In what has been hailed by many onlookers as an historic breakthrough, the recent general election in Myanmar saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD (National League for Democracy) party win over 300 seats across both houses of parliament. For a party whose recent history vividly recalls the dogged political struggle of Suu Kyi’s father and national icon, Aung San, the result is nothing short of momentous. Cornered into political wilderness for vast periods of its short existence, the party can now operate with as powerful a mandate as has been seen in the state since it gained its independence from Britain in 1948. That a substantial proportion of newly-elected members of parliament were once political prisoners indicates the enormous strides the country has taken towards establishing a democratic state.
It is perhaps therefore surprising that optimism does not reign throughout the country. Yes, large swathes of the population appear jubilant at the prospect of a government who will not rule by brute force but by the will of the electorate, that the master-narrative of Suu Kyi’s phoenix-like journey is nearing its triumphant conclusion. But there remains an undercurrent of doubt, of an optimism tempered by anxiety that the NLD’s mission is one which exclusively serves the country’s large Buddhist population.
The persecution of Muslims in the country, in particular the ongoing brutality faced by the country’s Rohingya population, is a problem which the NLD regard as but one of the many ‘issues’ facing Myanmar today. Criticism of Suu Kyi has been steadily increasing from those angered at her refusal to speak out against the plight of Rohingyas in the face of violent displacement and a multitude of serious human rights infringements. Just months before the election, the New York Times reported that hundreds of thousands of Muslims had their names effaced from electoral rolls without warning. Without an ID card to prove citizenship- a document denied them by the incumbent government who refuse to acknowledge their status as Burmese citizens- their voice was taken from them, silenced by a ruling elite whose manipulation of such deep-seated ethnic tensions belied their outward goal of political reconciliation.
The NLD have prioritised the consolidation of a tenable political position over the deprivation of basic human rights. Senior members of the party have stated as such to the media, adding that Rohingya Muslims should be returned to Bangladesh- a state which equally rejects their status as citizens. This conviction is taken by Muslim activists in the country as illustrative of Buddhist bias inherent in the party’s structures, with their implicit denial of wrongdoing a tactic to keep their partisan core of Buddhist voters on side. One such activist is U. Yan Naing, who left his role in the NLD as a result of its failure to compromise on its position of ambivalence towards the Muslim population, a position which he regarded as tantamount to ‘discrimination’.
Evidently, politics demands prioritisation; there exist always issues to be confronted, with some more pressing than others. The NLD’s victory, on a historical basis, should be applauded as a hopeful indication of the eventual eradication of military government in the country. Yet, this cannot excuse the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi from their ambivalence to the continual violence and grave maltreatment Muslims in order to appease the ruling elite. Suu Kyi, though an international icon and Nobel Peace prize winner, is not be exempt from criticism; international pressure, both diplomatic and through the media, must not cease in its effort to encourage the protection of Myanmar’s Muslims, whose life-threatening abandonment is the country’s most pressing issue of all.
Image: Roderick Eime