Will Aung San Suu Kyi represent all Burma?
The National League for Democracy (NLD) didn’t field any Muslim candidates in the 8 November general election, and Aung San Suu Kyi has told the media not to ‘exaggerate’ what is probably an ongoing genocide of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. However, most Burmese Muslims are still loyal to the party, and to Aung San Suu Kyi, who they believe is only doing what is politically expedient in a climate of racism and Islamophobia. But if the NLD remains too afraid to speak out against fascism, what comfort, what hope, and what representation, does the party really offer Burma’s religious and ethnic minorities?
It was tense in Meikhtila before the election.
‘We were all afraid,’ said Khin Nan, sitting with his mother, wife and daughters in their vast but sparse house on the Islamic side of town. ‘If the NLD won, Ma Ba Tha said they would burn the quarters and kill people,’ he continued, referring to the ultranationalist Buddhist monks who have appointed themselves the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. Ma Ba Tha is a powerful political lobby in Burma, and also a group of fascist thugs who have played a part in inciting several attacks on minority Muslim communities across the country. They are linked to the military junta that ruled the country until 2011, and now appear to support the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), which succeeded the junta.
Fearing another riot, like the one which destroyed swathes of Meikhtila’s Islamic quarter and left more than 40 people dead in 2013, Khin Nan and Meikhtila’s other Muslim residents kept quiet about who they were going to vote for before the day. When the British Ambassador visited to ask how people felt about the election and who they would give their vote to, Khin Nan said interviewees remained silent because of the Ambassador’s Buddhist guide. ‘We told him we will not give our vote to anyone,’ he said. ‘In reality we wanted to vote for the NLD, but we were afraid of having another conflict.’
Meikhtila is by a lake, a few kilometres off the busy highway which connects Rangoon, the former capital, Naypyidaw, the new capital, and Mandalay, the second-biggest city. About a third of the 100,000 residents are Muslim; almost all the rest are Buddhist.
Politically, Meikhtila is now an anomaly: the USDP won all the state, regional, and lower-house seats there – unlike almost everywhere else in the country, where Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD nearly obliterated the USDP, winning an outright majority. But contrary to speculation before the election, and misreporting since, the USDP victory had nothing to do with the Muslim community.
False monks and foreigners
‘From the Muslim quarters, votes for the NLD came top,’ said Hlwan Moe, Vice-President of the NLD Meikhtila Township branch. He believes around 90 per cent of the Muslim community voted for the opposition party. The high USDP vote and low overall voter turnout, Hlwan Moe continued, could be attributed to a large army reserve in the area and to the Buddhist community, particularly farmers and villagers outside the main town, who, he said, were manipulated by racist, nationalist propaganda. ‘False monks have come into the religion and they were propagandizing that if people voted for Aung San Suu Kyi, this country will become for foreigners, for kalar [which is variously translated as ‘Muslims’, ‘Indians’ or ‘foreigners’], because she married a foreigner,’ Hlaw Moe said, adding that many Buddhist people already think Aung San Suu Kyi is ‘siding with the Islamics’.
In voting defiantly for the NLD Meikhtila’s Muslim put their faith in a party that arguably does not truly represent them
In voting defiantly for the NLD, not only did Meikhtila’s Muslim community risk triggering a violent, wrathful backlash from Ma Ba Tha and the incited Buddhist community, they also put their faith in a party that arguably does not truly represent them. Despite Muslims making up between 4 and 10 per cent of the Burmese population, the NLD decided not to field any Muslim candidates in order to avoid giving Ma Ba Tha more ammunition against them. Win Htein, a senior party member and aide to Aung San Suu Kyi, told a journalist, ‘If we choose Muslim candidates, Ma Ba Tha point their fingers at us, so we have to avoid it.’
Khin Nan, who participated in pro-democracy protests in 1988 and has supported the NLD ever since, won’t hear a word against Aung San Suu Kyi. Like many people in Burma, he adores her. To him, the NLD’s decision not to select any Muslim candidates is an admirable example of Aung San Suu Kyi’s cunning, rather than a betrayal of her loyal Muslim fan base. ‘If she put up a Muslim candidate for the election there would be a big talk and there’d be something to criticize her for,’ he said. ‘She knows that. She’s very sensible, she’s got good brains.’
Khin Nan is not unusual. Despite their lack of representation within the party, Burmese Muslims in other parts of the country also consistently say they voted for the NLD. ‘The Muslim community in Burma decided to vote for the NLD because in a way the national interest is prior to its own interest,’ said Kyaw Win, secretary of the Burmese Muslim Association. ‘We are aware that the NLD excluded Muslim candidates, but we voted for the NLD with hope that one day our rights will be given back.’
