July 23, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s Ethnic Dilemmas

As of late July 2012, Myanmar remains one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Ethnic minorities make up about one-third of the population and occupy roughly half of the land area. Unfortunately, armed ethnic conflict has also been a constant reality in the country, with deep historical roots dating back to the earliest days of independence. Since 1974, the country has been administratively divided into seven divisions, supposedly inhabited by the Burmese majority population, and seven ethnically designated states. However, there are significant minority populations in most divisions, and state names merely refer to the largest ethnic group among several in each state.

While the world's attention has been focused on the struggle between Myanmar's military government and the political opposition, ethnic conflict perhaps represents an even more fundamental and intractable obstacle to peace, development, and democracy. More than half a century of civil war has caused immense suffering and devastation for the country and its people. A series of ceasefires since the late 1980s has brought relief in some areas, but no real solutions yet, and fighting continues. The government's determination to preserve a unified state remains the primary justification for military rule, and armed conflict is a root cause of human rights abuses and a deepening humanitarian crisis in ethnic minority areas.

The Rohingya issue is a politically sensitive one in Myanmar's society, but at the same time it is of immense significance for Aung Sung Suu Kyi's political career. During her recent tour of Europe in early June, ethnic violence erupted in Rakhine state, where clashes between Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims left some 80 people dead and displaced approximately 90,000 others. When Suu Kyi finally accepted her Nobel Peace Prize prize in Oslo, 21 years after the fact, her comments on Myanmar were cautious. She called for national reconciliation and cease-fire agreements between the government and "ethnic nationality forces," which she said she hoped would "lead to political settlements founded on the aspirations of the peoples, and the spirit of the nation."


Suu Kyi's Cautious Political Strategy

Over the years, Suu Kyi has positioned her movement as an active opposition to the military leaders. But she has taken pains to avoid being confrontational, always leaving open the possibility of a new relationship with the generals who had imprisoned her. In late April, newly elected deputies representing Myanmar's main opposition party — the National League for Democracy (NLD) — were sworn in as members of parliament (MPs) after a brief stand-off over the wording of the oath they were to take. The NLD deputies initially objected to the requirement that they promise to "safeguard" the 2008 constitution, which was pushed through by the previous, overtly military government. The NLD called for the wording of the oath to be changed to "respect," in line with the Electoral Law (which was itself amended as a result of NLD objections, clearing the way for the party's participation in the April 1st by-elections).
Despite requests from the NLD, President Thein Sein refused to back down, and the oath was not changed. However, within days the NLD changed tack and agreed to accept the wording, allowing the opposition party to enter parliament for the first time ever. The NLD's recent show of flexibility suggests the party is genuinely committed to working for change from within the current political system. Suu Kyi, its de facto leader, stated that the party's change of heart would prevent "tension" with the government and would enable NLD MPs to fulfill their mandate from voters "who want to see us in parliament." The NLD's willingness to compromise also suggests that Suu Kyi and Thein Sein are developing a positive working relationship. The two met for the second time in mid-April, ahead of the swearing-in ceremony, apparently to discuss the need for cooperation.

Myanmar's current opening depends on the trust that has built up between the president and the NLD leader. With the re-opening of parliament in July, Suu Kyi knows she must strike a balance between her long-standing role as the figurehead of the opposition — whose supporters are looking to her to champion demands for greater openness and democracy — and her newer role working alongside the government as a leader of a national movement for reconciliation. In the coming weeks, hardliners within the government could be strengthened if Suu Kyi is seen to be overtly critical of the regime.


The Geopolitical Obstacles of Ethnic Conflict

Since the 1988 uprising and 1990 election, international actors have tended to view ethnic minority organizations as part of the broader pro-democracy movement. The ethnic minorities, however, often complain that both the international community and Burmese politicians see their grievances and aspirations as being of secondary importance to the quest for democracy. There is thus a fear that an agreement could be reached between the military government and the NLD that would leave the underlying issues of ethnic conflict unresolved.

Rohingyas are still considered as "outsiders" by the Burmese as well as by some of the other minorities. The state has not facilitated their integration into society or provided them with the opportunity to develop; further, it has also often failed to protect the Rohingyas from ethnic persecution. The Rohingyas in the Rakhine state — as well as many in the refugee camps in Bangladesh — want Suu Kyi to address the issue and take a firm and categorical stance to solve their problem. However, the social and political reality in Myanmar is exceedingly complex, and Suu Kyi apparently has limited political options (and, perhaps, desire) to address this contentious issue at this moment when even some key members of her own party, the NLD, as well as her constituency, Kawhmu Township, are known to have anti-Rohingya sentiments. During her address to the British Houses of Parliament on June 22nd, Suu Kyi stated, "I strive to be as practical as my father was," recalling that when a British general accused General Aung San of switching from the Japanese to the British side during World War II because the British were winning, he replied, "It wouldn't be much good coming to you if you weren't, would it?"

When Thein Sein announced that Tin Aung Myint Oo had resigned for health reasons earlier this month, some observers were hopeful that a more reform-minded candidate would be drafted to replace him. However, Myanmar's armed forces nominated a former head of military intelligence, Myint Swe, as the country's new first vice-president, according to an official announcement on July 10th. The nomination of another ex-general — and reputed hardliner — is a reminder to advocates of faster reform that the army remains a significant and potentially obstructive actor in Myanmar's shifting political environment, where an officials' ethnicity is of vital importance.

Increasingly Suu Kyi is being asked to propose solutions to her country's woes rather than merely lamenting them. By inserting herself into the cut and thrust of Burmese politics, she is placing some of her hard-fought prestige on the line. And by entering politics at this delicate stage, she is also imparting legitimacy on a government run by the same generals, now retired, whom she battled for two decades. If the reform process currently under way in Myanmar falters, Aung San Suu Kyi may be held partly responsible.



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