6 November 2015

Burma goes to the polls in the midst of a humanitarian crisis


It has been a year of elections. Since Alexis Tsipras’ anti-austerity party Syriza swept to power in Greece’s January elections, the world has watched Turkey’s challenge to Erdogan in May (and subsequent support of him this week), Canada’s end-of-an-era farewell to Harper, and of course our own parliamentary reshuffle in the UK. None of these matches the scope and excitement of this weekend’s election in Burma.

To say this election is historic is an understatement. For decades, Burma (or Myanmar, to those outside the UK) has been a political tragedy, and has been under military (or pseudo-military) rule since 1962. Ethnic minorities make up 40 percent of the country’s 52 million people, and civil conflict blazes between state troops and minority insurgent groups. Some of these, such as the Kachin Independence Army in the north, are fighting to secede from Burma and become independent states. Others just want an end to the persecution they have faced for years from the military regime.

Above this internal conflict rises the guiding light of Burma, its icon, a woman who has become a legend both in her own country and abroad: Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi has been a beacon of hope for Burma since 1988, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 and enduring years of house arrest for challenging the military regime. In 1999, the world watched in shock as her husband, Michael Aris, died in Britain after a battle with cancer, while she remained trapped in Burma. Despite pleas from the international community, Aris was denied a visa to visit his wife one last time, while Suu Kyi knew she would be banned from returning to her country if she left to visit him. Aris died without ever seeing his wife again. The tragic personal element to the story made a lasting impression on the entire world.

Suu Kyi’s personal sacrifice, her 25-year struggle and her calmness in the face of adversity have lent her, as Christian Caryl puts it, “the aura of a saint”. At a rally over the weekend, tens of thousands of supporters waited hours in the heat to glimpse her in person, many sporting the bright red paraphernalia of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Suu Kyi remains the living embodiment of the party she founded, which is predicted success this weekend, even with 25 percent of the seats ring-fenced for the army.

But Burma is not just one woman, however iconic she may be, and this election is not simply about her. More than 6000 candidates are standing from over 90 parties, including those representing ethnic minorities. For all her mystique, Suu Kyi cannot hope to unite factions which have suffered (and in some cases perpetrated) violence and terrorism for decades. The victims of 60 years of military authoritarianism are not a homogeneous group, and the election is not merely a battle between the army’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Aung San Suu Kyi.

In fact, while the spotlight has been shining on Burma’s leading lady, another story has been cast into shadow: that of Burma’s Muslims. With fierce tension between the Buddhist majority and Muslim communities, the NLD made the decision – after pressure from Buddhist nationalists – not to allow Muslim candidates to stand. While some see this as a practical move to maintain support across the country, others are critical that a party which promotes democracy has refused to represent candidates from a minority that makes up 5 percent of Burma’s population.

While Muslim candidates are prevented from standing, members of the Rohingya Muslim minority are prevented from voting at all. But that may be the least of their worries. The Rohingya are, according to a UN report, “one of the world’s largest and most prominent group of stateless people”. A 1982 law states that the Rohingya cannot be Burmese citizens, leaving them without a nationality or any protections. The law classes all Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, regardless of where they were born, but with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in makeshift camps after being forced out of Burma, Bangladesh has refused to take more and is threatening to evict them. William McGowan from Foreign Policy writes that, if they remain in the Rakhine state of Burma, the Rohingya are:

“subject to forced labor, extortion, police harassment, movement restrictions, land confiscation, a de facto ‘one child’ policy, and limited access to jobs, education, and healthcare.”

What has been the response of Burma’s democratic icon to the plight of the Rohingya? Unfortunately, it has been disappointing. In 2012, Suu Kyi said she “did not know” if the Rohingya could be citizens, and, despite the NLD’s position as an advocate for minority rights, she has declined to mention the issue in the run-up to this election. It is disheartening to watch the symbol of Burmese progress refuse to address such a crushing humanitarian crisis.

As with the lack of Muslim candidates, there are two sides to this silence. Suu Kyi wants to win, and millions of Burmese citizens are counting on her and her party to break the military stronghold over their country. The Rohingya are a despised and shunned minority who are not considered citizens and cannot vote. Championing their cause now will do Suu Kyi no favours at the ballot box – it is the Buddhist majority who persecute them she must convince. But this compromise, however necessary, mars the romanticised image of the idealistic visionary, prepared to endure years of house arrest for her beliefs.

Burma is set for change on Sunday, be it a peaceful democratic transfer of power, or a revolution and brutal renewing of civil conflict if either of the main parties rejects the result. Aung San Suu Kyi herself cannot become president (a constitutional ban on citizens with foreign children running for president stands in her way), but if her party can win a majority she will have a unique chance to change the course of Burma’s bloody history. If not, expect more fighting, more insurgency, and more Rohingya oppression. Either way, the rest of the world must try not to let Aung San Suu Kyi’s light draw too much focus from Burma’s forgotten disenfranchised.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.