Home > 2016 > Myanmar: New Parliament, Sui Kyi and the Rohingyas

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 17 New Delhi April 16, 2016

Myanmar: New Parliament, Sui Kyi and the Rohingyas

Friday 15 April 2016

by Aparupa Bhattacherjee

Despite the opposition from those parliamen-tarains closer to the Establishment, the new parliament in Myanmar has passed a bill providing a new position for Suu Kyi. With the NLD majority within the parliament taking a conscious decision not to upset the existing power structure that prohibits Suu Kyi from becoming the President, the move by the National League for Democracy (NLD) is a compromise and acceptance of the reality. This really augurs well for the democratic transition of Myanmar, as the country cannot afford a hostile approach from the elected members and the Establishment.

But the crucial question is: would the parliament also pursue such a strategy of compromise and address one of the most crucial questions that would help or mar the democratic transition process—that is, the one related to the Rohingyas?

Will the New Parliament address the Rohingya Issue? 

Of course, the Rohingya question is not the only issue facing the democratic transition of Myanmar; there are numerous other ethnic divides, militant groups and peace initiatives that the new government and Suu Kyi has to address.

But the Rohingya question demands special parliamentary attention for two sensitive reasons. First, unlike the other ethnic groups, the Rohingyas have a large disadvantage: they are not considered to be Myanmarese in the first place and not a part of the process of the Constitution and parliment. Other groups do have issues and faultlines, but the larger Myanmarese nation and parliament accept them as citizens. Rohingyas are not considered as Myanmarese citizens and have no locus standi in any parliamentary discussion. Second, there is no group or section within Myanmar that could project the views of the Rohingya community. The Rohingyas have neither a militia, as most of the other ethnic groups have, that forces the state to respond, nor do they have a political voice within Myanmar. On the other hand, though divided over numerous faultlines, the Myanmar nation is united in terms of their opposition towards the Rohingyas. And that makes this section different from the other ethnic groups and political processes. Neither are the Rohinyags considered as an ethnic group, nor is there a political process.

So an unfortunate answer for this question—whether the new Parliament would address the Rohingya issue— would be in the negative. No, the new Parliament is unlikely to address the Rohingya issue. First, if one has to go through the NLD’s electoral campaign, it remained silent on the Rohingya issue. Perhaps, winning the elections and entering the parliament was the primary objective than talking about national reconci-liation. Though the NLD did speak about political and ethnic reconciliation, it remained silent on the Rohingya issue. Second, the majority in Myanmar do not want even to talk about the issue; they are convinced that the Rohigyas are in fact Bengalis and have no place inside the country. With such a maximalist view, the NLD consciously kept a low profile on the issue.

After winning the elections and having taken control of the parliament, the NLD is not likely to speak up. There are larger issues, starting from finding a prominent role for Suu Kyi within the parliament and addressing the national reconciliation processes with different groups. The Establishment is another issue that needs to be appeased for the NLD. Projecting the Rohingya issue is not likely to get any positive response from the Establishment; hence the NLD will avoid speaking on the subject and look into other issues that it considers vital for its survival and further expansion.

Outside the NLD, none of the other parties is likely to bring up this issue inside the parliament. Nor will the regional parties from the Rakhine region, for example, the Arakan National Party, raise this issue with a positive approach.

Will Suu Kyi address the Rohingya Issue?

If the NLD is unlikely to make it an issue and the parliament unlikely to debate it, the other option is Suu Kyi, the Noble Laureate. Unfortu-nately, her position has also been not so convincing. A new book (The Lady and the Generals by Peter Popham) claims that she was unhappy with the questions in a BBC interview on the Rohingyas and apparently lost her temper with the interviewer. Worse, the book reports that she commented off-air after the BBC Today programme: “No-one told me that I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” With Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy on the driving seat today, the larger question is: would the Noble Laureate remain silent on the crucial Rohingya issue that is hurting Myanmar’s international image?

In Myanmar today, there is so much of hope with the ongoing democratic transition, especially with the NLD taking over power since last month. Although Suu Kyi is barred from becoming the President, Htin Kyaw, her close confidant, has been chosen for the post; hence it could be speculated that the real power will be in her own hands. This is a crucial phase for not only Myanmar’s political reforms and democratic transition, but also for its larger national reconciliation process with numerous ethnic groups. There is an ongoing peace process and efforts towards a National Ceasefire Agree-ment with all the ethnic armed forces is the next step. However, this process unfortunately does not include the radical violence against the Myanmarese Muslims, especially the Rohingyas in the Arakan State.

