U Shwe Maung has been a rare advocate for the Rohingya in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party since being elected to the lower house seat of Buthidaung in northern Rakhine State in 2010. Earlier this month, he announced his intention to cut ties with the USDP and contest the November 8 election as an independent.
Rohingya voted in the 2010 election and the 2012 by-elections but tens of thousands have been disenfranchised by a government decision earlier this year to invalidate the temporary identity documents known as white cards.
Frontier spoke with U Shwe Maung about political development since 2010, Rohingya rights and prospects for reconciliation in Rakhine State. The interview occurred a few hours before U Shwe Maung received a letter from election officials saying he was ineligible to contest the election because his parents were not Myanmar citizens, a claim he vigorously rejects.
Why do you dispute the UEC’s claim that you are ineligible to contest the election?
I was eligible in 2010, five years ago. Now, the same district election commission says I am not eligible because my parents were not citizens. This is illogical and ridiculous for me. I have the right to appeal to the Rakhine State electoral sub-commission, so I will do that.
Why did you decide to break ranks with the USDP?
The reason I chose to [leave the party] is because I want to work independently. It will be more efficient for me. Secondly, the human rights situation in Rakhine State has not improved as we expected. So therefore, I have to continue politics. At the same, the USDP did not nominate any Muslim Rohingya from Buthidaung or Maungdaw, and since I have to continue in politics, I cannot do this by staying in the USDP.
One journalist told me after returning from Buthidaung that there are just ten registered Rohingya voters there, and about 100 in Maungdaw. Ten voters cannot elect me in Buthidaung Township. The reason why I submitted my forms for contestation is because I want to advocate for the rights of the people, and as an independent candidate I will be able to do this better. Voting rights are among the most important rights for my people.
Why were most Rohingya able to vote in 2010 but have been disenfranchised by the decision to invalidate white cards?
As far as I have learned from other sources, the reason [Rohingyas were allowed to vote in] the 2010 election was because of international pressure and the legitimacy [of the government]. There was a boat people issue – especially Rohingya – before 2010. At the same time, the Myanmar government wanted to transition from a military regime to a democratic government. As the Rohingya issue is one of the biggest issues in Myanmar, therefore they allow [Rohingyas] to [participate] in the election.
Over the past five years, I have raised all the issues [facing Rohingya people], but nothing has improved. If anything, things have become worse. I am the only MP who speaks loudly. There have been a lot of reforms – in the telecommunications sector, in the peace sector, in other institutions and procedures and freedom of speech. Although the situation of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State is the worst it has been in history, I can say that there has been improvement in other areas. The legitimacy and recognition is a feather in the government’s cap. For the sake of international legitimacy and cooperation, I think the Myanmar government thought the [Rohingya] issue would be minor. But this time, they are not allowing voting.
Since I was elected in 2010, [Rohingyas] have been [scapegoated] by ultranationalists – both inside and outside Rakhine State. At the same time, the USDP was blamed by these ultranationalists for selecting Muslim MPs. If they continued to nominate us, maybe the USDP is thinking that it might lose votes in other areas. Therefore, they may think it’s better for them to not nominate Muslims.
Is this also the case with the NLD and other opposition parties?
In that sense, yeah. It’s also the same. The NLD did not nominate a single Muslim, although the vast majority of the population in Maungdaw and Buthidaung are Rohingya Muslims.
Most Rohingya have resisted the denial of their identity by the government, which insists that you be referred to as ‘Bengali’. Might it not be better to compromise on the ‘Bengali’ issue for the sake of better rights?
Only people who are working as agents of the government [believe this]. Just a handful of individuals, at most. People with very good connections with the government.
In the 2010 election, because the government allowed white card holders to vote, people were happy to do so. They thought that, at least, if we elect an MP that can represent our needs, we will receive our pink [full citizenship] cards. My election promise was based on one thing: I said I am not state authority or immigration, but I will do my utmost best and make my voice as loud as possible until our rights are restored, if you elect me. Apart from this, I did not promise anything, because this is the key issue for the people.