Fair? Free? Not for the Rohingya
While all Burmese Muslims lack political representation, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group based in Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh, were denied the right to vote at all. Their citizenship, which had been tenuous for a long time, was revoked completely shortly before the election, excluding them from the process altogether. Journalists, researchers and independent observers have suggested that a slow genocide of the Rohingya is taking place in Rakhine State, with many members of the ethnic group having been confined to substandard internally displaced person (IDP) camps ever since Ma Ba Tha initiated anti-Muslim riots in the area in 2013. Other Rohingya remain in their villages but are subject to heavy surveillance, arbitrary arrest, police brutality and frequent sexual assault.
Aung Aung, an ethnic Rohingya, was a teacher in Sittwe, Rakhine’s capital, before what he described as a ‘state-sanctioned mob’ burnt down his house and confined him to an IDP camp. ‘The Burmese election 2015 was one of the most free and fair in Burmese history for Buddhists,’ he said, ‘but for us Rohingya and Muslims, it is the first genocidal election, in which the right of the Rohingya was deprived as [part of the] genocidal process.’
In Sittwe, like in Meikhtila, Aung San Suu Kyi has many loyal Muslim supporters, despite the fact that the vast majority couldn’t actually vote for her and she has said nothing against this. Myo Win, a 28-year-old Rohingya man, said that even in the IDP camps most people were happy about the NLD victory. He explained that many Rohingya people have always supported Aung San Suu Kyi, with Muslims from Rakhine joining Buddhist monks in asking for her release from house arrest during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. Like Khin Nan, Myo Win said he can understand why Aung San Suu Kyi is not speaking out in favour of the Rohingya. ‘The NLD knows that Ma Ba Tha is a big lobby for Burma,’ he said. ‘The NLD is worried because this is the first time for them to run the country. If all the people start protesting against them, [there will be] no chance for them to lead country.’
Just as the election result seems to have legitimated the election as free, fair and democratic in many eyes (it wasn’t, just ask the ethnic minority and independent candidates, who were the real victims of the two main parties’ manipulative scare tactics and petty cheating), the NLD’s victory seems to have erased the importance of how they achieved it: after all, what else matters now? A global democracy icon has led her party to victory over the remnants of an evil junta. Almost everybody is celebrating, except the cronies and the fascists. In Meikhtila, Khin Nan says, the national NLD victory has silenced Ma Ba Tha for the first time in a long time. ‘They themselves are disheartened, they understand they have lost,’ he said. ‘They don’t come around singing hate songs any more.’
But some people argue that the NLD’s actions – its choice to engage in a potentially genocidal political game in which Burmese Muslims are little more than pawns – is ethically impossible to condone, regardless of the election outcome or the long-term plan.
‘As a human rights activist, this is totally unacceptable,’ said Kyaw Win, speaking of the NLD’s failure to field any Muslim candidates. ‘The rights of 10 per cent of the population should not be undermined for any political reason. Muslims in Burma must be spared from being a political scapegoat.’
Some people argue that the NLD’s actions – its choice to engage in a potentially genocidal political game in which Burmese Muslims are little more than pawns – is ethically impossible to condone
Not only is it possible to argue that no end justifies the means by which the NLD have retained their popularity, it is also possible that in the long run the party’s evasive tactics will backfire. Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist living in exile in Berlin, said that while Aung San Suu Kyi fails to act or speak for the Rohingya, conditions – including access to food and healthcare – are deteriorating all the time in Rakhine state, making the situation more and more difficult to ignore. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Burma Islamophobia is spreading. ‘The Buddhist people, they are all against the Muslims,’ Nay San Lwin said, adding that Ma Ba Tha ‘want Burma as a 100-per-cent Buddhist country. They have been planning to wipe out all of the Rohingya.’
Nay San Lwin believes that when the current precarious and unsustainable situation in Rakhine and elsewhere in Burma begins to boil over, another outbreak of violence could be used by the military to justify a coup. ‘Even though Aung San Suu Kyi can form the government and run the country, there is still these Ma Ba Tha monks and Wirathu and the opposition party,’ Nay San Lwin said. ‘They will not spare us. Within six months or a year, they will try to create a worse situation, and finally the military will say: “The country is in a worse situation; we have to take the power.”’
I spent election-day afternoon with Burmese friends of a friend. Kaspar* had studied in Australia and his girlfriend, Amy*, had just graduated from medical school in Burma. Kaspar’s house was so enormous that his family felt it needed to be guarded by a Rottweiler the size of a small bear. It was just one of many properties that his parents owned. Despite ties to the military – Kaspar’s father left the army and joined the civil service after being injured by a landmine – and despite clearly having benefited from their connection to the former junta government, Kaspar and his family were staunch NLD supporters.
