How Democracy Failed the Rohingyas (Part-2)

How has Myanmar’s shift from Military Junta rule to a Democracy affected the long standing issues of citizenship and ethno-religiously charged violence faced by the Rohingya population in the state of Rakhine?

Kislay Choudhary

In 2010, when the Thein Sein government agreed to free all political prisoners, Myanmar‟s belated democratisation looked like it was on track. The 2008 constitution had brought in wide political reforms to the country which had been ruled by a military junta since 1962.

Observers around the world hoped that a shift towards a democracy would empower the Rohingyas and bring them better days.

Myanmar had been ruled by the Military junta for almost five decades. Economic sanctions against the authoritarian military rule had choked Myanmar‟s financial growth for year. The military had failed to resolve internal conflicts and had overseen a decades long civil war amongst various armed ethnic militias. The demand for greater political and economic freedom had also started to emerge from the general public and as an outcome of multiple co-existing factors, the military junta, in 2003, decided that Myanmar must move towards a democracy.

In 2008, a democratic constitution was promulgated and 2010 saw Myanmar‟s first general election. Aung San Suu Kyi‟s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotted the election and declared it unfair. Under the new constitution, the military had delivered democracy, i.e. elected representatives but after reserving a large proportion of the pie for themselves. The constitution reserved 25 per cent of seats in both houses of the parliament for the military and thereby made any constitutional amendment dependent on the support of the military. It also restricted any individual with a foreign spouse and/or children with that foreign spouse from holding the post of president, underhandedly barring the ever so popular Ms Suu Kyi from holding that post.

In the 2012 by-elections, the NLD participated and won 44 seats and Suu Kyi was elected to the parliament. With on-going reforms, western countries lifted economic sanctions they had imposed against the military junta. With a gradual process of democratisation in place, it was fair to expect an improvement in the country‟s appalling treatment of the Rohingyas.

The 2015 general elections brought the NLD to power and Suu Kyi, barred from presidency, took up the new post of State Counsellor – equivalent to the Prime Minister. A Nobel laureate herself, Suu Kyi‟s international supporters expected her to help the Rohingya‟s.

Contrary to popular expectations, the new NLD government has taken certain measures that aren‟t exactly democratic. Restrictions on free speech are commonplace with special emphasis on laws against the defamation of Party leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The government has also formulated a new peaceful procession law and an Unlawful Association Act under which around 60 Rakhine men were arrested in 2016-17. [1]

What hasn‟t helped is the stance Suu Kyi has taken when pointed questions have been asked. She has issued well rounded yet hollow statements such as “As a new government we‟re just trying to achieve a modern country. We have thousands of problems” [2]

As caravan Magazine reports, “Asked specifically if Rohingya living in Myanmar ought to qualify as citizens, the NLD leader replied, “I do not know.” [3]

By the terming the Rohingya crisis as just another issue faced by the government, she brushed under the carpet the daily risks faced by 1.5 million people most of whom live derelict lives cramped into refugee camps and forced to go about their wretchedly miserable and evidently stateless lives.

Her comment on making Myanmar „a modern country‟ brings to mind Senior General Than Shwe, the Head of State in Myanmar till 2011, when he handed over the post to his successor Thein Sein. He’d once commented on how that the “Western concept of human rights and freedom is not compatible with the culture and tradition of Myanmar and that is why his country is very different in these matters” [4].

The interview makes it clear that the NLD and Suu Kyi both realise that there are few votes to be won by standing up for the stateless and disenfranchised Rohingyas [5].

In Myanmar, democracy has failed to bring about stable and successful opposition pressure either. The Union Solidarity and Development Party, the pro- army political unit lacks the support which the National League for Democracy enjoys and continues to bear the brunt of numerous ethnic groups which were party to a six decade long armed conflict against the army. Therefore in order to make its presence felt, the USDP continues to woo the Burman Buddhist population while also focussing on the Buddhists in Rakhine to compete with the widely popular NLD.

Kurlantzick observes “Given both major parties‟ need to win Buddhist voters, it is not surprising that the government has helped create a climate that encourages discrimination against the Rohingyas” [6].

Democratic shortcomings are easily found out once we delve deeper into the mechanisms of electoral politics in Myanmar. In the 2015 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi‟s National League for Democracy fielded 325 candidates for the Pyithu Hutlaw (lower house), 167 candidates for the Amyotha Hutlaw (upper house), and 659 candidates for the regional legislatures and not one of them was a Muslim.