Rohingyas were not very serious about demanding [ethnic recognition] before the 2012 violence. During and after the violence, some ultranationalists – including immigration officials – started telling the public [Rohingyas] were illegal immigrants, illegal Bengalis. Aliens. They are not from Myanmar. So many accusations. Finally, we have been accused of being foreigners. So now is the time: we need to explain to them that we are not foreigners or illegal immigrants. We are Rohingyas. The more they [officials] tell people they are Bengali, the more people tell them they are not Bengalis.
Also, people are taking advantage of new freedoms. Before 2010, advocating for a Rohingya identity was illegal and people were [punished]. That’s one improvement I have to praise: we can advocate for Rohingya identity, and the government cannot take action, because this is freedom of speech. People have the right to say who they are.
If the government were to issue a national ID card without any fields for [indicating] race or religion, that would be best. Other ethnicities might object, but [Rohingyas] would not. Because we have the ‘Union spirit.’ We are part of Myanmar, so let us work as part of Myanmar. Let us work together to develop our country. [Categorising] people based on ethnicity and religion doesn’t help in terms of reform or nation-building.
There is little space for Muslim participation in governance and society, and in politics. Why has Myanmar not been able to secularise its politics?
If you ask some other Myanmar people, they will say, “Other countries are other countries. This is Myanmar. This is our culture, and our land [with] a Buddhist majority.” But what I can tell you is that if we set up a secular state, our country will develop very quickly. If not, [development] will be very slow.
What are the prospects for Rohingya political and human rights, particularly with the election on the horizon?
I believe that the post-election period will be better for the Rohingya people. At this time, they have so many problems. Both the USDP and NLD want to win the election. [As far as the parties are concerned], the most important agenda right now is to have a landslide victory. If the USDP nominates a Muslim, they believe they will lose all votes not just in that area [northern Rakhine] but for the entire country. This goes for the NLD, too. This is why they are not [championing Rohingya rights]. For example, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Right now, she is very reluctant to talk about human rights for Rohingya people. But if an NLD-backed candidate were to become president, that might change.
After the election, it is very possible that the government will issue citizenship cards. Either with the Rohingya name or without, because the name ‘Bengali’ is rejected by Rohingya people. [The new temporary, light-green] ID cards do not have fields for race or religion. So after the election, the government may issue pink ID cards that do not mention race or religion, either.
Is there political will to do so?
I don’t know exactly how much they will change, but I am very sure that political willingness will be very different after the election as compared to before the election.
To be legal, [the government’s steps] will have to be logical. When we talk about the 1982 Citizenship Law, we cannot ignore the 1948 Citizenship Law, because the 1982 Citizenship Law itself does not ignore the 1948 Citizenship Law. It does not revoke it automatically. In the last section, some rights of the 1948 Citizenship Law should be restored. The 1982 Citizenship Law can revoke the earlier law – but it cannot revoke rights.
The Buddhist nationalist Rakhine National Party is likely to sweep the state hluttaw and win more seats in the Union parliament in the November election. How would that affect the Rohingya?
I don’t think whether the RNP wins a landslide victory or not will make a significant change, according to our constitution. Proposed amendments that would allow the chief minister to be elected by their own MPs were shut down, but it was this hope that prompted [RNP leader] Dr Aye Maung to contest for state parliament, not Union parliament. Regardless, it will not be able to lead the government. Of course, some cabinet ministers will [come from the RNP], but the president will still nominate the chief minister.
Now, I am talking with Rakhine MPs who might be elected. They say that we need to cooperate. If Rakhines and Muslims cooperate, our state will develop. I agree with that. That is the reason I set up AIPAD (the Arakan Institute for Peace and Development). I founded this organisation with good aims, and AIPAD now has 20 members, all of whom are Rohingya. They are people who want peace in Rakhine State, people who want to live side-by side: Businesspeople, activists, university students – mostly youth, because the role of youth is very important.
The Rakhine agree on principle, but they are not fully participating. But they like the idea. If we make development, it should be for all. When we talk about human rights, there needs to be peace, and both are [prerequisites] for development. I have spoken with the Rakhine Chief Minister [U Maung Maung Ohn] and Dr Aye Maung and they agree – they want peace, stability and development.
If Dr Aye Maung and I can agree, maybe more people will come and help us on this issue in Rakhine State. If we are far from each other, we cannot sit together, and peace and development will be far away.