RANGOON — Rangoon-based Arakanese civil society groups have chastised the Arakan National Party (ANP) for ignoring them after the support they gave the party during the November general election, and for failing to preserve “unity” in the Arakanese nationalist movement.
The criticism was made at a meeting on Wednesday at the Danyawaddy monastery in Rangoon’s Bahan Township between senior ANP leaders and more than 40 Rangoon-based ethnic Arakanese civil society organizations—the first such meeting to have taken place.
The meeting had a three-fold agenda: preparations for a public conference on the 1982 Citizenship Law to be held by the ANP on Sunday, broad-based collaboration with civil society in addressing the affairs of Arakan State, and the challenges being faced by the ethnic Arakanese community in Rangoon.
ANP chairman Aye Maung told those assembled that the conference on the 1982 Citizenship Law would aim to educate the public on the “strengths and weaknesses” of the law, as well as lay out how the National League for Democracy (NLD) led government is finding “loopholes” in the law to provide “Bengalis” with preliminary citizenship documentation—a reference to the citizenship verification exercise now being undertaken in Arakan State. Arakanese legal experts will take part in the conference, he said.
The 1982 law in its current form places significant barriers to citizenship for communities not listed among 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Burma.
This includes the Muslim minority in Arakan State who identify as Rohingya, most of whom remain stateless, and whom the ANP and ethnic Arakanese civil society—along with much of the Burmese public and significant sections of the government—considers illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and insists on calling “Bengali.”
At the Wednesday meeting, Arakanese youth activist Sitt Nyein addressed party chairman Aye Maung and the ANP directly, stating that, despite overwhelming support from the ethnic Arakanese community in Rangoon during the election, ANP candidates had not since interacted with Rangoon-based Arakanese civil society.
Sitt Nyein also pointed to “infighting” within the party since the election, which had caused broader “disunity” within the Arakanese community across the country.
“We need a father to rely on,” Sitt Nyein said, stating the need for a strong Arakanese ethnic party. He asked rhetorically whether they could “depend” on the party.
“Show me, what ANP has done for us?” he said, to loud applause across the meeting hall.
He recalled how ANP candidates had convinced “all Rangoon-based Arakanese civil society” to support their election campaigns, while handing out free “canned beers.” Since the election, however, they had “disappeared.”
He reminded the ANP leader that Arakanese youth are always “on standby” to champion the causes espoused by the ANP, for instance staging protests in opposition to the international community and to Aung San Suu Kyi when they go “against Arakanese national interests,” particularly regarding the stateless Rohingya.
Despite activists being detained for such protests and other personal “sacrifices,” he said, “Our efforts are in vain.”
Other civil society representatives at the meeting cited several problems faced by the ethnic Arakanese community in Rangoon, which they said had not been addressed by the party or by the Arakanese ethnic minister in the Rangoon Division government (a post elected only by ethnic Arakanese people registered as living in Rangoon Division).
The stated problems included women facing difficulties finding work in factories in the Hlaing Tharyar and Shwe Pyitha industrial zones, and being vulnerable to physical assault by “thugs;” and families facing eviction from houses when they fail to make monthly rental payments. In such cases, ethnic minister Zaw Aye Maung has offered no support, they said.
Paing Myint, who represents a small youth group, mentioned the case of 300 people working at a Shwe Pyitha garment factory, who could not afford to buy houses and so spent 4 million kyats (US$3,380) in 2013 on a stretch of land near the factory where they constructed dwellings.
This year, the new Rangoon Division government announced that they were “trespassing” on government land—as “squatters,” they would be relocated under an audacious plan devised by the NLD government to address Rangoon’s burgeoning squatter problem. Those affected appealed to the ethnic minister but received no response.
The ethnic minister Zaw Aye Maung had been invited by the civil society groups to attend the Wednesday meeting, but he was not present. ANP chairman Aye Maung said that he was there on the ethnic minister’s behalf.
The ANP party chairman acknowledged that his party faces “many challenges” but presented this as a reason why Arakanese civil society should “accelerate their collaboration” with the party.
The references to “unity” made by the civil society representatives at the meeting point to a factional tussle within the ANP that has played out over the course of 2016.
Since the November general election—where the ANP won a large plurality of seats in the Arakan State parliament and in seats representing the state in the national parliament—there has been considerable friction within the ANP regarding cooperation with the ruling NLD, which has excluded the ANP from the Arakan State government and the new high-level committee charged with overseeing Arakan State.
The friction runs between the former leaders of the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), which has historically been close to the NLD, and of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), which pushes a harder line in defending the sectarian interests of the state’s Buddhist majority, since the parties merged to form the ANP in early 2014.
The faction from the RNDP is now dominant within the ANP. After failing to be granted the position of Chief Minister of Arakan State, the ANP publicly vowed to work “in opposition” to the ruling NLD—a stance the former ALD members did not consent to.