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Democracy, Suu Kyi and ethnic rights in Burma

In a speech delivered in Kachin state’s capital Myitkyina in 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi admonished her audience saying: “At this time there is a very great need for all our ethnic groups to be joined together. We cannot have the attitude of ‘I’m Kachin,’ ‘I’m Burman,’ ‘I’m Shan.’ We must have the attitude that we are all comrades in the struggle for democratic rights.”

This piece of advice might have seemed sensible at that time when the country was embroiled in a struggle for democracy. However, the comment was also misplaced and revealed an apparent lack of sensitivity to the demands of Burma’s ethnic minorities.

Twenty-four years later many things have changed with Suu Kyi’s struggle for democracy, as war rages on again in Kachin state after an uneasy 17-year ceasefire collapsed in 2011. While the Burmese army continues to heavily shell Laiza – the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) – and tens of thousands of Kachin civilians languish in internal displacement camps as the Burmese government blocks the delivery of international aid to the area, Suu Kyi has come under fire for her silence on their plight.

The country’s famed opposition leader has defended her silence, arguing that she prefers not to “take sides” to avoid inflaming the conflict. Such a stance effectively illustrates a belief that both parties are equally responsible in the conflict. Moreover, she has not spoken out in favour of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) suffering in camps along the Chinese border, nor has she publicly demanded that the government allow aid from international NGOs to be delivered to these areas.

Last summer, when I asked a Catholic priest in Laiza whether he trusted Suu Kyi, he answered that she was just another Burman, thus not to be trusted. However, attitudes at that time were far from homogeneous and some people expressed some confidence in her. Baptist reverend, historian, linguist and ideologist for the KIO Ja Gun said in an interview that “if the Burmans’ change their political culture, we will reconcile. Suu Kyi’s position is good to reconcile [with the Burmese government] one day.”

With her stubborn silence and expressions of fondness for a military infamous for its brutality and human rights violations, Suu Kyi is putting at risk the political capital she once possessed among the country’s ethnic minorities.

Changing ways

Shortly after her release in November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi proposed holding a second Panglong conference where representatives from all the country’s ethnic groups could discuss ways to resolve the longstanding civil wars that have plagued Burma since its founding more than six decades ago. At that time her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), faced its own problems. The party was still considered an illegal entity by the government due to its refusal to register for the 2010 elections.

In August 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi held her first meeting with President Thein Sein. In December, the NLD registered and in April 2012 some of its members, including Suu Kyi, netted seats in Parliament following by-elections. The party, now legal, actively participates in the country’s mainstream political scene, while the proposal concerning a second Panglong conference has yet to be raised again.

When asked recently about the role she could play in reaching peace in Kachin state, Suu Kyi retorted that is was “up to the government” and that she would not step in without its permission – a somewhat strange stance for an opposition politician.

Since Thein Sein commenced his presidency in March 2011, the country has embarked on a top-down democratisation process, apparently with little or no input from the NLD, except to provide the new ostensibly civilian government with the veneer of legitimacy it needs in the international arena.

The nature and character of these reforms are subject to much controversy, but it is likely that they are not the consequence of a newly discovered love for democracy among the men who have tyrannized Burma for five decades. Perhaps, the Italian writer Giuseppe Tomassi de Lampedusa said it best in his novel Il Gattopardo: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

[pullquote] Nobody knows for sure what future course Suu Kyi or her party envisage for Burma beyond some vagaries about “rule of law”  [/pullquote]

By all accounts, the NLD has assumed a purely reactive role to the designs of the regime, showing a disconcerting lack of initiative and fundamentally limiting itself to give a nod or to keep silent to any course of action taken by the government. Whether it be ethnic cleansing in Arakan state or a war of attrition against the Kachin, the NLD has refused to take the reins as the acting opposition party.

Perhaps, the party is waiting to attain power before its members unveil and implement its political project for Burma. Maybe, the NLD does not wish to upset the so-called hard-liners in the government at a highly delicate time. However, after turning into a basically reactive organisation without any initiative, the NLD risks losing its political relevance.

The truth of the matter is that nobody knows for sure what future course Suu Kyi or her party envisage for Burma beyond some vagaries about “rule of law” and a barely defined idea of “democracy”.  And how will they address the complex and fraught issue of the coexistence between the different ethnic groups in the country?

The danger of ‘unity’

Ever since the assassination of Aung San, every successive Burmese government has proved unable or unwilling to deal with the demands of the country’s ethnic minorities in an open-minded, honest and fair manner. The junta’s generals profited handsomely off the natural resources that lie in the ethnic areas, but they have also used the war with ethnic militias as an excuse to maintain and legitimise their hold on power. According to their worldview, the Tatmadaw (the Burmese army) is the only institution capable of maintaining unity in the country.

This overemphasis on unity, both as a nonnegotiable premise and an ultimate goal, has been deeply inimical to the development of a healthy political environment in Burma. As the scholar Mary Callahan pointed out in her book Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma, the concept of unity is a deeply ingrained idea in the political mentality of the country and a common trait shared both by the Tatmadaw and the NLD.

In all fairness, the position of the NLD on the ethnic issue is not exactly the same of that of the government. Suu Kyi has publicly advocated for a federal state – a solution that has been anathema to the country’s rulers who remain utterly committed to the Burman majority’s domination over the country’s ethnic minorities.

However, much like the Burmese government, the NLD is a highly centralised and Burman-dominated organisation where the value of unity is paramount and there is little room for dissent. Incidentally, this overemphasis on unity has been accompanied in the pro-democracy camp at large by a tendency to factionalism that has seriously damaged the political groups’ prospects of success.

This might seem a paradox, but it may be argued that the obsession with “unity” has played a role in begetting this kind of factionalism: bitter schisms are more likely in a political environment where any dissent is considered as little less than betrayal and where there is little space available to express opposing views.

Without a common ideology or a robust organisational structure that would allow for proper mechanisms to absorb diverging points of view, only the charisma of the NLD’s leader has managed to keep the party from disintegrating into various conflicting factions.

Independent of the party’s lack of democratic procedures within its internal functioning, there is little doubt that NLD has always stood for democracy; however ill defined that concept might be. But, as Suu Kyi’s remarks in 1989 and its present attitude to the conflict in Kachin state illustrate, the struggle for democracy has largely been separated from the ethnic minorities struggle for national rights.

This fact could explain why many Kachins, Karens, Arakanese or Rohingyas (who, in contrast with other groups, just demand recognition and citizenship) believe that Suu Kyi only cares for the rights and the welfare of her people, the Burman majority.

On the other hand, the armed ethnic organisations tend to view the struggle for democracy as something alien to them. The media has helped perpetuate these separate narratives as two parallel struggles that only rarely and marginally converge – as in the case of the All-Burma Students Democratic Front fighting alongside the KIA in Kachin state, for instance.

Nevertheless, both struggles are more inextricably linked than it might seem at first sight and cannot be separated if they are to succeed. If it is true that only in a democratic Burma will the ethnic minorities find the space to decide freely their own destiny, it is no less certain that only in a country at peace where all its nationalities have a say without coercion might a real democracy take root.

Carlos Sardiña Galache is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy


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