True stripes revealed in Myanmar
By Francis Wade
CHIANG MAI – The timing of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to Europe after a 24-year absence could have been better. She leaves her country amid turmoil in its western Rakhine State, where sectarian rioting has claimed scores of victims. The period of unrest has shed a rare light on the volatile tensions that have simmered for years between the country’s dominant Buddhist population and its Muslim minority.
The week of rioting has also put Myanmar’s much lauded democratic transition under new international scrutiny. A realization seems to be emerging of the many shortcomings of President Thein Sein’s reform program that, for all its surface glint, has failed to address the deep underlying grievances among the country’s many ethnic groups.
At the same time, the situation presents the most challenging test in years of Suu Kyi’s ability to heal rifts and lead her people. Her decision to press ahead with the trip to Europe, where she will belatedly receive her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, could represent a political misstep given that the unrest marks the most clear-cut threat yet to the fragile reforms that, ironically, allowed for her election to parliament and afforded her the freedom to travel.
The violence has also spotlighted a far-reaching xenophobia within Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, long viewed by the outside world as drivers of positive change and equality. In now infamous comments, Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner who led the 1988 student uprising that was crushed by military force, referred to Myanmar’s long-persecuted Muslim minority group, the Rohingya, as “terrorists” who are “infringing on our sovereignty.”
The Rohingya, who have consistently been denied citizenship, have borne the brunt of the rioting. Medicins Sans Frontieres says that state-sponsored abuse of the group has put them “in danger of extinction”, but their protectors in Myanmar are nowhere to be seen. As the United Nations has noted, they are “virtually friendless”.
Suu Kyi, who recently spoke of her solidarity with the nearly 150,000 refugees from Myanmar living in Thailand, has so far tiptoed round the status of the Rohingya, an issue that has long divided the pro-democracy movement. When pressed at the World Economic Forum in Geneva on Thursday to articulate her stance on the issue, she said only that Myanmar needed “precise laws on citizenship”.
It was fear of illegal immigration that fueled the violence, she said, and not an underlying animosity prevalent across the spectrum of Myanmar politics – from the post-independence civilian governments of U Nu to successive junta leaders – that has long kept Muslims at the periphery of society and the Rohingya at an even greater length.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party is yet to release a statement on the riots, showcasing how sensitive the topic is. Her assertion that “those worthy of citizenship should get all the benefits that entails” was deliberately non-committal, and marks a rare break with her normally idealistic rhetoric built around the notion of equal rights for all.
It may be in keeping with her party’s line, however: an NLD official said earlier this year that the debate over the origins of the Rohingya was “delicate”, and that “even in our organization the Rohingya question has not been settled”. NLD spokesperson Nyan Win was more blunt when he said, “The Rohingya are not our citizens.”
Public Internet forums, meanwhile, have been awash with vitriolic, often racist, reactions to the violence. Although there are clearly two sides to the conflict – both Muslim and Buddhist mobs have torched towns and attacked one another – the inflammatory rhetoric has predominantly been directed at the Rohingya.
Myanmar’s exile-run media outlets have been conspicuously tentative over their coverage of the riots, perhaps nervous to fan the flames, while leading domestic news journals have carried demeaning headlines such as “Bengali Rohingyas prowl around outside Rakhine city”.
It is telling that one of the more measured responses came from Thein Sein, a man whose world view was partly shaped by a career in one of the most notorious military juntas of modern times. While others used the riots as a chance to vent against a group described as among Asia’s most persecuted minority, Thein Sein warned that the situation could escalate if ethnic Burmese continue to “put racial and religious issues at the forefront”.
At the same time, his government could benefit from the sectarian violence. The decision to send in the army, from which Muslims are banned from joining, is an attempt to cast the country’s most vilified entity as “saviors” of the Rakhine, who, ironically, have long accused successive regimes of attempting to colonize their state through military expansion.
Moreover, it has somewhat stifled the euphoria surrounding Suu Kyi’s European trip and distracted from the ongoing military conflict and rights abuses against ethnic Kachin near Myanmar’s border with China.
Nevertheless, Then Sein’s words are something of an anomaly from a man few considered an adept tactician. Without appearing to take sides, he has managed to portray himself as a non-partisan leader who can bridge an explosive fissure in the country’s psyche – perhaps the first such head of state to do so in half a century.
What is of the greatest irony, and sadness, is that the key drivers of the crisis are the Burmese themselves. After decades of proclaiming the need for equal rights amid stifling military rule, they have now turned on one another.
Indeed, they risk turning back the clock on recent democratic gains. By announcing a state of emergency for western Myanmar, Thein Sein could spur the military into wielding greater clout only 15 months after Myanmar began its baby steps to democratic reform.
In words that now hang heavily over the country, Suu Kyi said in a 2002 interview: “Our conviction is that the majority of our people will support democracy with a greater responsibility.”
To be sure, it is a small minority involved in the unrest but it highlights a wider sentiment that has continuously divided Myanmar, and raises doubts about the particular brand of democracy her movement and others profess to be fighting for.
Suu Kyi, a fierce defender of human freedoms, has been the principal moral force that has kept Myanmar moving forward. But for all her merits, she and her colleagues have not shown themselves to be the cultural adhesive that a country so rich in ethnic diversity needs.
A more substantial response from Suu Kyi to the recent rioting, as well as a clearer NLD policy on which minority groups the party believes should be afforded equal rights in Myanmar’s new democracy, would be welcome and is long overdue.
Francis Wade is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia.
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