Myanmar‟s political parties have all fallen into the democratic trap of vote-bank politics and as they attempt to consolidate their hold on power by wooing the majority community of Burman Buddhists, the Rohingyas are left with a life of suffering and strife. Myanmar, truly has failed the cause of Democracy as much as Democracy has failed the cause of the Rohingyas.

Democracy and the rise of Buddhist hyper nationalism
Senior General Than Shwe, erstwhile head of the Myanmarese state, called for “One race, One language, One religion” A severely misplaced call if you look at the number of ethnic communities residing in Myanmar, but this call was taken up by the Buddhist nationalist groups in Myanmar who heard exactly what they wanted to hear. MaBaTha, Myanmar‟s most vocal anti-Rohingya nationalist - Buddhist group has forcefully and rather successfully asserted Buddhist nationalism amongst the majority Burman communities by positing the Muslims, and specifically the Rohingya as the enemy. [7]

The rise of aggressive Buddhist nationalism – which usually exhibits itself in the form of anti-Muslim/anti-Rohingya fervour- in modern Myanmar must be partially credited to the policies of the Military Junta and partially to the effect democracy has on a state with ethnically fractured demographics.

Myanmarese society is centred on the Buddhist faith. The rise of Buddhism as a vocal force in the political arena can be traced back to colonial times when they first resisted British rule in Myanmar. The Buddhist monks also led a democratic uprising in 1988, which was ultimately crushed, and in 2007 the monks led large scale protests for political and economic rights while protesting against the rise in fuel prices. They headed the Saffron revolution – which eventually led to the formulation of the constitution of 2008 – thereby making them immensely powerful in the political arena.

According to A.K.M. Ahsan Ullah, the military junta was insecure of its hold on power. Realising the value the mobilisation power of the monks held – the monks had earlier led movements against the colonial administration as well – the junta decided to harness the power of the Buddhist monks to strengthen their hold on power. They realised that any power shifts would endanger their stranglehold over the Myanmarese system. In short, the state‟s pro Buddhist stance was a means of lending legitimacy to the military rule. [8]

The comparatively freer channels of expressions provided by the opening up of media and removal of restrictions on political groups provided fertile grounds for Buddhist nationalists to foment hatred against the Rohingyas.

The Rohingyas have been facing persecution at the hands of the majoritarian Buddhist state for centuries but it‟s only now that the world has taken notice. Unfortunately, their plight hasn‟t been enough to bring out a unilateral voice condemning Myanmarese state action in Rakhine.

Very few academic articles written about the crisis in north western Myanmar have focussed on the political side of the conflict. The subjugation of the Rohingya started under monarchs, intensified under military rule and this unfortunate tradition is being carried forward by the now democratically elected Myanmarese government.

In an article on the downsides of democratic transitions, James T Davis wrote “Democratic transition can lift the lid on communal tensions with devastating violence as a result.” [9]. This seems to have been the case with Myanmar.

A polity which seeks to be democratic while simultaneously disenfranchising a group; a democratic constitution which guarantees the impossibility of any future amendments without the approval of erstwhile authoritarian ruler (the military); a state ethnically diverse yet adamant on majoritarian views and politics. Myanmar looks like a festering pot of paradoxes. Democracy hasn‟t achieved what was people world over had hoped for. The Rohingyas continue to suffer while the government, earlier unconcerned with global censure, is now powerless to intervene for the fear of losing its grip on power. Democracy in Myanmar has failed to pull Rohingyas out of the pit years of authoritarian rule had pushed them into.

1. Country Chapter: Burma, Human Rights Watch World Report, 2017
2. Harry Lockburn, The Independent (10/03/2017)
3. Salil Tripathi, Beyond All bounds: How Myanmar‟s Democratic Opening Has Failed the Rohingya, The Caravan (01/11/2015)
4. Janette Philp, Political Appropriation of Burma‟s Cultural Heritage and Its Implications for Human rights. Cultural Diversity, Heritage and Human Rights – Michele Lagfield, William Logan, Mairead Nic Craith, Routledge (2009)
5. James T. Davies and Trividesh Singh Maini, The Plight of Myanmar‟s Rohingya Shows the Downside of Democratic Transition, (17/08/2015)
6. Joshua Kurlantzick, How to Permanently Solve The Rohingya Crisis, The National
7. M. Mizanur Rehman, Rohingya Crisis: Politics of Denial pp. 3
8. A.K.M. Ahsan Ullah, Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar: Seeking Justice for The “Stateless”, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 2016, Vol. 32(3) pp. 289
9. James T. Davies and Trividesh Singh Maini, The Plight of Myanmar‟s Rohingya Shows the Downside of Democratic Transition, (17/08/2015)

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Jun 13, 2020

Kislay Choudhary

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