Myanmar elections: Even if they bring democracy, we are not going home, say Burmese refugees in India
For over 15,000 Burmese refugees who belong to the Christian Chin ethnic group and the Muslim Rohingyas, elections will not bring any change.
Tucked away in the small by-lanes of Uttamnagar of West Delhi, in a nondescript two-storied structure, a large red banner of the Chin National Front (NCF) proclaims the lead in the fight for democracy in Myanmar. Under the iron grip of the military junta since 1962,Myanmar held its first free and fair vote on November 8, expected to mark its slow transition towards democracy. But for the pro-democracy members of the NCF in Delhi, there is little to no excitement towards what is touted as historic elections.
“For us democracy means a federal form of government. We want freedom and rights to function according to our will, which primarily means freedom to practice our religion,” says Biak Thahmun, President, Chin Refugee Committee, Delhi and member of NCF.
Identified as Christians, the Chin people are one of the eight major national ethnic groups and make up about 1% of Myanmar’s 52 million populations. However religious persecution and attempts to conversion in order to ‘Burmanise’ the population like the Buddhist majority, has led the Chin people up in arms against the government.
Earlier in October, the Myanmar government signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight armed ethnic groups including the NCF to cull the unrest and violence ahead of the national elections. A political dialogue is to begin between the armed groups and the government in 90 days of the signing of the ceasefire. Neither the negotiations nor theelections will bring a rightful solution for the Chin people.
“It will be free elections, but will it be fair?” asks Sentie. 25% of the seats in Parliament as per our new constitution are reserved for the military. People will be held at gunpoint by the military and asked to vote. It is unlikely that anyone except for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — headed by the current President Thien Sein — will come to power,” says Sentie.
The National League for Democracy, in the opposition, is hoping for a landslide victory which will place its leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as the President of the country. Under the current constitution, Suu Kyi is ineligible for the post. While she is considered a beacon to lead Myanmar towards democracy, the Chin refugees do not expect Suu Kyi to lead their cause. In the past, the NLD has favoured the struggle of ethnic groups for federal form of government and offered to mediate with the armed groups. But she has refrained from taking any direct sides in the conflict between the rebels and the government and remained conspicuous by her absence in the recent ceasefire ceremony.
“We want to be the stakeholders in the country. We, the Chin people are one of the seven founders of Myanmar and we should get our rightful place, which will only come with federal autonomy,” says Albert, a community leader.
Biak, Sentie and Albert are amongst the victims of the military abuse and religious persecution who fled their mountainous Chin region undertaking days and sometimes a week-long journey by foot to reach the safe havens of Mizoram in India and then onwards to Delhi.
“We lived in daily fear for being in our home because we are Christians. The military does not allow us to pray freely, it forces us to be its bonded labourers, detains pastors and young boys. All these atrocities are carried out against us, as we continue to live in poverty struggling for the basic rights,” says Lian Thang. Chin is Myanmar’s poorest state with 70% of its population below the poverty line.
The adjacent state of Rakhine including the Rohingya Muslims, shares a fate similar to the Chin people. Ill-fated as the most persecuted people in the world, the Rohingyas like the Chins have sought refuge in neighbouring India. Even before any votes are cast, the Rohingyas see the elections as a lost cause. “They don’t want us to vote because we are Muslims. Even my aunts who are Burmese married to my Rohingya uncles will not be allowed to vote,” rued Abdullah, 24.
In February, President Sein repealed voting rights of the Rohingya Muslims under pressure from the far-Right nationalist Buddhist groups. Myanmar does not consider Rohingyas as an indigenous ethnic group nor has it ever granted them citizenship due to their faith, physical features and language, which differ from the main Burmese groups. A white card authorised by the government is the community’s only identification.
Myanmar claims the Rohingyas are Bengalis and belong to Bangladesh. However, even Bangladesh does not recognise the Rohingyas as its own. The discrimination from both Myanmar and Bangladesh have left Rohingyas nowhere to go. The communal violence in 2012, drove thousands of Rohingyas to undertake a journey by foot to Bangladesh and from there on boats to Malaysia and India. This year, the images of Rohingya migrants cramped in a boat adrift in the Andaman Sea for days with no country willing to shelter them, sent shock waves around the world. At present more than 9,000 Rohingya Muslims are registered refugees and many more stay illegally in Delhi, Jammu, Hyderabad.
“Bangladesh is our enemy. They have taken our land bordering the Rakhine state. This is why we had to leave our hometowns and come to Myanmar. But in Myanmar, they don’t want us,” says Minara who belongs to Muangdaw bordering Bangladesh. Minara is now staying in the dusty Madanpuri Khadar along with 54 other Rohingya refugee families, who have constructed shanties held by bricks, wooden boards and tarpaulin sheets on a small patch of land provided by the charitable Zakat foundation. “The government and the Muslims here have only helped us. This is a heaven for us. There is no harassment or restriction to practice our religion. If there is democracy in Myanmar like in India, why will we not go ?”
Her husband Abdullah Karim, a refugee in Delhi since 2008 and one of the few literate Rohingyas – the community is not allowed to pursue higher education in Myanmar — says that is not possible. “We have no voting rights, citizenship or even leadership. There is no unity among Rohingyas. This election or any other will not change our fate.” Suu Kyi has so far remained silent on the discrimination and ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas.
But Minara’s mother, the frail and ageing Rabiya Khatu knows better than anyone else. A refugee since her birth, who has changed two countries and lived all her life under fear and atrocities says that she will never go back to Myanmar. “Even if Rohingyas are allowed to reside in Myanmar we will not go. We will go to any other country in the world, but not back there.”