The Democracy and Human Rights Party, one of the smallest registered ones in Myanmar’s Nov. 8 general elections, is the only party willing to represent Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims, although they aren’t allowed to use "Rohingya" in their party's name.
Campaigning hasn’t gone as smoothly as for other parties. On Nov. 2, 300 people demonstrated in Maungdaw in Arakan state, where some of the worst persecution of Rohingya has taken place, to call for the disqualification of the only DHRP candidate allowed to contest by the Union Election Commission. Their ordeal in campaigning is emblematic of the entire level of bigotry faced by the downtrodden minority, with more than 100,000 continuing to live in camps for internally displaced persons, not allowed by authorities to leave. Thousands more have taken to the sea to face trafficking or violence. Many have drowned.
Khin Zaw Myint's candidacy was originally rejected by UEC, along with 16 DHRP candidates, a decision overturned on appeal for the 29-year old candidate. That decision saved the DHRP's participation in the November 8 general elections. According to electoral law, a party has to be able to field at least three candidates in order to contest.
DHRP initially presented 19 candidates. The 16 were rejected because they have been rendered stateless after the government last year decided to take back the white cards that were the only identification papers available for Rohingya. The three remaining candidates are Muslims but from Bamar (Burmese) ethnicity, not Rohingya.
In Yangon's Botathaung township at the party's headquarters, chairman U Kyaw Min tried to gather the members to prepare the campaign. As a Rohingya, he was himself rejected as a candidate by UEC.
“The authorities said we had to prove we had a citizenship card when we were born. I was born 70 years ago, citizenship cards didn't even exist at that time,” explained the retired school teacher. “I am not a candidate, because I am not a Burmese citizen, they say. Yes, I am Rohingya, I am advocating for Rohingya cause, I am fighting for Rohingya rights.”
U Kyaw Min is pessimistic. But it doesn't prevent him from fighting for his people. He thinks that politics might be the way, even if his party always seems to be one inch away from de-registration.
“We are very cautious, we try not to do anything that could harm our party.” he explained. With only three candidates running, two in Yangon division and one in Arakan State, and Muslims being so unpopular in Myanmar, U Kyaw Min doubts his party can win any seats in the Parliament. “We have to try our best up to the end, it's like a football match. We won't know unless we try. “
Meetings have to be held indoors. It’s too dangerous. They can't do public rallies like Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.
“We are afraid we could be attacked by Ma Ba Tha (a group of extremist anti-Muslim Buddhist monks). The police would even encourage them if we were attacked.” U Kyaw Min added. So they go door-to-door. “People are more sensitive to our cause this way,” said a Yangon division candidate, Thu Thu Win, 62 years old.
During the campaign, young Rohingya women are the most active, going from house to house trying to speak with the residents. More than a million Muslims live in the Yangon division and DHRP members have to target these “friendly” neighborhoods to avoid surprises. “What if someone throws rocks at us?” Daw Thin Ye campaign manager, asked. “Now people in Yangon are not hostile to any communities, but the Ma Ba Tha and the authorities are trying to change this mindset.”
For their lonely candidate in Arakan State, things are worse. There, more than one million of Rohingya remain in limbo, cornered in refugee camps and denied the most basic rights: neither access to education, health care or enough food or clean water. They won't vote on Nov. 8. Amnesty International predicts “a disaster.” The monsoon season is over and "thousands of [Rohingya] people will take boats over the coming month" to flee from Myanmar. “There were three millions of us, now it is only half. It is ethnic cleansing. If we don't leave, we know they will kill us,” U Kyaw Min added.
Indeed, a report released in October by the Yale Law School concluded that Rohingya are the victims of continuing genocide. Since General Ne Win's military coup in 1962, the junta developed a Buddhist ethno-nationalist narrative regarding Arakan’s history. Today, many Myanmar scholars continue claim falsely that the Muslim population in Arakan were brought by British colonials and that they don’t belong to the “national races list” of the 1982 citizenship law.
Despite that, there is serious historical ground to prove they were in Myanmar long before the British came, while the very notion of “national races” in Burmese history remains highly controversial.
With only days before the elections, all eyes have been on the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy – although not all eyes.
“Aung San Suu Kyi never said Rohingya belong to Burma. She said we have some rights but we are not citizens. She only said that no one should kill us, whoever we are, and that's it,” the DHRP chairman said. “There is no voice for minorities in the NLD. They don't listen to our suffering. And they are racist.”
The same applies to most political parties across the country. The FIDH released a report a few days ago, a survey of the “country's political parties' attitudes toward human right issues, in which “42 percent (of the political parties) refused to respond to the question on how (they) would address discrimination against Muslim Rohingya” and 74 percent don't really see the point in amending the 1982 Citizenship Law to “ensure Muslim Rohingya have equal access citizenship rights.”
Most of the political parties choose to ignore the Rohingya situation, arguing it is a matter of designing a proper immigration policy for Myanmar and that's it. Before creating his own party, U Kyaw Min wondered if he should join NLD ranks. “I decided not to. And I was right. There is not a single Muslim among their candidates.”
“We don't need NGOs, we need help from countries that can influence Myanmar and talk government to government,” the chairman added. But at that, U Kyaw Min doesn't have any illusions about international support. Countries in the world will just “turn a blind eye,” he says, more concerned about economic partnership with the newly opened Myanmar government. Even the Rohingya, however, are aware the solution can only really come from the inside.
Matthieu Baudey and Carole Oudot are French freelance journalists working in Myanmar.