Thorns of democracy

Haitham Nouri
Tuesday 23 Feb 2021

With the backing of only one-third of Myanmar’s population, the military have to face domestic demonstrations and international denunciation, reports Haitham Nouri

Protests continue for the fourth week running against the military, who staged a coup against the legitimate government of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Meanwhile the international community has decried the crackdown on protesters, threatening all kinds of reprisals.

The current protests are a normal reaction considering that the people of Myanmar were ruled by the military since the coup staged by General Ne Win, who enjoyed unchallenged charisma, in 1962 and until the beginning of reforms in 2011.

In November 2019, the National League for Democracy Party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won two thirds of the parliamentary seats. The military staged the coup on the pretext of widespread fraud. However, it didn’t provide ample enough evidence to convince Western powers of that claim.

Despite strong Western condemnation of the coup, a regional solution may be emerging now that Indonesia has called on Southeast Asian countries to discuss the situation in the former British colony.

European countries have declared they will work on imposing sanctions against Myanmar. However, Asian diplomats who understand Jakarta’s plans believe that talk of sanctions should rather be used to ensure that the Myanmar army will hold the elections they promised and hand over power.

It appears the Indonesian proposal, which is supported by China, will be the scenario applied in Myanmar, particularly now that the West no longer sympathises with the Nobel Peace Laureate Suu Kyi following her disappointing period in power during which she sided with extremist Buddhists against the Muslims of Rohingya, with a campaign against them starting in 2017 that resulted in the displacement of 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, leaving their homeland in Rakhine state in the far west of Myanmar, after decades of economic persecution. The Rohingya are also denied citizenship and ownership of the land they cultivated for centuries.

Being the de facto leader of Myanmar, Ms Suu Kyi, as she is known in Western media, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, was expected to condemn the crime against the Rohingya who are, in the words of the UN, “the most persecuted minority in the world”. She didn’t.

Suu Kyi spent more than two decades (1989-2010) fighting the military to restore democracy until she became an international symbol of democracy. Indeed, the military took a few steps back, accepting the elections of November 2015 in which the National League for Democracy Party won by a landslide in the first openly contested election in 25 years.

However, the constitution the military drafted in return for their acceptance to share power with Suu Kyi prevented her from becoming president because her children by British academic Michael Aris held another nationality. Suu Kyi settled on becoming counsellor, while one of the leaders in her party, Win Myint, became president.

Suu Kyi’s father, Bogyoke Aung San, a politician and a revolutionary, was assassinated when Suu Kyi was just two years old, before Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948. In 1960 she moved to India, where her mother served as Myanmar’s ambassador in Delhi. Four years later, Suu Kyi travelled to the UK to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. These were the same fields of study of Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto and Sudan’s Al-Sadek Al-Mahdi and other British colony leaders’ children.

Suu Kyi met Aris at Oxford. They got married and settled in the UK to raise their children, Alexander and Kim. However, the vision of Myanmar didn’t leave her imagination, and she returned to her homeland in 1988 to care for her mother who was having a health crisis, just as Myanmar was suffering a political crunch that resulted in the 1988 protests led by monks and students.

Those were the last days in General Ne Win’s military regime. Suu Kyi addressed the protesters on 26 August 1988, later telling the media that being her father’s daughter she couldn’t disregard what was going on. For an entire year, Suu Kyi roamed Myanmar calling for democracy, saying at the time she was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. When she rose to the helm, however, she appeared to be under the influence of Indira Gandhi.

During her two-decade rule, Indira Gandhi used extremist Hindus against her opponents from rising nationalist movements with socialist leanings, the Sikhs and Muslims. Likewise, Suu Kyi turned a blind eye to the Buddhists’ crimes against Muslims in Rakhine state. Nonetheless, the lady appeared more vicious than her idol.

Protests against the military forced the army to hold elections in which the National League for Democracy won, but the military refused to hand over power and forced Suu Kyi to remain under house arrest for six years. During the house arrest, she wasn’t allowed to see her children and husband, who died of cancer in 1999.

After the house arrest was lifted, Suu Kyi was banned from travelling in 2000. She refused to leave the country, however, fearing she wouldn’t be able to return. With Suu Kyi’s rise to power, and the way she handled the crisis with the Rohingya minority, observers were in two minds about the counsellor. Is she a pragmatic politician who takes into account the complexity of Myanmar’s multi-ethnic society and history, or is she a chauvinist like many of the world’s politicians?

Her defence of the crimes of the military against the Muslims of Rohingya before the International Criminal Court accelerated her fall from grace before the international community.

Still, the former counsellor enjoys vast popularity in Myanmar, the proof being the nationwide demonstrations against the coup. However, the support she is receiving from two thirds of the population – with the remaining third backing the military – reveals that Myanmar has no sympathy whatsoever with the Rohingya.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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