Following Landmark Elections in Myanmar, Challenges Lie Ahead for the New Government

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by Catherine Lankes

Hailed as a tremendous achievement for Myanmar on its road to democracy, the national poll on November 8, 2015 gave hope to many. A number of central policy issues remain to be settled, however, turning the coming months into a stress-test for the freshly elected government. The way in which the new leaders in Naypyidaw are going to deal with those matters will be an indicator of whether the world has witnessed yet another chapter in the junta’s struggle for its survival or the country’s first step into a new era.

The Rohingya Situation

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority in a predominantly Buddhist country. They live in apartheid-like conditions in the north-western state of Rakhine where they constitute about 80-90% of the population. Exact figures on the numbers of Rohingya people do not exist because no official census has ever been held in that part of the country. Experts estimate that there are about 1.1 to 1.4 million Rohingya, which amounts about to 4-5% of the population. Over 140,000 Rohingya are internally displaced persons (IDPs), stranded in squalid camps from which they are not allowed to leave.

Some sources refer to the Rohingya as the “most persecuted minority in the world,” unable to claim citizenship in Myanmar or in any other country. The government in Myanmar refuses to acknowledge the Rohingya as Burmese nationals and claims that the Muslim Rohingya are in fact Bengali refugees. Depending on the source, however, the Rohingya people seem either to be indigenous to Rakhine State, or they first migrated there during the British rule of Burma in the nineteenth century. Today, they are stripped of even the most basic civil rights such as access to education and healthcare. Rohingya are also barred from standing in elections and are not allowed to vote.

Adrift at sea, unwanted at land”

In light of the vicious discrimination faced by the Rohingya in their native state, they have begun to flee Myanmar, a situation which resulted in a refugee crisis in Southeast Asia earlier this year. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that between January and March 2015 over 25,000 so-called “boat people” boarded rickety ships to reach countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Correspondents based in that region report horrific details on the treatment of Rohingyan refugees – ranging from the Thai government forcing their boats to return before even reaching the shore to abductions, hidden camps and forced labor under threat of harm. Reports from Yale Law School as well as from the International State Crime Initiative and Queen Mary University London suggest that there is “strong evidence” that Myanmar has committed genocide against Rohingyan Muslims. They are urging the UN to investigate the matter further.

One of the driving forces behind the persecution of the Rohingya is Ma Ba Tha, the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion. Ma Ba Tha is an ultranationalist movement made up of monks and lay Buddhists following the lead of Ashin Wirathu, a man whom TIME has referred to as “the face of Buddhist terror.” Using populist rhetoric, the group taps into a popular and growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar. Ma Ba Tha frequently mobilizes audiences of up to 10,000 people who support statements along the lines of “The National League of Democracy (NLD) wants to turn Myanmar into a Muslim country.”

Persecution of the Rohingya reached a sad climax in 2012, when deadly riots against Muslims killed around 200 and displaced thousands. Myanmar has provoked international condemnation for not handling these violent incidents appropriately. To date, the Burmese government has not issued any long-term proposals to resolve the internal conflict between Buddhists and Muslims.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Influence

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, otherwise known as “the Lady,” the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, is the most revered Burmese politician, and yet the constitution bars the seventy-year-old from becoming president. This fact does not seem to have diminished her power within her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), however, nor within her constituency. For many, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been the main antagonist of the ruling military party, remains the country’s single hope for a peaceful transition towards democracy.

Her rallies have been drawing frenzied crowds all across Myanmar, be it in glittering Yangon or in the countryside in the North, proving that her support goes far beyond the internet-connected middle class. Even well ahead of the elections, Suu Kyi was already brimming with confidence and optimism. She promised a “government of national reconciliation,” and the beginning of a process which should result in an amended constitution.

Suu Kyi declared that should the NLD win a landslide victory, she would take the lead of the government and “be above the president.” Yet, some voices have questioned the likelihood of this statement, given that the military seems all but willing to cede power to its main opponent. The latest proof of this was the ousting of Shwe Mann as ruling party chairman of the United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in August of this year. Mann was considered one of the main contestants for taking over the presidency from Thein Sein and was also seen as too close to Suu Kyi, seemingly endangering the party’s integrity.

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Aung San Suu Kui

“Moral Authority”

During the past months, however, doubts about Aung San Suu Kyi have dimmed her shining halo. Inside the country, she is being criticized for an allegedly autocratic style in leadership as well as for a lightly-sketched political programme. On an international scale, human rights activists and political as well as religious leaders are reproaching Aung San Suu Kyi for her choice of not standing up for the Rohingyan Muslims. In a recent speech, the Dalai Lama reminded her of her “moral authority” as a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, no matter her political position. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi herself says that she “never wanted to be an icon.” Indeed, had she openly condemned the treatment of Muslims in Myanmar, experts predict that she would have lost the elections.

Questions of Freedom and the Military’s Say in the Game

Since the opening up of Myanmar in 2011 both politically and economically, reforms in various sectors have changed the country enormously. They have allowed for the large-scale arrival of mobile telephones, which were unaffordable prior to 2011 with prices for one single SIM card of up to $2,000. They enabled the revival of industries, from textiles to oil and gas, and they lifted any restrictions on internet usage and authorized the development of a flourishing media landscape.

But all of this is happening against the darker backdrop of fresh detentions of politically outspoken Burmese, abuses of power such as land-grabs and ongoing corruption. Former junta leaders are being accused of merely “clothes-swapping” and of leading the exact same lifestyles they had before – including bribery, extortion and harsh reprisals against those who stand in their way. Changes in the current constitution will be hard to achieve, since the military junta still holds a quarter of the seats in the parliament and is allocated to the most influential ministries. And just recently the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime revealed another dark dividend of civilian rule: Myanmar is now firmly entrenched as the world’s second-largest producer of opium after Afghanistan.

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