In the mountainous, multi-cultural city of Chiang Mai, we meet a migrant who fled Myanmar 20 years ago.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are often said to be the world‘s most persecuted minority. They are an ethnic Muslim group in the majority Buddhist country and make up around one million of the total 50 million population.
They hail from the country‘s northwest and speak a Bengali dialect. Almost all live in Rakhine, one of the poorest states, with a population of three million.
About 140,000 Rohingya in the Rakhine state live in ghetto-like camps that they can‘t leave without government permission.
They are not regarded as one of the country‘s 135 official ethnic groups and are denied citizenship under Myanmar‘s 1982 Citizenship Law, which effectively renders them stateless.
To get citizenship, they need to prove they have lived in Myanmar for 60 years, but paperwork is often unavailable or denied to them. As a result, their rights to study, work, travel, marry, practise their religion and access health services are restricted.
They cannot vote and even if they jump through the citizenship test hoops, they have to identify as “naturalised” as opposed to Rohingya, and limits are placed on them entering certain professions like medicine, law or running for office.
What‘s the leadership doing about it?
Myanmar, also known as Burma, views its Rohingya population as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
While Myanmar‘s President Thein Sein has been praised for sweeping reforms since he took office in 2011, easing the Rohingya humanitarian crisis is nowhere near the top of his agenda. Indeed, his policies have often been overtly anti-Rohingya.
In October 2012, in the wake of violent riots, he asked the UN to resettle the Rohingya in other countries, saying, “We will take care of our own ethnic nationalities, but Rohingya who came to Burma illegally are not of our ethnic nationalities, and we cannot accept them here.“
The Rakhine Buddhists, meanwhile, considers themselves a distinct race, separate from the majority Burmese. They call the Rohingya “Bengalis” and also consider them immigrants, even those whose forefathers settled in the country generations ago.
Why don‘t they leave?
Recent years have seen more Rohingya make attempts to flee the country, unable to bear the deteriorating situation further.
Since 2012, the UNHCR estimates that more than 110,000 people, mostly Rohingya, left on flimsy boats to countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia.
In the first three months of 2015, the number of refugees, or “boat people” as they were collectively dubbed, doubled from a year earlier to 25,000.
Many first cross the border into Bangladesh, from where they try to get to countries with higher incomes and better treatment – though human rights abuses still exist in Southeast Asian countries in the forms of employment exploitation and discrimination.
Will things improve after the November 8 election?
Some 15 Rohingya candidates were barred in August this year from running in Myanmar‘s elections, on account of their parents being foreign-born.
Earlier this year, the government effectively disenfranchised about 700,000 people, mostly Rohingya, when it declared holders of “white cards” ineligible to vote. The cards had been issued as temporary identification documents, and white card holders had been permitted to vote in the 2010 election.
As mentioned, President Thein Sein offers little hope.
The leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, fought for decades for democracy and reform in Myanmar. But reports say none of the NLD‘s 1,151 candidates standing in regional and national elections are Muslim. She has so far been painfully reluctant to address the Rohingya issue.
In short, speaking up for the Rohingya in Myanmar would likely be viewed as going against the Buddhist majority, and, therefore, considered a dicey political move.