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Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh eye Myanmar elections


Coc’s Bazar (Bangladesh) : Despite restrictions on movement, marriage and education, Rohingya in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State have been given the right to vote in Myanmar’s Nov 7 elections, and many of the over 200,000 Rohingya refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh see in this a semblance of hope.

“We didn’t come to Bangladesh to make a life. We came here for justice,” Shira Banu, an undocumented Rohingya who arrived in Bangladesh 15 years ago when the Burmese army seized her land, said.

“If the government in Burma removes the restrictions and if the Jatishanga [UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR] comes with us, then we would like to go home,” the 50-year-old said.

“Our only hope is if Aung San Suu Kyi comes to power. Her father was a good leader so she will be too,” said Banu.

IRIN interviewed over 20 Rohingya from the Cox’s Bazar area who expressed similar opinions.

But the iconic Burmese Nobel laureate, whose party the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the last elections over two decades ago, has been under house arrest for 11 of the past 16 years, and won’t be participating in the elections.

“Despite the violation of their human rights, the Rohingya [in Myanmar and Bangladesh] see this as their only shot at freedom and they want to take it,” Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, a human rights organization specializing in the Rohingya, told IRIN.

Some say the Rohingya vote is being vied for by others.

In 2007 the Rakhine Buddhist monks showed their opposition to the State Peace and Development Council (SDPC – the official name given to the junta) mainly in Sitwe, the capital of Rakhine State, and the regime is unsure whether the monks will support the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which would like to take over from the SDPC.

“The Rohingya were given the vote earlier this year by the regime to try and manipulate the ballot box by promising freedom and citizenship. However, few expect a shift in policy,” said Fayas Amed, editor of the Kaladan Press, a Bangladesh-based e-magazine covering the Burmese elections.

In 2007 the SDPC introduced a new constitution which reserves a quarter of seats in both houses of parliament for officers, and effectively bars Aung San Suu Kyi from holding office.

Under an election law passed in early 2010, the Electoral Commission is chosen solely by Myanmar’s military rulers. Those holding temporary registration cards, including the Rohingya, will be allowed to vote.

Lewa points out that the government move to give the Rohingya the vote, does not mean the community’s lot will improve.

“You have to consider the Rakhine Buddhist population in Rakhine State too, who have already protested over the possibility of Muslim Rohingya being granted citizenship. So even if the government is willing to make some concessions, you will always have opposition [to the Rohingya] from them [the Rakhine State Buddhist population],” she said.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya face similar hostility in Bangladesh, too. Many locals compete for jobs with the refugees, who are often willing to work for less than Bangladeshis.

Others worry that armed extremist gangs are radicalizing the youth of this marginalized, leaderless community, and are suspicions of drug smuggling and an increase in petty crime – rumours which are fuelled by the local press, resulting in anti-Rohingya sentiment.

“We were tortured in Burma, we are tortured in Bangladesh. The locals snatch our firewood and beat us. I’ve got stitches on my head to prove it. They break our water jugs on the way back from the tube well and even rape us. We thought we’d come here to Bangladesh, a Muslim country, but we suffer the same abuse here,” she said.

“If I’d known the situation was the same in Bangladesh I would never have come. Now I can’t go back or the Nasaka [Burmese military] will imprison me,” she said.

There are 28,000 documented Rohingya living in two government-run camps in the southeastern Bangladesh district of Cox’s Bazar – remnants of a mass influx of this ethnic, linguistic and religious minority when 250,000 fled Myanmar in 1991.

Hundreds of thousands of others – fleeing from state-sponsored persecution – have arrived since. They live in Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar districts, some in unofficial camps, but are undocumented and so have few rights.