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Suu Kyi can’t wait forever to defend minorities

by Gwynne Dyer

Last month, as the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar spread from Rakhine state in the western part of the country to the central city of Meiktila, Aung San Suu Kyi sat among the generals on the reviewing stand as the army marched past on Armed Forces Day. She is seen as a saint by many people — but she didn’t say anything about Meiktila, where just days before at least 40 people were killed and 12,000 made homeless

She hasn’t condemned the far greater violence against the Muslim Rohingyas of Rakhine state during the past year either, but there she had at least the flimsy excuse that this group are portrayed by the military regime as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The military regime even revoked their citizenship in 1982, and they have never got it back.

The claim that the Rohingyas are foreigners is a despicable lie — the first written mention of Rohingyas in Rakhine dates back to 1799 — but Suu Kyi didn’t say that. She just murmured that “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.” Meiktila, however, was different.

The Muslims of Meiktila, who make up a third of the city’s population, are not Rohingya, and there is no question about their Myanmar citizenship. There is a large military base in Meiktila, and yet for two days the army did not intervene to protect the Muslims. And once again, Suu Kyi did not condemn what was happening. What is going on here?

There is a long game being played in Myanmar, and we will not know its outcome until the national elections scheduled for 2015. The officer who launched a democratic transition after he became president in 2011, Gen. Thein Sein, seems willing to return the country to civilian control after 50 years of military rule, but he certainly intends to retain a major role for the army in Myanmar’s politics.

Thein Sein’s main motive for withdrawing the military from power is probably to end the country’s pariah status. As a result of the brutal and corrupt rule of the generals, Myanmar has long been the poorest country in the region. But there are several reasons why he would want to keep the army’s influence high.

One reason is that his fellow generals would overthrow him if he did not protect them from future prosecution for their past crimes. Another is that the army is obsessed with maintaining Myanmar’s unity.

Only two-thirds of the country’s 60 million people are actually ethnic Burmese, living mostly in the Irrawaddy River basin. All around the frontiers are large ethnic minorities — Shan, Karen, Mon, Kachin — most of which have fought against the centralizing policies of the military dictatorship in the past.

The military doesn’t believe that a strictly civilian government would be tough enough to hold the country together, so it has no intention of giving up power completely. As things stand now, however, that is precisely what will happen: In last year’s by-elections, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 43 out of 44 parliamentary seats at stake. The military’s candidates would be simply wiped out in the 2015 elections.

The army has to find some way to make itself more popular politically, and the obvious way is to position itself as the defender of Myanmar unity against treacherous minorities. Then it might win support from the majority population — or so it clearly believes.

The real separatists are way up on the frontiers of the country, far from the view of the majority population. The Muslim (5 percent), Chinese (2.5 percent) and Indian (1.5 percent) minorities live right among the ethnic Burmese majority. So far, only the Muslims have been targeted, but there is reason to suspect that the military was implicated even in the first outbreak of anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine.

There is no doubt that the army is now complicit in anti-Muslim violence elsewhere in Myanmar. The military is clearly hoping that Suu Kyi will speak out in defense of the Muslim Myanmarese, and thereby lose her popular support among the highly nationalistic majority. Knowing this, she has chosen to remain silent, presumably thinking that all this can be fixed after she wins the 2015 election. This is almost certainly a mistake.

The transition from a long-lasting tyranny to a democracy is particularly tricky in ethnically complicated countries, and there are two recent examples that might offer her some guidance.

One was the end of communist rule in Yugoslavia in 1991, when the Serbian communist elite, led by Slobodan Milosevic, kept its hold on power by playing on Serbian resentment of other nationalities. There was a decade of war and the former Yugoslav federation fragmented into seven successor states.

The other was South Africa, an even more complex ethnic stew. There the ruling white minority surrendered power voluntarily, and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress did not pursue the politics of vengeance. As a result, the country is democratic, and it is still united and at peace.

At some point in the next two years, Suu Kyi is going to have to decide which way she wants to go.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ andrew Sheldon

    The strategic intent I would suggest of the executive of Myanmar is to discredit her by either making her a hypocrite for not speaking in their defence, or to alienate her from her support base. Its hard to imagine that either path would make her as bad as the current leadership. In what sense can she be considered ‘empowered’ to do anything. It is ultimately countries like India, USA, Thailand and China that should be speaking out…after all, they have standing armies to defend ‘principles’, not this defenceless woman. Why do people advance principles as if they were dogmatic edicts out of context? Could it be they are not really the advocates of human rights that they profess to be?

