The Lady: Assessing Aung San Suu Kyi’s Commitment to Democracy in Burma

By Ariana Criste
Staff Writer

The National League for Democracy (NLD), a political party in the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar led by Aung San Suu Kyi, swept the polls in the mid-November elections-the first open election in Myanmar since the nineteen nineties. This election is a historical landmark for Myanmar, which was previously under the leadership of an authoritarian military junta. A momentous and long overdue victory, these elections mark the beginning of the transition away from the iron grip of the ousted military junta to the promising future of the NLD.

Aung San, Myanmar’s champion of democracy, spent fifteen years under house arrest and was only released five years ago. She is a Nobel Peace Laureate and has drawn praise domestically and internationally for her grace and poise during her fifteen years under house arrest, which she underwent for her involvement as a protest leader in protests against the military junta. As perhaps the most famed political prisoner in the world with a streak of defiance, many look to The Lady, as she is commonly referred to, in hopes that she will address and find solutions to the communal violence and ethnic tensions that Myanmar is facing right now.

Indeed, ethnic conflict within the country is at a critical point. The ethno-religious minority that is native to the Rakhine state of Myanmar, the Rohingyas, willingly face unsafe conditions to flee by boat for neighboring countries in hopes that they will be welcomed and gain some sort of recognition from these countries. Since 2012, tens of thousands of Rohingyas have been killed in communal violence fueled by anti-Muslim sentiments and carried out by the majority group of Burmese Buddhists, including extremist Buddhist Nationalists in the country. Amnesty International has referred to the Rohingya people as “the most persecuted refugees in the world,” and they are a stateless people who are disenfranchised. As a result of this marginalization, tens of thousands of Rohingyas have decided to flee their home to seek better conditions elsewhere.

Aung San’s silence on the plight of the Rohingyas has drawn international criticism. In the past, The Lady has rejected the view that the crimes against the Rohingya constitute ethnic cleansing. She has also said to not “forget that violence has been committed by both sides,” and told international media to not “exaggerate” the situation. The only Rohingya-related issue that she has taken a stance upon is the two-child policy that some provinces in Myanmar implemented for Rohingyas that she believes are discriminatory.

The forecast for Rohingyas under the NLD does not seem optimistic. Aung San’s silence echoes the majority opinion that the Rohingya are Bengali immigrants or foreign aliens. Much of the base of support for the NLD comes from the Buddhist extremists that are carrying out the attacks against the Rohingya population.

For what are likely reasons of political expedience, it is unlikely that Aung San or the NLD will address the Rohingya issue. They are navigating a post-authoritarian political landscape where the military stills plays an active role in politics and will hold seats in the government even after the transition between parties occurs. If they showed active support for the Rohingyas or other Muslim ethnic minorities, it is likely that the loss of perceived political legitimacy would play into the interests of the military.

The NLD is walking a narrow line as it tries to move forward with the transition towards democratization in Myanmar. External forces are vying to hasten or slow this transition. Political actors, some domestic and some international, have varied expectations for the party. The NLD must balance outcries from NGOs about the Rohingya crisis, especially considering the media attention on the issue right now. They also have to deal with external imposition of ideals of democracy from the West and from investors in the state who may not have a complete idea of the situation domestically, and who have expressed discontent with the pace that Myanmar is democratizing at. They must maintain political legitimacy against a military regime that actively tries to detract from the legitimacy of their leadership. To do this requires the NLD to narrowly maintain viewpoints and policies that do not alienate their political base, much of which holds very anti-Muslim sentiments.

In this light it is unlikely that, under Aung San, the Rohingya peoples will see their cause furthered. While this provides hardly any consolation, it is also unlikely that violence from an institutionalized, state-led level will worsen. It is very probable that the state of Myanmar’s transition to democracy will be a positive force in the lives of the Rohingyas and other ethnic or religious minorities in the state. All of Myanmar will see tangible benefits from the transition to democracy from the previously brutal military government, and the NLD will likely lessen the active oppression on the populace that was experienced under the previous government. As state corruption and brutality decrease, the Rohingyas should experience marked improvement in their situation. This prediction must be taken with a degree of reservation, however, because it is unlikely that they will gain true state recognition and rights in the near future. This is not politically feasible in the current climate, which is why noted human rights champion Aung San and the NLD are avoiding the issue. It seems that, for this marginalized and persecuted group, the National League of Democracy under Aung San will not be a shining beacon of human rights advancement. Still, with Myanmar’s slow path of democratization, the Rohingyas can expect gradual increases in their rights and privileges and, hopefully, integration and acceptance into Burmese society.

Image by Rob Beschizza



By Alex Shkurko
Staff Writer

In the waters of Southeast Asia’s Andaman Sea, Rohingya migrants have captured the world’s attention with their tragic tale of religious persecution, repression and hopelessness. Confined to large boat-shaped hunks of rusted metal and in creaking wooden hulls crowded full beyond their intended capacities, these people search for safe-haven among the coastal countries directly south of Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal, where they first began their treacherous journey. Originally hailing from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the Muslim Rohingya minority has endured unrelenting persecution from both the government and the local people of the majority Buddhist country. Myanmar’s recent transition to democracy following 49 years of military junta rule has done much to ease economic sanctions, though inequality remains rampant. However, political liberalization has yet to translate into better treatment for the Rohingya. On the contrary, ethnic relations have intensified, resulting in the current refugee crisis.

