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Myanmar and the Difficult Transition to Democracy

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Indian Subcontinent & Middle East Issues

The silence of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy party and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who spent long years in prison and under house arrest but did not relinquish her goals, in the face of the Myanmarese parliament’s latest decision to deprive Rohingya Muslims of their right to vote has been cause of surprise. It apparently seems that the power swayed by the army generals and the radical and extremist Buddhists is high enough to force Suu Kyi to remain silent. Of course, when political calculations are concerned with an eye to four major elections, including the House of Representatives, Senate, as well as local and provincial racial assemblies, it seems understandable for Suu Kyi to have set her sights upon the ballot boxes in the Buddhist majority country. However, the issue is how one can establish a link between slogans about democratization of power and negating the rights of an important minority in Myanmar?

Myanmar has a population of about 51 million, which consists of more than 144 ethnic and language groups. It is true that Rohingya Muslims account for only four percent of the country’s population, but ethnic, language, and religious diversity in Myanmar is so considerable that discrimination against them can pose a serious challenge to any slogan about seeking democracy and healthy transition from a military dictatorship to a democratic system. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is now facing such a major challenge. It is not clear how Suu Kyi would be able to pass this test of democracy without much trouble, unless we assume that her National League for Democracy has been forced through a painstaking planning to give in to part of the majority views about the minority in order not to lose the votes of the country’s Buddhist majority. Perhaps they want to make up for this oversight by amending the country’s political law and ensuring the rights of religious and ethnic minorities once they strengthen their grab on power. Of course, there are signs to hold up this assumption. Quite recently, the country’s parliament speaker was removed of his post by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party right on the eve of the elections on grounds that he was in agreement with Suu Kyi to make changes to the country’s constitution after winning the elections. This development, while confirming possible calculations made by Suu Kyi, is also important in that it shows her effort to get part of the ruling system that is controlled by army generals in line with her reformist ideas. In the meantime, the Muslim minority, as the most defenseless religious and ethnic minority, has been deprived of its right to vote and it is possible that Suu Kyi has remained silent in the hope to find an opportunity and rise to power following which she would be able to change political and population laws as a prelude to a legal decision on the nationality of Rohingya Muslims.

However, there are serious doubts about whether such an opportunity would be actually provided to Suu Kyi in Myanmar. According to the existing law, the army will have 25 percent of seats at the House of Representatives and Senate, and many parties that are allowed to take part in the elections are loyal and feel in debt to the army. If extremist and anti-Rohingya Buddhist clerics are added to them, it would not be clear if the leader of the National League for Democracy would find herself in a position where she would be able to take a serious step in favor of the ethnic minorities, especially Rohingya Muslims, whose Myanmarese nationality has been basically in question in the country. At present, the majority Buddhist population in the country considers Rohingyas as Bangladeshi immigrants who must go back to their ancestral land and this comes at a time that Rohingya Muslims have not been accepted as an ethnic group in Bangladesh too and are not considered as one of that country’s nationalities and, perhaps, are the sole ethnic and religious minority that no country is willing to accept it.

Apart from all these facts, it is not clear if Suu Kyi’s party wins the election, the army and its supporters would be ready to cede the entire power to her and would not repeat the past experience of previous elections in which the final result was ignored by the army. The fact that at present, domestic, regional and international conditions are different from the past is not enough on its own to guarantee the victory of Suu Kyi and her party in the forthcoming elections. The same powerful current, which is a combination of army generals, Buddhist clerics and Buddhist extremists, and which prevented Suu Kyi’s rise to power at that time, is still quite active. The most prominent example was depriving Suu Kyi herself of taking part in presidential elections. Therefore, how she can have any hope that in the event of a  possible election win, she would be able to overcome all these obstacles and restore the rights of Rohingya Muslims; that is, the same rights that they enjoyed in 1990 and 2010, and on the basis of which they could take part in elections.

At any rate, Myanmar has gone through a long period of foreign colonization from 1886 to 1948, and has had a short experience with democracy following its independence. Since 1962, when the country was scene of a coup d’état by generals, up to the present time, Myanmar has been directly controlled by the army or has been ruled by governments which were proxies of army generals. This is the first time following the country’s large-scale experience with military dictatorship that the people of Myanmar are set to take part in freer elections under international supervision. Eighty political parties with different orientations are going to take part in November 8 elections, but as of now, depriving Rohingya Muslims as a religious and ethnic minority from taking part in the polls has cast doubts on the whole process of elections.  It is not clear that even if the National League for Democracy wins the election, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and army generals supporting it would allow Suu Kyi to rise to power. So, when the fate of Suu Kyi herself is in doubt, the situation of Muslims supporting her is much more unclear.

Key Words: Myanmar, Difficult Transition, Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, Elections, Parliament, National League for Democracy Party, Rohingya Muslims, Extremist Buddhists, Union Solidarity and Development Party, Ethnic Groups, Bangladesh, Mollazehi

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*Photo Credit: The Wall Street Journal

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