Ethnic solidarity and integration had been given prominence by the NLD in all its pre-election campaigns. Suu Kyi has always stressed on National Reconciliation but, unfortunately, this has not been transformed into action. The newly formed NLD Cabinet seems to consist primarily of the Burmans with only one member from an ethnic minority. On the Rohingyas, she avoids and refuses to state anything when questioned about the problem. When pressed on the Rohingya issue during the above BBC interview, she was reported to have commented: “I think there are many, many Buddhists who have also left the country for various reasons. This is a result of our sufferings under a dictatorial regime.”

The Rohingya crisis has attracted the attention of the international media and leaders. Why does Aung San Suu Kyi refuse to voice her opinion about the crisis that has compelled the entire world to sympathise with the Rohingyas?

Why is Suu Kyi Silent on the Rohingyas?

To appease her vote-bank?

Many interpret her silence on the Rohingyas as a part of electoral politics to appease her vote-bank, a majority of whom are Buddhists. Myanmar is approxi-mately 96 per cent Buddhist and four per cent Muslim. It seems Suu Kyi has chosen the heavier side preferring to retain their support rather being concerned about the plight of the four per cent.

Suu Kyi is worried about taking up the cause of minority Rohingyas largely because of the majority narrative in Myanmar in the last few years. Emergence of radical groups and a violent majoritarian narrative on religious grounds has shifted the larger national political discourse. She is cautious perhaps of this larger majori-tarian “Myanmarese” discourse. Though the Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya rift has been in existence since the 1990s, post-2012 it took a serious and violent turn. The 969 radical Buddhist movement was led by Ma Ba Tha (Association to Protect Race and Religion), and one of the most controversial monks of Asia, Asin Wirathu. This group and the monk openly engage in anti-Islamic propaganda and preach hatred throughout Myanmar. Their openness indicates the support of the ruling elites; to an extent it might be orchestrated by the Tatmadaw elites as well. Subsequently, it also led to the rise of Burmese nationalism with the use of Buddhism. Today any support for the Rohingyas in Myanmar is considered equivalent to anti-Buddhism and, therefore, anti-national. Perhaps this majoritarian politics is forcing Suu Kyi to remain silent.

Is Suu Kyi Islamophobic? This is a new question that is likely to haunt Suu Kyi after the revelation of her BBC interview mentioned above. Mishal Husain, according to reports during her interview, repeatedly asked her to denounce the violence against the Muslims in Myanmar whereas Suu Kyi continued to retain her stand that not only the Muslims, several Buddhists have also suffered.

Worse was Suu Kyi’s comment about being “interviewed by a Muslim”. This statement has not only resulted in numerous international supporters of Suu Kyi being disheartened, but also compels one to raise another question: does she also have misgivings about the Muslims similar to many of her countrymen and women?

If yes, it will be surprising, given the fact that Suu Kyi has grown up in a multicultural atmosphere and her values are perceived to be multicultural. Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been partly educated in India, is quoted to be a follower of Gandhian philosophy which upholds tolerance as its principal value. Both her later education and life in Britain have been in a multicultural environment before she returned to Myanmar in 1988. Furthermore, she has been bestowed with popular awards such as the Noble Peace Prize and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Hence, the above statement from Suu Kyi is not only shocking but upsetting as well.

Is her concern for Rohingyas genuine? There is a different reason for her silence on the Rohingyas. As mentioned by Suu Kyi time and again, if she takes a stand on behalf of the Rohingyas it will make the situation worse for them. The fear here is—it will further infuriate the anger of the Rakhine Buddhists against the Rohingyas. To some extent she is correct. Increasing international focus on the Rohingya suffering has made the Rakhine Buddhists agitated, further deepening the existing rift between the two communities. The anger was evident when Buddhist mobs attacked several international Nongovernmental Organisations including several doctors from Medecins San Frontieres (MSF). Some attacks have also hampered the much-needed aid being delivered to the Rohingyas.

But silence is definitely not a solution to this problem. Given the present situation, the Rohingya crisis has crossed the national boundaries of Myanmar and is perceived as a problem by both South-East and South Asia. It is high time that Suu Kyi breaks her silence on the Rohingyas. With the NLD in power, the parliament should have a reasonable debate on the Rohingyas. Such an approach will also reduce international tensions and pressure on the Rohingya issue and provide more space and time for the new government. In the long run. Such an approach will also help consolidate Myanmar’s democratic transition.

Aparupa Bhattacherjee is an independent researcher and focuses on South-East Asian politics, especially Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia.