Why Seattle refugees aren’t all thrilled about the historic election in Burma

Supporters celebrate as they watch official results from the election in front of the National League for Democracy Party (NLD) head office in Yangon. (Photo by REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)
Supporters celebrate as they watch official results from the election in front of the National League for Democracy Party (NLD) head office in Yangon. (Photo by REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

Last Sunday, Burmese citizens flooded voting centers to participate in the country’s first democratic election in years. In a landslide victory, the National League for Democracy, helmed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, claimed an absolute majority of parliamentary seats. Election officials confirmed the results Friday morning.

Although the military in Burma, also known as Myanmar, will still hold a quarter of parliamentary seats, the current government officials and military leaders have agreed to step down. Here’s more from The Washington Post:

Experts say that the weeks ahead will be an important test to see whether Burma’s generals — who ran the government for more than 50 years before taking steps to open up the country in 2010 — are really willing to see democracy flourish.

Politics in Burma are complicated by the country’s ethnic diversity. The Burman make up the majority of the population and have dominated in the political sphere. But there are 134 other ethnic groups recognized by the government, including the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan. Others, like the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, are not recognized by the government.

More than 14,500 refugees from Burma — mostly from the Chin and Rohingya ethnic groups — were resettled in the U.S. in 2014, with hundreds of them landing right here in Washington state.

In Seattle, Suu Kyi’s win is a source of mixed feelings. For Mona Han, who was a student activist in Burma during the student revolts in 1988, this year’s election results were a long time coming. Today, Han is the executive director for the Coalition of Refugees from Burma in Seattle.

For her party to really win a landslide victory like this … it’s almost a shutout. So that is personally very enlightening, rewarding, and hopeful for me,” said Han.

But in her work as an advocate for ethnic minorities in Burma, Han recognizes that the fight to restore stability to the country is far from over. Over the last 50 years, the military has taken over resource-rich ethnic lands, exploiting and pushing people out in the process.

“Coming from their perspective, it’s different because very little has changed. When I talk to communities I serve, they say ‘It doesn’t really make a difference for my village. My village is gone,’” she said.

A family at a refugee camp in Thailand, where there are thousands of UN-recognized refugees awaiting resettlement. (Photo by Mikhail Esteves)
A family at a refugee camp in Thailand, where there are thousands of UN-recognized refugees awaiting resettlement. (Photo by Mikhail Esteves)

In the Rakhine state, along the western coast of Burma, Buddhist nationalists have targeted and attacked Rohingya Muslims and destroyed their villages. The Rohingya have been denied citizenship, blocked from voting, and barred from entering political races. In this week’s election, they were still denied the vote and barred from holding seats in parliament.

Ismail Abdul Zawill is a Rohingya refugee who resettled in Seattle in 2012 after living in Malaysia for three years shares these sentiments. He says the election results don’t mean much to him.

According to Zawill, in his hometown in Sittwe, the capital of the Rakhine state, hundreds of homes were set on fire by anti-Rohingya gangs in recent years. Zawill also said his uncle was killed in a conflict with Burmese military officers during the period of rioting in the Rakhine state.

From his perspective, Suu Kyi and the NLD did little to speak out against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, because the party would lose support from the Buddhist majority. As a result, Zawill believes that the Burmese military will still be heavily involved in the NLD’s affairs.

Burmese citizens are concerned whether the new government will really be a true democracy, said Han.

“I think this Rohingya issue is going to be the case for outsiders to see how genuine and true of a democracy Burma is,” she said.

For her, Burma won’t have true democracy until all ethnic minority groups have a seat at the table in the nation’s parliament.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.