PAUKTAW — In October two years ago, Zaw Lin ran to the top of a forested hill behind his thatch-roof farm house in this tiny hamlet of Pauktawin Burma’s southern Arakan State.
His family is Muslim. He and his relatives were running for their lives as sword-wielding Arakanese Buddhists, angry about reports of a Buddhist woman allegedly raped by Muslim men in nearby Thandwe, were on the rampage, torching down Muslim houses and now about to enter his village.
While he was running away with his wife and two children, Zaw Lin said he managed to call a police station, two miles away from his village to ask for help. But none came.
Although his family survived, dozens of Muslim houses including his own in Pauktaw were burned to the ground and a 91-year-old Muslim woman was tossed into the fire by a Buddhist mob in the neighboring village of Thebyu Chai.
He says he does not bear grudge against his Buddhist neighbors.
“We all were victims. The Rakhine [Arakanese] Buddhists were also used by those who wanted to exploit the religion for attacks against Muslims,” he said, while sitting on the bamboo floor of the house he rebuilt after the violence of 2013.
Zaw Lin’s family are Kaman Muslims, which unlike Rohingya Muslims, are considered indigenous to Burma and are one of the officially recognized ethnic minority groups in the Buddhist-majority country.
Although they converted to Islam over six centuries ago, they share the customs and cultures of Arakanese Buddhists, and are settled mostly in the coastal cities of Thandwe, Kyaukphyu, Sittwe and Yanbye.
The Kaman Muslims were caught up in the deadly sectarian clashes that erupted in 2012 between the stateless Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists. Following the violence, the Kaman have faced discrimination by the authorities on grounds of their religion, including a crackdown on citizenship rights.
But rather than allying themselves with their Muslim brothers, Kaman leaders have tried to distance themselves from the stateless Rohingya, and hope Sunday’s election will be a watershed that could reverse the fortunes of the embattled group.
While the more than one million Rohingya Muslims live in apartheid-like conditions and have been disenfranchised in the election, most Kaman still have the right to vote. And after a tumultuous few years under the rule of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), support is strong for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).
“We have seen how the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party have managed the country in very bad ways during the past five years,” said Tin Maung Tun, a private school teacher in Thandwe.
“So our Kaman community leaders have made a decision to choose NLD in the elections because we want to see the rule of law in this country.”
The Kamans, estimated to number about 50,000 in the whole country, with around 20,000 living in Arakan State, have faced discrimination since 2012 simply because most are Muslims, said Than Win, a politician from the Kaman National Development Party in Thandwe, who is running for a seat in the Arakan State legislature in the Nov. 8 election.
He said that since the clashes, the Kamans in Arakan State were no longer given national identity cards, without which they cannot travel out of their hometowns and access higher education.
“Every Kaman who was 18 years old before the riots got their national identity cards and can still travel anywhere, but the younger generation is denied citizenship,” said Than Win in an interview with Myanmar Now in his home in Thandwe.
“We are discriminated against, just because we are Muslims. My son cannot go to the university because he does not have a national identity card even though I am a legal citizen of this country and a holder of national identity card.”
He added that the Kamans who were born after the riots were even denied birth certificates and some Kaman farmers have been finding it difficult to apply for land ownership registrations because they do not have the national identity cards.
Three Kaman Muslim girls in his neighborhood who secretly went to Rangoon and returned to Thandwe with fake national identity cards were recently caught by the police and sentenced to six months in jail.
Hla Toe, the chairman of Kaman National Development Party—the only Kaman party in the elections— which is fielding two parliamentary candidates in Arakan State and another two in Rangoon—said that he held three rounds of discussions with Arakanese regional authorities in 2014 and 2015 over the citizenship rights of the Kamans, but without any result.
“The chief minister Maung Maung Ohn said he would consult with the Rakhine community leaders about my request and to give him some time for that, but nothing was followed up,” he said.
But in this election, Kaman Muslims who are over 18 but without a national identity card will be able to vote if they are recommended by their ward and village authorities, according to the elections commission officials in Thandwe.
The Arakan National Party (ANP), representing the dominant ethnic group in the state, is the most powerful political party in the coastal territory after the USDP and NLD.
Than Win said the ANP had alienated the Kamans by focusing on its own nationalistic goals, and so Kaman voters would throw their support behind the NLD.
“I view the Rakhines as our big brother. We want to support them. But since they see us as just Muslims not very different from the Bengalis, we will have to vote for the NLD,” he said, referring to Rohingya Muslims.
He said he would be voting for himself for the state parliamentary seat but would vote NLD for the national Parliament and he expects an NLD-led government to swiftly resolve the citizenship issue of the Kamans.
The NLD’s leader, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been criticized for her reluctance to speak out against the persecution of Muslims in Burma.
Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks have stoked anti-Muslim tensions in the run-up to the election and the NLD has not fielded a single Muslim candidate.
Nevertheless, Zaw Lin from the village of Pauktaw said he would vote NLD for the union parliament.
“I am very optimistic that the NLD will be able to work towards a political system under which all ethnic groups are equally treated,” he said.
While the Kaman voters in the southern Arakan State may vote for the NLD, in the state’s north voters are more likely to choose the ANP or USDP because of nationalist propaganda which started after 2012 riots that claimed the NLD favors the Rohingya Muslims.
“NLD is very weak here in the public. So I will vote for the ANP for the Lower and Upper House seats,” said Kyaw Nyein, the MP candidate of the Kaman National Development Party in Sittwe who himself is running for a state parliamentary seat in Arakan State.
In his election campaigns, Kyaw Nyein said he has focused on clarifying to the locals, both Arakanese Buddhists and Kaman, that that the Kamans, though Muslims, are officially recognized ethnic people, not “Bengali Muslims,” the official term for the stateless Rohingya Muslims. Burmese authorities maintain that Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“During my tours, I have emphasized this point because the main problem for Kamans is being mistaken as Rohingyas,” he said.
In an attempt to show its solidarity with the Arakanese, his party even released a statement last year calling on authorities not to include the Rohingya as an ethnic group in the national census conducted last year.
“What matters is the status of the Kaman after the elections,” he said.