Text by Joshua Carroll
Photo by Wikicommons
YANGON, Myanmar – At the end of August 2015 Myanmar’s President signed off on the last of four controversial bills dubbed the Race and Religion Protection Laws. The legislation was drafted by a hardline Buddhist group called Ma Ba Tha and has been condemned by rights groups, including Amnesty International, who say that it will be used to target religious minorities.
The laws are the latest setback to Myanmar’s nascent political reform process, and reflect a rising wave of Buddhist nationalism that has largely targeted the country’s Muslim minority. Bouts of rioting led by Buddhists have left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced since mid-2012. Most of the victims are Rohingya Muslims, a long-persecuted minority of roughly one million based in coastal Rakhine state.
While increasing hate speech by prominent monks has targeted all of Myanmar’s Muslims, the ethnically distinct Rohingya have suffered the brunt of increasing ultra-nationalist sentiment. Over 100,000 displaced Rohingya live under a system resembling Apartheid, separated from the Buddhist population and barred from traveling beyond barbed-wire checkpoints to the downtown area of Sittwe, Rakhine’s capital.
Inside the camps many lack basic healthcare, education and job prospects. The persecution has pushed tens of thousands of Rohingya in Rakhine to flee the country in dangerous, overloaded boats. The plight of Rohingya refugees received global attention earlier this year when a crackdown on people smugglers by Thai authorities scared many traffickers into abandoning their boats at sea, leaving thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded.
In November millions in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, will go to the polls for what has been billed as a historic general election. It is the first that the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party has agreed to contest for 25 years, and the first since the military junta stepped aside for a semi-civilian government in 2011.
But the Rohingya will be almost completely excluded from the poll. In response to nationalist protest, the government earlier this year withdrew documents called white cards, temporary citizenship cards that gave hundreds of thousands of Rohingya voting rights. As well as disenfranchising the large majority of Rohingya, authorities have systematically barred Muslim candidates from standing as members of parliament.
Even the NLD, seen for a long time by the outside world as an unrelenting advocate of human rights, has refused to field any Muslim candidates.
When the reform process began the government released hundreds of political prisoners. Among them was Wai Wai Nu, a young Rohingya woman who had served seven years of a 17-year sentence along with her immediate family, which included her father, a Rohingya politician.
But the same reform process that granted Wai Wai Nu her freedom also unleashed the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment that has only worsened the lot of the Rohingya. Upon her release from prison she founded the Women Peace Network Arakan and co-founded another group called Justice for Women.
Catalyst Asia caught up with her on Skype as she toured the US giving talks at universities ahead of a visit to Geneva, where she will advocate for recommendations on improving rights fro the Rohingya to the United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review. She is also scheduled to visit the US State Department in Washington DC, where she will call for the US to engage more with Myanmar’s government on human rights issues.
What are you hoping to achieve in Geneva?
We’ve submitted 16 recommendations about the situation in Rakhine state. The main ones are: full citizenship rights for the Rohingya, recognising the existence of Rohingya, and also eliminating discrimination for citizenship on the basis of ethnicity.
Those are the major ones but we also have recommendations on protecting freedoms in Rakhine state, particularly freedom of movement. And we’re also calling for the resettlement of displaced people, voluntarily and with safety and dignity.
Another major recommendation is ending impunity of state actors, security forces, and also having an independent monitoring body for all security forces in Rakhine state.
Those are all very large goals, how much do you think your visit to Geneva will help?
The international climate towards Burma … it’s very hard to say. Now everybody is enjoying the euphoria of change. For us there’s very little hope that we can achieve this but we hope that in the periodical review many countries will ask questions or suggest our recommendations to the government and the government will accept and implement them.
But international advocacy is a little bit discouraging in this political climate. The international community, particularly the US and European countries, just believe that the country has changed, but in reality it hasn’t happened. So it is difficult to advocate.
How did you become an activist?
I was put in prison when I was 18 in Rangoon with my whole family, and I had to stay in prison for 7 years. I found a lot of injustices … lots of girls and women were in prison because of injustice.
So since then I decided to work on changing the political system in the country. When I was released from jail we were hoping to have genuine transition. We saw some changes in the country; in the city we saw many new buildings and cars and things like that but when we heard from the corners of the country their lives hadn’t changed. Then there was the violence in 2012 … so I came into activism and I set up my organisation.
I mainly focus on the capacity building of young people in social activities, peace building and political activity using training, and also by building friendship and trust among young people.
What are the biggest challenges to gender equality in Myanmar right now?
Cultural conceptions about gender as well as a lack of rule of law and institutional discrimination. Some people say ‘it’s our culture!’ but in fact it’s discrimination against women in their daily lives. But also there is discriminative legislation towards women and a failure to promote gender equality or take affirmative action by the government.
The new Race and Religion Laws have been branded sexist. What specific dangers do they pose to women?
The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law means women cannot marry whoever they love freely. The state is influencing the women and personal, individual feelings and the right to marry whoever they love.
If they want to marry a man from a different religion they have to get permission from different layers of authority and community leaders in their towns or villages. And while you ask for permission anyone, anybody whoever it is, can object to your application and the community ward administrator can decide whether you can marry or not.
If they marry, both bride and groom can be jailed for three years. It’s not just discrimination against religious communities but also criminalisation of and interference in individual fundamental rights by the state towards the women.
Lots of Muslim candidates have been excluded from running in the November election, including your father Kyaw Min. Can you talk about the implications of that?
My father and many other Rohingya candidates were eligible in the 2010 elections and 1990 elections. But when they tried to register for this election the election commission asked them to show the documents of their great, great grandparents, evidence that they were living in, or were citizens of this country.
It’s just discrimination against those candidates based on their religion. No other candidates in Burma, particularly not Buddhists, need to show these documents.
It’s killing the voice of the minority, particularly the Rohingya and other Muslims, and is totally excluding them from the political process. It’s so shocking for us because it’s happening in democracy, or in so-called democracy.
Who do you hope will win the election?
We have no choice; we want a more democratic government so we expect the NLD will win, we hope. If we have a more democratic government we believe we can have more options.
The NLD have kept very quiet on the issue of the Rohingya, do you think if they get into power they will break their silence and become your allies?
I don’t think they can, I mean we hope they will become our allies but I don’t think it will happen. Even in the NLD there are a lot of racist people, so it will be hard. But what we hope is if we have a more democratic government we can have more chances to talk, to have dialogue and to express our voices.
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