by Adhiraj Mukerji
Myanmar, a country mired in identity-based violence, recently held a historic election on the 8th of November. Among the many players involved, one seemed to attract the most polarised responses: enter Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD). Activist, Nobel laureate and the champion of democracy, Suu Kyi has significant support within the country and swept the polls by a landslide. In a country that was governed by a military junta for decades, only to move to the semblance of a presidency in the form of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), majorly backed by the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military), these elections stood as the litmus test of democracy and social advancement. Yet, scratch below the surface and all is not what it seems. Suu Kyi has been alleged to run an authoritarian internal structure within the party. However, it has been her silence on the persecution of the Muslim minority in the country, particularly the Rohingya conflict, which has led to the most severe criticism of the NLD, particularly outside the country.
Who are the Rohingyas?
The Rohingyas are a Muslim community who live in the western state of Rakhine. Considered to be Bangladeshi immigrants by the authorities and thus not allowed to vote, the community has suffered historical persecution at the hands of the government and its affiliates. The community forms a stateless group and thus come under no framework of protection provided by the government. Around 140,000 people from the community are thought to be displaced and live in sub-human conditions in refugee camps. Thousands of others have tried to flee the country by boat and died in the attempt or were rejected by the countries they went to and remained stranded on the vessels. That the government has been complicit in or at the very least incompetent in preventing these acts of violence is a difficult proposition to argue against. Several restrictions on the community have been introduced apart from them not being able to vote. The community has extremely limited access to health and education, face restrictive movement laws and even come under a two child limit in Rakhine. The government’s effort to remove any form of official sanction towards the group has even led to the banning of the word “Rohingya”, instead calling for the group to be called “Bengali” in a census, so as to stress on their Bangladeshi origins. The wider Muslim population were asked to officially register themselves as Indian or Pakistani in order to receive a registration card which allows them to vote and travel abroad. Interestingly, this registration is not at all dependent on the individuals in question even having relatives in India or Pakistan. The de-recognition model of the government is eerily similar to the concept of de-Stalinization. Human rights groups across the world have called the current state of affairs as “systematic weakening”, the genocidal stage prior to annihilation.
Champion of peace or political strategist?
It would be excusable to think that a personality like Suu Kyi would be automatically drawn to the plight of the Rohingyas. And yet, that does not seem to have been the case. The NLD has more than 1,100 candidates in the election. The number of Muslim candidates? Zero. The party has several Muslim members in key positions, though none of them are being allowed to stand for elections; a diktat passed NOT by the ruling USDP, but an internal decision by the NLD. Suu Kyi has historically refused to take a clear stand on the issue. She has made several generic statements relating to “equality, “safety” and “peace”; terms which sounds brilliant to hear but have remained simply that: terms.
Why then has Suu Kyi remained silent? Why does she not exemplify her stance on equality and promote Muslim candidates as well? The answer, it would seem, is the usual one: politics. The recent election was the first in decades that was considered to have the potential to be free and fair, due to the presence of international observers. There have been some key agreements between the parties though, which seem to be key in deciding Suu Kyi’s politics. The election was for both houses of parliament (330 available seats in the lower house and 168 available seats in the upper house). In both houses, 25% of the seats were reserved for the military and would not come under the electoral process. The president will be elected in 2016, after the parliament nominates two candidates and the military picked MPs select one. A vote will then be conducted in parliament. Suu Kyi has consistently stressed on her idea of national reconciliation and has stated “even if we win 100% [of the vote], we would like to make it a government of national reconciliation.” She has even said that investigations into previous atrocities allegedly committed by former regime members will not be undertaken. These stances are probably influenced by factors apart from the reserved military seats. The Buddhist nationalist Ma Ba Tha group has consistently come out with xenophobic and anti-Muslim statements. They have conducted campaigns to “spread awareness of the dangers that Muslims pose to Buddhists” and celebrate all the anti-Rohingya legislature. The government in May announced that all refugees who fled by boat and could show proof of citizenship would be brought back. While this move would realistically have no tangible effect on the Rohingya population given the previously discussed de-recognition policies, the public acknowledgement by the government that a problem existed, paved the way for the NLD to step in and champion for reforms. They remained silent. Suu Kyi has been questioned on her economic and social policies during the campaign and has been seemingly vague. She refused to discuss national reconciliation as she did not want to allow time for her opponents to develop a counter plan. This “wait and see till after the elections” approach seems to be the NLD’s strategy with regards to the Rohingyas. Funnily enough, Suu Kyi has campaigned among the Kachin and Karen groups, who are also ethnic minorities in the country fighting against persecution by the government. On the issues of the Rohingya, she says her calculated silence is not political but an attempt at minimising violence. Any movement on her part, she claims, would only exacerbate the fighting at this time. Most tellingly, Suu Kyi is banned from becoming president due to a legislation which disbars people with foreign children (her husband is a British national) from standing for election. Suu Kyi has announced though that in the event of victory, her role will be “above the president” and that “constitutions are not eternal.” All this is in a government with envisaged on national reconciliation – positively a Kejriwal-esque statement. The Ba Ma Tha group and other such hardline groups have forced Suu Kyi to not antagonize the non-Muslim voters she needs to win, especially with there being already reserved seats. These hardline groups have had some success in vilifying Muslim community in a country that is 90% Buddhist. The NLD would seem to be attempting to mitigate any ramifications of being seen to appease Muslim sentiments and deal with the issue when they form the government. However this idea is questionable at best. Given the NLD’s victory, it would require a strong stance to stop the atrocities being committed as the motivations for the persecution will not all magically disappear with a new government. Such a decisive stance would bring with its own backlash. The decisions relating to the persecution of the Muslims will be made by a body with the grand Muslim representation of zero. The NLD has failed in part of its mandate of peace and equality through its silence on the Rohingya issue. The party may want to save the Rohingyas when they come to power; though by then there may not be any Rohingyas to save.