Exiles from the Muslim minority currently living in the capital are not optimistic about returning home anytime soon.
“Nothing will change after the elections. Even after everything that has happened, Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent about the Rohingya.” Ohmar Lynn, 32, has lived in West Delhi’s Vikaspuri area since 2014. She is one of the thousands of Rohingya Muslims displaced from their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and forced to make perilous journeys of migration to neighbouring countries. In Delhi, the news that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has won a landslide victory in the Myanmar elections brings cold comfort to this exiled minority.
Temporary citizens no longer
The military junta took away their rights of citizenship and branded them illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The majority Buddhist Rakhines have targeted them in periodic bouts of violence, especially since 2012. If the Rohingya were stateless before, the months leading up to the elections have made them invisible in the eyes of the state.
The Citizenship Act of 1982 recognised 135 ethnic groups as citizens of Myanmar. The Rohingya were not among them. “We were fully recognised before 1982,” said Nizamuddin, Ohmar’s husband, who works as an interpreter with the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Delhi. “Aung San Suu Kyi has the same citizenship card as my father and older brother.”
After 1982, the Rohingya were issued “temporary citizenship” cards. “At the end of April this year, they took those away,” said Nizamuddin. “Instead, they issued us slips which cannot be used as identity proof. Now, we have no documents.”
Banned from the ballot
The same systems of discrimination continued when the elections were conducted.
“We had no voting rights and could not put up any candidates,” said Lynn, whose parents and siblings still live in Maungdaw township in Rakhine State. In the last general elections, held in 2010, all the Rohingya had been allowed to vote, she said. This time, only a select few had that privilege – about 220 Rohingya in the Rakhine capital of Sittwe, 72 in Maungdaw and 33 in Budhitaung. According to reports, 7.6 lakh Rohingya were not allowed to vote.
In 2010, Rohingya parties had fielded their own candidates and the elections had yielded 10 Rohingya Members of Parliament from Rakhine State. This year, they were not even allowed to contest.
Days before the election, the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is backed by the military, held meetings across Rakhine State. “They said the two communities [Rakhines and Rohingya] must compromise and move on,” said Hujzaet Islam, another Rohingya who fled Rakhine State in 2008 and now lives in Vikaspuri. “They gave us hope that peace would be restored and our rights would be restored. But it was only to appease international opinion.”
A vote for the majority
Insecurities among the Rohingya, both in Myanmar and in exile, have been heightened by the Arakan National Party’s claims of having won the majority of the seats in Rakhine State. The ANP was formed last year following the merger of two Rakhine parties. A hardline Buddhist party, the ANP peddles in a virulent brand of nationalism, fed by notions of ethnic purity and anti-Muslim sentiment. The party reportedly lobbied to disenfranchise Rohingya voters and distributed pamphlets bearing the legend, “Love your nationality, keep pure blood, be Rakhine and vote ANP”.
The ANP represents Rakhine interests while the USDP operates at the national level. “But the ANP also takes directions from the military,” said Islam. “Both parties have the same policy towards us, which is to eliminate us from Myanmar.”
“Things will only get worse for us under the ANP,” said Mohammad Salim, a Rohingya from Budhitaung in Rakhine State. Salim left behind his wife and three of his children when he fled Myanmar in 2010.
Suu Kyi’s National League Democracy proved to be an inadequate buffer against the onslaught of the hardline parties. “Suu Kyi had put up Rohingya candidates in Maungdaw and Budhitaung,” said Nizamuddin. “But two months before the elections, the government order banned Rohingya from standing for elections. So she removed them, even though they have been with her since 1999. She fielded candidates from the Rakhine community, but lost because these towns have large military camps, which support the USDP.”
The Rohingya worry that even with the best of intentions, Suu Kyi will be hemmed in by the power-sharing arrangement built into the constitution by the military junta. The constitution of 2008 guarantees 25% of the parliamentary seats to nominees of the army. “The military retains control of the home, defence and border affairs ministries, so little changes for the Rohingya who live in the border areas,” said Nizamuddin.
More recent changes to the constitution, drafted by the military, ban anyone with foreign relations from becoming president. This stipulation rules out Suu Kyi, who was married to a British national and whose sons hold British passports.
Islam is now worried about the shape of the government that will emerge. “The NLD has won but there is no official announcement. What if there is an alliance government with other parties?” Islam said. “It remains to be seen how much power she has at the Centre and how much influence she has in the different regions. But she did win the Nobel Peace Prize and is a human rights activist. Maybe she will be able to do something in the long run.”
Nizamuddin foresees a long process. “Suu Kyi will make promises of reform to the international community but it will take time,” he said.
Point of return
All the Rohingya in Delhi want to go home, but the chances of return look bleaker than ever.
Nizamuddin, who had worked as a supervisor for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees hostels in Myanmar, was hounded out of the country. Soon after the violence of 2012 broke out, the government made a list of 24 UNHCR workers who were to be arrested. Nizamuddin’s name was among them.
“Who will solve his case?” asked Ohmar. “We do not want to live in India. We have three daughters and we constantly worry about their safety in Delhi. We want the UNHCR to repatriate us or resettle us. I have a sister who lives in Holland.”
For Salim, meanwhile, refuge is a priority. “We will go where we get citizenship, whether it is Myanmar or India,” he said.