruously—a tent filled with high tech phone and video equipment. A young mother was sitting inside and calling a relative in Malaysia, asking him to send money so that she could care for her sick mother. He had apparently left by boat some years previously. We asked about these boats leaving Burma, and whether others in the camp were keen to go too. Some nodded. But others, seemingly in charge of the tent, were evasive and hostile, and we judged that we should not stay long. We later heard from UN officials that people smugglers are very active in the camps. Given the desperate conditions there, many more Rohingya are likely to seek out their services and flee, despite the perilous journey and the abuses they may suffer on arrival.\
This is the untold story of the Burmese elections. The international community is keen to talk up the country's flagging reform process and see the elections as a milestone in Burma's transition to democracy, even while acknowledging the many serious deficiencies in the election process. But for the Rohingya the process is worse than flawed. They have lost their voting rights, been denied citizenship, and struggle to survive - while those who rule the country show them only hatred and hostility.
Faced with abuse and misery on this scale, foreign governments, including the U.K., should be exerting much more pressure on Naypyidaw to allow full humanitarian access to the camps, the safe return of Rohingya to their homes or voluntary resettlement for the displaced, the restoration of voting rights, a non-discriminatory citizenship law, and an end to their unconscionable persecution.
The plight of the Rohingya is not the only issue facing Burma. But it is perhaps the single most defining test of that government's commitment to democratic change and the rule of law, as well as the efficacy of the international community's efforts to promote reform in Burma. It is a test they are both failing.