The Lady, the General, and the Future of Burma


By Connor Phillips.

The two most powerful figures in the rapidly democratizing nation of Burma recently made decisions that could hold tremendous consequences for their country’s future.  The individuals themselves could not be more different:  Thein Sein, president of Burma, is a colorless figure, a former general and bureaucrat closely affiliated with the military junta that ruled with an iron fist from 1962 to 2011.  His foil, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is a global icon, the daughter of Burma’s independence hero Aung San and founder of the National League for Democracy (NLD), a peaceful opposition movement.  Held under house arrest by the junta for fifteen years, she was finally released in 2010, shortly before Thein Sein was elected president.  These unlikely allies set out to accomplish the impossible—turn an autocratic dictatorship into a genuine democracy.

Against all expectations, Thein Sein’s political clout and Suu Kyi’s moral authority have enabled sweeping changes.  Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed, press restrictions have been relaxed, and open and fair elections have been held.  Suu Kyi now sits in Parliament, where the NLD won a sizeable bloc of seats in a 2012 by-election landslide (the party boycotted the 2010 general election, held before Suu Kyi’s release).  Throughout this process, the military, which originally orchestrated Thein Sein’s election and still exercises considerable influence, has largely allowed the reforms to proceed.  Many commentators argue that the military’s change of heart after decades of authoritarianism stems from a calculating realization that the only way to win Burma international recognition and lift the crippling sanctions against the military and its business interests is to pursue democracy.

Thein Sein made headlines again when it was announced that he would not run for re-election in 2015.  His decision means that the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will likely nominate Shwe Mann, the reformist speaker of Parliament.  The NLD’s obvious candidate is Suu Kyi herself, although it is uncertain whether she will even be eligible—Burma’s constitution, adopted in 2008 under then-dictator Than Shwe, prohibits anyone with a foreign spouse or children from running for the office.  This clause is unsubtly targeted at Suu Kyi, whose late husband, Michael Aris, was British.

There is still hope for her:  Shwe Mann has declared that he supports allowing Suu Kyi to run and has convened a 109-member committee to propose constitutional amendments.  Because the USDP still holds an overwhelming majority in Parliament, thanks to a constitutional provision mandating that 25% of seats be reserved for appointees of the military, strong military support will be needed in the final vote.  However accepting the army has been of democratization over the past several years, it is unclear whether the military representatives, split between reformists like Shwe Mann and unreconstructed hard-liners, will agree to overhaul the document that guarantees their formidable political and economic power.

Amending the Constitution, however, could prove the only way to bring peace to Burma.  The country is a multi-ethnic state, with the Bamar majority that dominates the army (and the NLD) comprising only one of 135 officially recognized peoples.  Burma’s numerous minorities were promised autonomy by Aung San before his assassination in 1947 but have instead faced decades of poverty and marginalization, which engendered multiple insurgency movements.  As the current political reforms brought few true changes in the status of these groups, resentment only increased, and violence has intensified over the past several years.  In response, Thein Sein and his chief negotiator Aung Min have painstakingly brokered a series of cease-fires, ending nearly every major conflict, and Thein Sein hopes to sign a nationwide peace accord by the end of this year, a step that would cement his legacy as president.  Such an agreement, however, would hinge on constitutional change to give the ethnic groups the autonomy they have sought since independence.

The rights of Burma’s minorities are not all that is at stake:  if ethnic conflicts can be resolved, the need for a powerful military would disappearIt would be foolish to think that such a dominant institution will simply fade away, but as the power of military-held monopolies over the economy is whittled away by reform and the USDP seems headed for an electoral rout in 2015, it is possible that the military will slowly retreat from politics, becoming a more professional organization.  If Thein Sein and Shwe Mann can outmaneuver the military leadership, which has been trying to escalate the conflict with minority insurgents, and create a more equitable Constitution, they might be able to initiate such a process and perhaps even allow for a Suu Kyi presidential candidacy.

But another struggle is brewing, one that threatens to unravel the entire fragile architecture of Burma’s fledgling democracy.  At issue is the status of the Rohingya, a Muslim people that has dwelled in Arakan State since the days of the British Empire.  Unlike the official minority groups, who are mostly Buddhist or Christian, the Rohingya and several other Muslim minorities have never been recognized as citizens by the Burmese government, making them a stateless people.  Under military rule, their lack of rights meant that the Rohingya were subject to horrific human rights abuses at the hands of the military, but the current threat to them comes from their own neighbors.  Rakhine Buddhists turned on the Rohingya in a series of bloody riots in 2012, as centuries-old ethnic tensions boiled over into a surge of anti-Muslim sentiment across Burma and prominent human-rights bodies accused the government of complicity in “ethnic cleansing.” Some observers fear that hard-line elements within the military are actively fanning the flames in order to launch a crackdown in the name of combating the “Muslim threat,” co-opting constitutional reform and returning to power.

In the face of this growing humanitarian disaster, Aung San Suu Kyi made her own potentially historic decision when she sat down to give an interview for the BBC Pressed to condemn anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence, she refused to explicitly do so, blaming a climate of fear “on both sides” for the riots, to the shock of many around the world.  Her remarks are more likely fueled by a need to maintain her political popularity than by any personal anti-Muslim animus—after all, she has labeled a policy that limits the Rohingya to only two children inhumane.  Nevertheless, her refusal to champion the cause of the Rohingya has alienated Suu Kyi from her former international supporters, with many human-rights activists accusing her of abandoning her principles in hopes of gaining the presidency.

Suu Kyi has at times seemed uncomfortable with the role of the moral leader of Burma, saying at one point that she has always been a politician, not “a human rights defender”.  But her lineage, her long captivity, and her inspirational story have made her so much more than that.  She is the only figure with the moral authority to remedy the ethnic conflicts that have done so much harm to the country she loves.  Aung San Suu Kyi must demand Rohingya citizenship now, or the best chance in decades to heal Burma’s sectarian wounds will be lost.  She may lose the presidency, but in doing so she will have won so much more.

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