On election day, the family’s tense excitement, and later their jubilation, were contagious. It was touching to be included; they were kind, sensitive hosts, and interesting, intelligent people. It was easy to get swept up in the mass hysteria.
Like Aung San Suu Kyi, Kaspar and Amy exude progressive, liberal views about ‘democracy’ and about ‘human rights’. Kaspar has shared a captioned image of Aung San Suu Kyi on Facebook, with the quote, ‘You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.’ But when eventually, and inevitably, the Rohingya came up in conversation, Kaspar immediately turned to fear to justify an unexpected, abhorrent set of views. ‘They don’t believe in contraception in their religion so they have many children,’ he said, suggesting the Rohingya – who he described as illegal immigrations from Bangladesh, only portrayed as Burmese in the international media because of the influence of rich, nepotistic Arab Muslims – would overrun the country if they were let in. ‘We are not like the West; we cannot afford to look after people who are not Burmese,’ he said, arguing, when pushed to suggest a solution, that all 1.3 million Rohingya and their future descendants could live forever confined in camps in the Burma-Bangladesh border area, or else ‘why don’t countries in the Middle East take them?’
When challenged too much, Kaspar told me that he didn’t want to talk about it anymore – after all, even Aung San Suu Kyi chose not to address the subject, so why should he have to justify his views?
Silence and evasion
The consensus among NLD apologists seems to be that Aung San Suu Kyi had to throw Burmese Muslims to Ma Ba Tha to save her popularity, and thus the country. As the situation has become more and more dire, Burmese Muslims have had fewer and fewer options other than to cling on to their faith in the NLD, and to hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will come back to save them when she has the power to do so. But with fascist nationalism spreading unchecked, and the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi – who is, after all, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights advocate and a national moral compass – perceived by many Buddhists as legitimating their own racism, it’s difficult to imagine her stepping up now.
As the situation has become more and more dire, Burmese Muslims have clung on to their hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will save them when she has the power to do so
‘I don’t think she will speak for the Rohingya now,’ said Nay San Lwin, pointing out that in a press conference just before the election she evaded questions about the Rohingya by asking journalists not to exaggerate the issue. Meanwhile, her aide Win Htein has described the Rohingya crisis as an immigration problem, feigning a degree of sympathy while erasing the entire ethnic group’s history and right to live in the country.
If a genocide is not too much for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to overlook in the name of ‘democracy’, then it’s difficult to think what will be.
But Nay San Lwin’s anger extends beyond Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, to the international community as well.
‘When they are celebrating in the West, they are not counting us as human beings,’ he said, pointing out that, like Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, foreign governments appear only to be concerned with their own interests. ‘Nobody speaks for us because all the Western governments are looking out for themselves only. They have a geopolitical focus… they have focused on their business. They are giving us lip service only. They are not doing anything in reality.’
Nobody knows the implications of Islamophobia and the Ma Ba Tha movement in Burma better than Khin Nan and his family. As I was waiting to leave Meikhtila, I chatted to the women in his family. Unlike his opinionated mother, who frequently interrupted as Khin Nan and I spoke, and his smiling daughters, who brought tea and coffee, his wife was very quiet and withdrawn throughout my visit. I didn’t ask anyone about the riot in 2013, because I visited the family and spoke to Khin Nan – who led hundreds of his neighbours to safety – about it at the time. I felt it would be gratuitous to make anyone revisit the traumatic events unnecessarily, especially given the intensified Ma Ba Tha threat in the run-up to the election, which must have put an enormous strain on the family. But during a lull in the conversation Khin Nan’s wife reached suddenly for my arm, and spoke almost compulsively. ‘We had to hide in the jungle,’ she said, looking as if she were drowning in a trauma which was located elsewhere. ‘That must have been very frightening for you,’ I said, at a loss for anything else to say. Instead of answering, she started to sob uncontrollably. My Christian translator told her Allah would look after her, but she was still crying when we left. Burmese Muslims support the NLD for the same reasons as everyone else: they idolize Aung San Suu Kyi, and they see the party as offering a change for the better. But the stakes are even higher for Burmese Muslims than for most people in Burma. For many of them, the NLD is the only thing to hope for, and hope is often the only thing to do.
Khin Nan still believes Aung San Suu Kyi will help.
‘The wish of the whole Muslim community is for an equitable share. They don’t want more or less than the other religions; they want an equal share of rights and everything,’ he said. ‘I think, I know, the NLD will give equal freedom and equal rights. She [Aung San Suu Kyi] will be fair in doing everything she can for us, and for the Rohingya.’
I really hope he’s right.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism