When U Aye Maung, leader of the Arakan National Party (ANP), arrived in Sittwe recently, he was greeted with a drum band and a crowd of supporters. But the relatively muted reception reflected the mixed electoral outcome in Rakhine State.
The ANP met expectations by winning a raft of state and national seats – but U Aye Maung himself did not win one. As a result, the ANP is a divided political force as it prepares to join the parliament in which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s victorious National League for Democracy will have the lion’s share of seats. The lingering question is how this new electoral reality will impact the long-standing ethnic, religious and economic issues that have kept Rakhine State riven by conflict and effectively segregated since 2012.
The election results may appear to be in the ANP’s favour: In Rakhine they won 12 out of 17 national lower house seats, and 10 of 12 national upper house seats. But at the state level their 23 seats fell short of an outright majority, with nine going to the NLD, three to the military-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party and 12 handed over as unelected military seats.
But the ANP’s state-wide victories pale in comparison to the NLD’s national landslide and overwhelming mandate for Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi. In a visit to the ANP offices in Sittwe in mid-September, I learned from senior party leaders that their strategy was to defeat the USDP and the NLD to ensure a majority of state and national seats, and secure their claim to have an ethnic Rakhine as the state’s chief minister. Under the 2008 constitution, the powerful state-level position is selected by and reports to the president.
In a pre-election interview, U Aye Maung repeated his fear-mongering rhetoric, raising the spectre of a Muslim takeover and ethnic Bamar economic plunder to justify greater local Rakhine rule: “If the Union government and [chief] minister are from the NLD there won’t be any chance to defend [ourselves]. They will start measuring [everything] using a human rights yardstick, as per their party policy. That’s why we [Rakhine] don’t have any choices. We need a government that sees [things] the same way. Otherwise, we will disappear.”
It is not just long-standing Rakhine grievances over Bamar rule that will test this relationship. Post-election stability will also be tested by the state and national government’s treatment of an estimated 1.2 million ethnic Muslims, most of whom call themselves Rohingya and are officially defined as Bengalis. Since the violence of 2012 between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims displaced over 140,000 people and entrenched the segregation of the Rohingya community, there has been renewed persecution of the largely stateless minority, including the loss of partial citizenship rights when temporary ID cards were revoked, and then the stripping of their voting rights, which had been granted in the 2008 referendum on the constitution and the 2010 elections. This disenfranchisement counted high among the democratic deficiencies of the otherwise procedurally smooth and violence-free 2015 polls.
Amid rising anti-Muslim sentiment fuelled by ultra-nationalist monks since 2013, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was caught in a bind between growing international calls for her to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya, and domestic fears that any voicing of support for them, or Muslims in general, would diminish her domestic electoral appeal. Her response to the persecution has been largely one of silence.
During the May-June 2015 boat crisis, which saw thousands of desperate migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh cast adrift and denied entry to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, the NLD’s delayed statement acknowledged that the flight was due in part to the 2012 violence, and that resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) was necessary. The NLD also stated that the government needed to “address the issue of citizenship fairly, transparently, and as quickly as possible”. But this is something the government has manifestly failed to do.
At her press conference days ahead of the November 8 polls, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said about the situation in Rakhine State, “I think it’s very important that we should not exaggerate the problems in this country … I would promise everybody who is living in this country proper protection in accordance with the law and in accordance with the norms of human rights.” But in response to a pointed question on amending the 1982 Citizenship Law, which has been used to deprive Rohingya of full citizenship, she ducked the question by saying that repealing any law was up to parliament.
For over two years, the government has been toying with a so-called “Rakhine Action Plan”, which promises to tackle citizenship, displacement, economic unfairness and security, but in draft form was a blueprint for permanent segregation and did not ensure that the Rohingya would be eligible for citizenship. Tellingly, the plan also failed to address substantive rights issues or the need for accountability for the 2012 violence. The plan has now languished, and many observers suspect it has been shelved in response to more coordination with the United Nations, international donors and a more amenable state government under the former chief minister, U Maung Maung Ohn, who contested and won the state seat of Ann township and has privately expressed a desire to be chief minister again.
The improved, if still limited, cooperation between local government officials and foreign aid workers, which has resulted in small-scale IDP “resettlement” in parts of Rakhine State in 2015, has not yet seriously addressed the deep divisions of its communities, especially in the townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, where an urban majority of Muslims belies the stark rural segregation and overt security presence. These are areas from where many Rohingya have fled. Yet recent research indicates there may be some increased willingness of communities in some rural areas, away from the diatribes heard in Sittwe, to cooperate in development and live together.
There are immense challenges for the NLD, the ANP and all communities in Rakhine State to turn away from years of violence and fear. But whatever government takes power in Sittwe should start by scrapping discriminatory laws, removing restrictions on freedoms of movement, enabling access to healthcare and education to all who need it, and protecting religious freedoms, which includes stopping public rhetoric of racist vilification that sparks violence. How the ANP responds to these opportunities and challenges will be a key determining factor for the future of their own community and interests as well as of the Rohingya.
David Scott Mathieson is a senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.