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YANGON – The Lady’s not for turning, it seems. Pushed, again, in late November for her views on Myanmar’s sectarian violence , which has seen over 140,000 Muslims left homeless since June 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi pushed back against contentions made by Human Rights Watch and others that the attacks amount to ethnic cleansing.
“When you use terms like ethnic cleansing—which I think is a little extreme—it just plays into the hands of extremists. There are extremists on both sides … we only have a few extremists but they can exercise great power,” she said, speaking in Australia.
The primus inter pares of Myanmar’s extremists, the monk Wirathu, has pushed for a boycott of Muslim businesses and for controversial restrictions on marriages between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men.
Suu Kyi has spoken against the marriage proposal, which would require men from Myanmar’s Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh minorities to convert to Buddhism if they want to marry a Buddhist woman, or face a ten year jail term.
Suu Kyi’s reluctance to support the restrictions prompted Wirathu, surely one of the extremists she had in mind, to dismiss her candidacy for President.
“She doesn’t know about Burma and its nature. All she knows is to stage revolution and attack the government. So, if she became the president, the governance would be in chaos. Racial and religious conflict would deteriorate. There would be public unrest because people are not pleased with what she does,” Wirathu told The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar news magazine and website.
Wirathu, it seems, is unimpressed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s seemingly-unbreakable resolve not to speak up for Myanmar’s Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, an ethnic group that to most Myanmar people and to Myanmar’s Government, is not an ethnic group at all.
The monk’s comments, coming after more than a year of inciteful speeches made around Myanmar, which surely have fuelled the mob attacks by Buddhists on Muslims, have led some Myanmar watchers to question Suu Kyi’s apparent strategy: not to lose the majority Buddhist vote, seemingly resolute in its Islamophobia, ahead of the 2105 elections.
“Wirathu’s criticism of ASSK shows than pandering to extremism doesn’t work,” tweeted Mark Farmaner, Director of the Burma Campaign UK, a London-based lobby group.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s other pandering, though perhaps that’s too strong a word for it, is to Myanmar’s military, an institution set up by her father, General Aung San, but one which has long been regarded as brutal and serial rights abuser in ethnic minority regions.
Professing fondness for the Army is surely a gambit aimed at getting enough military support for her quest to amend Myanmar’s constitution, which as things stand would bar Suu Kyi from becoming President should her National League for Democracy win Myanmar’s 2015 elections.
There have been mixed, contradictory signals from the military and it’s political front-men about whether they will allow Suu Kyi become President.
Shwe Mann, a possible future President, has backed the idea of amending the constitution to allow Suu Kyi be a candidate, but other leading members of Shwe Mann’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have spoke about defending the constitution – so it’s unclear whether Suu Kyi will get what she wants, in time for 2015.
A parliament body has been set up to look into revising the constitution, Myanmar’s ethnic minority parties and militias want a revision as part of any peace-deal with the army, and the NLD has embarked on a nationwide roadshow to show the USDP and Army how much public support it has for constitutional change.
Foreign governments have said that if the elections go ahead without an amendment making Suu Kyi eligible for office, it would mean the elections would not be flawed, if not illegitimate.
But at the halfway point in Myanmar’s reform era, politicians, including the ruling army-linked USDP, are getting on election footing. The USDP-majority parliament nixed a proposal to hike electricity prices, after a public outcry, while officials are talking up concessions to foreign investors – such as the Japan-backed Thilawa Special Economic Zone outside Yangon – as vital to job creation for Myanmar’s estimated 37 per cent unemployed.
Other sensitive reforms, such as the makeover of broadcaster MRTV from state mouthpiece to public service, look like they are being stalled. Information Minister Aung Kyi said recently that it could be late 2015 before the transition is complete – citing the likely lengthy parliamentary to and fro that will take place once the relevant bill is debated – and going against what MRTV head Tint Swe told this correspondent earlier: that a public service broadcaster would be in place by February 2015, well before the elections.
The NLD and Suu Kyi remain wildly-popular, however, meaning that the USDP’s incumbency advantages might not be enough to prevent a NLD win in a fair election. Last year the NLD won all but one seat in contested in by-elections – surely a wake-up call for the USDP.
Two months after those by-elections, Myanmar’s first bout of Muslim-Buddhist violence broke out in the western Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh. While Muslims, the Rohingya in this first June 2012 outbreak, gave almost as good as they got during that fighting, the time since has seen the violence take on an increasingly anti-Muslim aspect. The upshot is Aung San Suu Kyi has been on the defensive: appearing callous and calculating to her Western admirers, for her reluctance to support the Rohingya, while being castigated all the same by the likes of Wirathu, for not speakign out against Muslims.Show