An estimated 25,000 people, mostly Rohingya refugees, have fled Myanmar in the first four months of this year, a 100 percent increase from the same period of the previous year. What’s directly motivated the surge in migration is a matter of opinion at this point. However, the Rohingya have been continuously targeted and have been departing from Myanmar’s shores in search of wealthier nations since the beginning of the decade. Myanmar’s government has refused to accept the Rohingya and grant them citizenship even though some families can trace their heritage back centuries to Rakhine. Along with the denial of citizenship come restrictions on travel within the country and a blanket refusal to refer to the people as “Rohingya,” instead opting for the more sterile and politically beneficial “Bengali.” This in turn rids the Rohingya of their ethnic identity and implies that they’re of Bangladeshi origin. Hardliner Buddhists fervently believe that they crept in from Bangladesh over the past 50 years and have been deceitful about their heritage. The situation only becomes direr upon realization that Bangladesh doesn’t acknowledge the Rohingya as their own people either! Instead, the Bangladeshi government corals them into refugee camps that today house more than 200,000 Rohingya, a number that continues to grow rapidly as Buddhist mobs attack Rohingya villages.

Buddhists constitute 89 percent of Myanmar’s population. While contradictory to commonly held Western views of Buddhism, monasteries play host to many aggravated groups who together decry the toxic effects of living amongst Muslims. “Vipers in our laps” is how one young monk describes their presence. Despite being forbidden to kill, many Buddhists feel threatened by their presence and have tried to rid the region of them through the use of violence. Particularly troubling are the effects of installing a democracy in a state that has lived under a military dictatorship for over 50 years. With the power to finally choose for themselves, factions of the majority have naturally turned to their own prejudices and fears to move the country in the direction they believe best. To compound the issue, political leaders are forced to cater to the political majority whose hatred is pushing the country towards genocide.

In the aftermath of the country’s first democratic, but highly contested, elections in 2010, Buddhist groups developed and promoted a metric meant to rid the country of a majority of its one million Muslims. The measure called for the proof of three generations of legal residence in the country. Anyone that could not meet that arbitrary baseline would be put into refugee camps and sent to any country that would have them. The notion of being a refugee in your own country is a fascinatingly cruel one and deserves particular notice. What once resembled a socially and economically unequal system has further devolved into violence between the two peoples and has become socially unsustainable.

Two years ago, Thein Sein, the President of Myanmar adopted the same rhetoric and proclaimed to a United Nations (UN) delegation that any Muslim whose family has not resided in the country for at least three generations was a de facto “threat to the peace of the nation,” a statement that drew a quick rebuke from UN. In the same year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Myanmar government was an accessory to the murder, rape and mass persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Through interviews they were able to confirm that the army stood idly by as the number of deaths piled up and were only moved to rein in the sectarian violence after much bloodletting. In one instance, authorities’ half-hearted efforts to quell massive anger following the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by a Rohingyan man cascaded into the brutal murder of 10 Muslim men aboard a local bus. Subsequent Rohingya counter riots resulted in the pillaging of Rakhine Buddhist property and even more deaths. The government’s direct complicity in attacks on Rohingya Muslims should not be ignored either. In one case, soldiers fired upon a Rohingyan man and his family as they attempted to put out the house-fire started by a group of Rakhine Buddhists. In another instance, a local man observed the paramilitary shoot “at least six people- one woman, two children, and three men,” before dragging their bodies away.

It doesn’t appear that the forces of ethnic dissonance have subsided since 2012. In fact, they’ve only grown and multiplied as evidenced by the increased migration we can observe today. Between January and March of this year, the UNHCR estimates that nearly 300 people have died in journeys departing from the coastal waters of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Malaysia has historically been the destination of choice for migrants due to its disproportionate number of high skilled workers and its tendency to look the other way when cheap unskilled labor presented itself on its shores. However, the journey is a difficult one rife with opportunities for extortion, death and sexual violence. Abductions and forced marriages-as-payment are prevalent. Brokers often make deals with would-be migrants and offer them the journey free of charge in exchange for regular collections from their future wages. If they accept this deal, prospective migrants lose any leverage they had and put themselves at risk of being in effect, indentured servants- as lender interest rates are often 100 percent. Rape by crewmembers was commonly mentioned in interviews gathered by the UNHCR and any migrant attempts to quell violence were met with harsh beatings. Human trafficking saturates the region and disproportionately affects Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar is directly creating the market for smuggling and human trafficking by harassing the Rohingya and not doing more to mediate their conflict with the Buddhists. They must overcome their religious hatred towards the Muslims, if only to improve the livelihood of their own communities.

As we observe daily reports of sinking boats and asylum rejections from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, we must pressure our own government to demand that more be done. Let aid be predicated on the treatment of migrants. What is dually incorrigible and reprehensible is the rejection of migrants fleeing religious persecution and the perpetually promoted human rights ethos that these Southeast Asian countries have. Upon encountering a migrant vessel, a Thai navy ship proceeded to conclude that the migrants did not want to dock and instead wished to continue their journey. A reporter observed the piercing desperation present on the migrants’ faces. Upon refilling the vessel with enough fuel for 33 hours and providing food, water and batteries, the sailors of the Thai navy ship felt that they had satisfied their duty. Despite lacking a crew, who had abandoned the boat in the previous week, the navy was confident in the skill of the passengers to navigate the seas and “reach their dream destination”. The decision to leave was supposedly made by a leader of the group, much to the disdain of the women who cried as the ship departed. Even in this instance, the loss of innocent lives could be avoided and we should continue to pressure governments to realize this.

Image by UNHR Photo Unit