  • http://twitter.com/bookidolatry Mel C. Thompson

    Will the Saudis ever allow minority religions on their soil? No! Will the Arab countries allow the building of a synagogue on their territory? No! Many religions have been banned outright in Egypt! Will Iran ever stop persecuting the Bahais? No! So, perhaps part of the problem Muslims have in getting sympathy for their current state of persecution is that in all the world no one does more persecuting of religions minorities than Muslims. Countless countries in the Middle East and North Africa all had sizable Christian populations. Pakistan had a notable number of Hindus. All fled in fear of their lives as the great Muslim Apartheid has now taken over a fifth of the land area of the earth. So, you see, when your religion is the supreme advocate and practitioner of apartheid, you can’t expect a lot of sympathy when you’re the victims of it, especially when it’s over such a small territory of one province of a small Asian country. (By the way, Buddhism used to exist all over the Middle East, till the Muslims killed them all. Countless polytheistic religions of that whole part of the world are extinct because the Muslims killed them all.) And most Muslims I talk too, rather than feeling badly about all the killing and apartheid activity of Islam, still just hang on the their doctrine that the old colonialist evils now entitle them to unlimited and eternal honor killing against the world. So, you know, if you want sympathy, when you’re persecuted, one way to avoid that is to stop being the world’s leading persecutors. For instance, Saudi Arabia is an area as large as all of Western Europe, yet, note that no other religion but Islam is publicly allowed. Can you imagine if an area on earth as large as all of Europe said there will be no Islam allowed. No! Islam still gets a free pass, largely because Western intellectuals also join Muslims in claiming that former colonialist oppression of Islamic countries allows Islamists to take out unlimited and permanent revenge, not only against the West, but against anyone at any time. When they “condemn terrorism,” they spend 30 second on that, then deliver and hour-long lecture on why the West sucks. So, you know, they’re not really very sorry at all. So it is the selfishness and self-centeredness and permanent victim mindset of the Islamic world that has created this mess. And, you may be shocked, but I’m an American Liberal saying this, one who was against the Iraq war, one who is for wealth redistributing and high taxes against the rich. So, you know, you’re losing even the American Left now, and we are generally the biggest doormats on the planet. White guilt is our speciality. Don’t go looking for sympathy in Asia, where Muslims killed off so many religions and religiously-and-ethnically cleansed so much of the world that it’s beyond even reckoning. The torched templed, the torched churches, the torched mosques of every liberal Muslim sect, all stand testament to the fact that Islam has lost its conscience. Does this mean no Muslim has a conscience? No! But rather, that they continually rationalize for the ones without conscience in their midst. They just can’t face up to the cultural sickness they are enabling. Peaceful Muslims are only for peace insofar as they never have to get down to the ugly business of peer-pressuring the Sunni Wahabi Salfist Islamists in their midst. They were kind of hoping to escape that horrible duty. So, you see, thus, the lack of sympathy. The Asian Muslims have shown, over and over, that they have no other vision for Asia but forcefully-applied Sharia Law. And they are, by the way, the most astoundingly Anti-Semitic. (I watch their sermons. They are ruthless.) So yeah, you won’t be feeling the love from the rest of the world on this cry for help for the poor Muslims of Asia when they get persecuted, because no Muslim confronts Saudia Arabia about being a fascist Apartheid state. Remember there are Mosques in America. Are there Churches in Saudi Arabia? Remember, there are Mosques in Israel. Are thee Synagogues in Saudi Arabia? Stockholm syndrome within my own progressive movement prevents us from admitting that some cultures are more guilty than others right now. It’s hard to swallow, because we liberals believe blaming our own whites for everything is the miracle cure, as does generally the Muslim world. But it just won’t sail anymore. Sorry.

    • Starviking

      Tarring people with a broad brush there. Catholics have lorded it over Protestants and vice versa, Hindus over Muslims and Sikhs, Buddists over Muslims. Focussing solely on Muslims is just bigotry – all religions have some ways to go until they are impeccable.

  • sun_wukong

    It’s intriguing that once in power (as in our own Obama) one notices many decisions made by a predecessor might have come from necessity. My guess is that the noble lady did not endure years of hardship so she could stroll through the detritus of islamic separatism (severed human heads and bombed markets a la South Thailand). Maybe she understands the disaster wrought on the World when Pakistan split from India and doesn’t want Myanmar similarly turned into a jihadi summer camp. Maybe she knows the first thing an empowered muslim community will do is toss her back in that house and forbid her to leave without a male relative. Perhaps the reason she struggled to save her Country is because she loves it (like the “highly nationalistic majority” which, as a majority, surely must be awful people.) Or maybe she just doesn’t like the way she looks in a black sack. After what she said in the third paragraph, I would say at least one of the above.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Boon-Tee-Tan/1068880297 Boon Tee Tan

    It will be hard for Suu Kyi to support the minorities without raising concern among her followers or being at odd with the junta. She is in a very difficult position, especially when she does not have the commanding power. (mtd1943)

  • Christopher-trier

    Suu Kyi can only do so many things, she only has so much capital. She has to use it wisely. By co-operating with the government she is able to help her people by mitigating the horrors that have befallen them in the past. Burma is changing and things are slowly getting better for the first times in generations. Why do people like Dyer insist on Suu Kyi doing the impossible? Why do they insist on her crucifying herself for the sake of their ideals, not the situation as it is? This sort of mentality has caused more harm to the world than good and, yet, nothing is learnt.