On November 8, the ruling military party in Myanmar lost its parliamentary majority to the National League for Democracy (NLD). The victory for the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of Myanmar’s political opposition, indicates to many observers that the nation is making a tentative move towards true democracy. Since 2010, the military government has been taking steps towards greater economic and political liberalization (including offering a general amnesty for political crimes and allowing peaceful demonstrations) and the election is an encouraging sign that this process will continue. But as the new NLD-controlled parliament convenes on February 1, it faces the question of what the emergence of a fragile democracy will mean for the country’s Muslim Rohingya, one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, who still possess neither citizenship nor the right to vote.
The November election was the first national vote since the controversial 2010 elections, which were boycotted by the NLD and widely dismissed as a sham. In contrast to that vote, the 2015 election was accounted fairly democratic by international observers. The NLD’s biggest gains came from border states with significant ethnic populations—often at the expense of minority political parties. Myanmar’s minorities include the Karen in the south; the Christian Kachin, at the northern border; the Chin, at the Indian border; the Shan in northeastern Burma; and the Rohingya, all of whom have suffered forced relocations and violent militant action since the country gained independence in 1948. In Kayin state, a southeastern region inhabited by more than nine separate ethnic groups and historically plagued by internal conflict and refugee crises, the ethnic parties lost seventeen of their eighteen seats in the local parliament. In the Hluttaw, the national parliament, minority ethnic representation decreased from seventy-three to thirty-six seats. While many minority members remain mistrustful of the NLD (which they see as another party of elite Burmans, the Buddhist majority) their voting reflected the recognition that the NLD is the most legitimate challenge to military rule. Kevin Shawng, the director of the Kachin Education Foundation in the city of Myitkyina, summed up the majority opinion, stating, “Only the NLD party can change Myanmar.” By tactically supporting the NLD, minority voters have gambled that greater democratization and political change will advance their interest more than gaining minority seats in a parliament under military control.
As the new majority party, the NLD faces high expectations and a daunting list of challenges. Many minorities are suspending judgment until the party proves its commitment to humanitarian causes. Political observers worry that Suu Kyi and the NLD lack substantive political plans or governmental experience. Internationally, the Rohingya “boat people” crisis continues to draw attention to the ethnic divisions within the country. The NLD faces the task of continuing the economic expansion of Myanmar. And sandwiched between India and China, Myanmar must carefully balance its international relations to protect its economic independence.
In the face of these challenges, the NLD isn’t as firmly in control as the landslide election might seem to indicate. While the party now controls the Hluttaw and may choose the next president, the military maintains significant governmental power. Under the constitution, a quarter of Hluttaw seats must go to the military. The military reserves a veto on any proposed constitutional change. And the presidency cannot be held by someone whose children possess citizenship in another country—a provision many believe was instituted to prevent Suu Kyi (whose two sons hold dual citizenship with the United Kingdom) from becoming president. In the country as a whole, Myanmar faces a divided people. The Buddhist Burman majority oppose the perceived spread of Islam. Many of the country’s minorities speak mutually unintelligible languages. Despite repeated ceasefires, substantial ethnic unrest and ongoing civil wars continue to destabilize border states. In order to live up to expectations, the NLD must be willing to change Myanmar, competent enough to execute change effectively, and powerful enough to put changes into effect.
Treatment of the Rohingya minority amounts to one of the greatest challenges for the new government. Long systematically persecuted in both Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh, they are denied citizenship and prohibited from voting. Subjected to at least three pogroms over the past forty years and continued persecution in the Rakhine state, the Rohingya face an unsympathetic and occasionally violent public and a repressive government whose policies fuel continued unrest. Many believe that the military government under Thein Sein took a “divide-and-rule” approach to Myanmar, amplifying ethnic tensions to support military control. The military government has rescinded Rohingya citizenship, forced tens of thousands of Rohingya into refugee camps, and perpetrated human rights abuses like denying Rohingya humanitarian aid, torturing them, and forcing them to perform slave labor.
Suu Kyi’s vague policy statements have been coupled with a worrisome silence about the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya. A historic symbol of democracy and human rights defense in Myanmar, she now functions as not only the face of political opposition but the effective leader of the Burmese government—and yet she has not spoken out against the plight of the Rohingya. On a 2013 visit to the UK, Suu Kyi stated that there was “no ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar, despite the ongoing violence in Arakan state at the time. Equivocating on the persecution of the Rohingya, she argued that “the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well.” Any statement she made, Suu Kyi continued, would only fuel tensions between the two groups. Her silence has proved a prudent electoral choice. The support base of the NLD is made up largely of the Buddhist majority, many of whom are virulently anti-Muslim. Radical Buddhist movements, including 969 and the Ma Ba Tha, claim to represent the true Burman soul of Myanmar and hold significant clout in the country. Had Suu Kyi spoken out for the Muslim minorities, it might have cost her the electoral victory.
This political approach has tarnished Suu Kyi’s international image and drawn global criticism. As journalist Emanuel Stoakes said, “She has begun to act like any other politician: single-mindedly pursuing an agenda, making expedient decisions with one eye on electoral politics, the other on kingmakers in Naypyidaw and the domestic political economy.” Many draw attention to the hypocrisy of an iconic human rights figure and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize reticent to defend her own country’s oppressed minority. The “boat people” crisis has led to increased international scrutiny of Myanmar’s domestic policies, as Rohingya facing persecution attempt to leave the country only to fall prey to human traffickers. In the face of such tragedy, Suu Kyi’s silence is difficult to understand.
However, the silence has not been senseless. In a 2013 interview, Suu Kyi said, “I’m always surprised when people speak as if I’ve just become a politician. I’ve been a politician all along. I started not as a human rights defender or a humanitarian worker, but as the leader of a political party. And if that’s not a politician then I don’t know what is.” Suu Kyi emerged from decades of house arrest to take on a fifty-year-old military elite, and triumphed in a groundbreaking election. She is a powerful player in the democratization of Myanmar, and this democratization continues because of her prudent political choices. Likely for the sake of the election, she has remained silent on a humanitarian crisis—but what she has achieved from her silence has enabled her to attain the power to produce substantive change.
The question is now whether Suu Kyi and the NLD will take action to help the Rohingya when they convene this month. The political priorities of Suu Kyi’s constituency—many of whom are deeply prejudiced against the Rohingya—pose a significant obstacle. The easiest route forward might well be to allow the Rohingya to continue to flee and pursue a narrow route of exclusive national unity. But for Myanmar’s democratization to live up to its promises, the new government must adopt a true pluralistic attitude. A state that claims to be democratic cannot allow minorities like the Rohingya to become a casualty to political unity. With international eyes on the NLD-controlled parliament and the refugee crisis, Suu Kyi may find herself facing a global referendum on her ability to lead Myanmar down a new path.
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