In the 1970s, Oo Hla Saw organized street protests against Myanmar strongman General Ne Win. Today, he faces a very different fight as defender of a political party that is dominated by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and linked to bloody assaults on Muslims.
The secretary-general of the Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP) denies his party led or organized attacks against Rohingya Muslims in a wave of sectarian violence in late October that killed at least 89 people. But grass-roots members may be involved, he conceded in an interview with Reuters. A military intelligence officer told Reuters RNDP members were among the instigators.
The RNDP, set up in 2010 to run in Myanmar's first elections in two decades, is known for tapping into a centuries-old nationalist fervor. The Rakhine are an ethnic minority within Myanmar who make up a majority in Rakhine State in the country's West. Many RNDP members proudly recall the Rakhine Buddhist kingdom that dominated the area until a 1784 invasion by Burmans - the largest of Myanmar's ethnic groups, who are also primarily Buddhists.
After the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26, the British Raj annexed the region, known then as Arakan, and built a powerful economy with labor from neighboring Bangladesh. The RNDP says descendents of those workers invented an entirely new ethnicity, Rohingya, to stake an ancestral claim to the area and earn Myanmar citizenship. Rohingya contend their roots stretch back centuries in Rakhine State.
"They make many fabrications," said Oo Hla Saw.
The Rakhines' historic rivals, the Burmans, today dominate the country's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by former generals of the military junta that oppressed Myanmar for nearly half a century. USDP Chairman Thein Sein, a Burman former general, leads Myanmar's 18-month-old reformist government.
In Rakhine State, the RNDP remains a powerful force, a magnet for ethnic Rakhine nationalists and tough competition for the USDP in the area.
President Thein Sein has warned the RNDP it could be dissolved if found to have incited attacks on Muslims, according to the RNDP and a military source. But the party doesn't seem worried. Early this month, Oo Hla Saw met Aung Min, a minister in the president's office.
"He told us that the government does not intend to link the violence to any one political party," said Oo Hla Saw. "But lower elements of our party may have been involved in this fighting, he told us." Aung Min didn't reply to a request for comment.
"We only want peace and stability," Oo Hla Saw added. "But on the grass-roots level, our supporters can be involved in this fighting. Some villagers were arrested for holding hand-made guns. They may be our party members."
(Reporting by Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Michael Williams)