Fixated on the presidency – The Edge Review

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Aung San Suu Kyi disappoints some on anti-Muslim violence during European tour


Candidates: Aung San Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann at the WEF in Naypyidaw, June 2013. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Candidates: Aung San Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann at the WEF in Naypyidaw, June 2013. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

While some UK media featured florid images of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi taking a garden walk with Prince Charles during her recent visit to London, others focused on her views of the country’s Buddhist-Muslim violence, which since May 2012 has seen around 150,000 people driven from their homes and dozens killed.

Buddhist-Muslim violence has, for the most part, been Buddhist-on-Muslim violence, with the latter making up a majority of the dead and displaced.

But despite the one-sidedness of the attacks, Suu Kyi, on her third trip to Europe since being freed from house arrest in late 2010, was adamant about not laying blame entirely on Buddhists. She told the BBC that “the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but also on the side of the Buddhists, as well. Muslims have been targeted, but also Buddhists have been subjected to violence.”

Muslims make up perhaps 4 to 5 per cent of Myanmar’s population of 50-60 million. Ethnic Burmans are estimated to make up around 60 per cent, with the rest made up of ethnic groups such as the Kachin, Karen, Rakhine and Shan.

Suu Kyi told the BBC that as the parliamentary opposition, her National League for Democracy (NLD) wasn’t in a position to do anything about the violence, and that hard questions should be directed at the government.

Asked by The Edge Review what he thought of Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarks. Rohingya parliamentarian Shwe Maung described her comments as “unfair” and “disappointing.”

“She [Suu Kyi] knows very well that most of dead, injured and displaced are Muslim. Yes, some Buddhists, but they were very much the minority of the affected,” Shwe Maung said.

Despite being Rohingya, Shwe Maung is a representative of Myanmar’s governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and was elected in Rakhine State, near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, after Rohingya, who mostly do not have Burmese citizenship and are not recognised as an ethnic group by the government, were given permits to vote in Myanmar’s 2010 election, which the army-backed USDP won in a predictable landslide.

The USDP government is headed by President Thein Sein, a former army general and prime minister under the old military junta and stands accused by rights groups of denying citizenship to the Rohingya, who number around 800,000 and bore the brunt of some of the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar in recent months.

On her European trip, Suu Kyi, it seems, was speaking as a politician with one eye on the majority Buddhist vote in the 2015 election, and her own wish to be Myanmar’s next president, which would first require a change to the country’s constitution.

Despite her against-the-grain views about violence against Muslims in Myanmar, Suu Kyi has the backing of Myanmar’s old colonial ruler in her quest to be able to run for president. “It would be completely wrong for elections to be held under a constitution that really excludes one person, who happens to be the leader of democracy in Burma, to be excluded from the highest office in the land,” said UK Prime Minister David Cameron after meeting Suu Kyi last week.

Some observers reckon, however, that Suu Kyi’s foreign backing might damage her voter appeal, just as her downplaying of attacks on Muslims has undermined her old image as a voice for the oppressed.

Speaking last weekend at Yangon’s Myanmar Peace Center, a quango that facilitates peace talks between Myanmar’s government and the country’s ethnic militias, veteran Myanmar watcher David Steinberg questioned Suu Kyi’s tactics. “Getting foreign support for the presidency, is that a good thing or a bad thing in a highly nationalistic society like Burma-Myanmar?” Steinberg said.

Suu Kyi herself tried to downplay her personal ambitions when discussing the constitution during her European visit, coyly saying that she wanted it changed “because we want a country firmly on the road to democracy.”

The constitution gives the army a veto-wielding quarter of seats in parliament, meaning that army consent is needed to amend the constitution – including any amendments that would curtail the military’s own power. “The constitution was drawn up to assure the military a very special place in the politics of the nation and that’s not democratic,” Suu Kyi said.

But there is some backing for change, even from former army top brass. Last week parliament speaker and presidential hopeful Shwe Mann said his USDP party colleague Thein Sein would likely not seek a second term after the 2015 elections – though Thein Sein’s spokesman subsequently pushed back against Shwe Mann’s claims, saying the President hadn’t made up his mind yet.

A committee made up of 109 members of parliament has been set up to look at changes to the constitution, while the NLD is in the middle of a roadshow on the same topic, holding public meetings across Myanmar.

Amending the constitution is something Myanmar’s ethnic militias, most of whom have signed ceasefires with the government, want as well. The militias, however, want greater local autonomy and a cut of revenue from natural resources in the borderlands much more than they want to clear the way for Suu Kyi to become president.

Ethnic minorities will table their proposed constitutional changes to the government either before or during an upcoming “nationwide ceasefire” conference, although it is not yet clear how, if at all, these proposals will dovetail with the parliamentary committee’s recommendations or whatever the NLD hoovers up during its countrywide public discussions.

Yash Ghai, a well-known constitutional scholar, who has been involved at the sharp end of policymaking, was almost as coy as Suu Kyi when giving his own take on the Myanmar constitution in Yangon recently.

He said, in effect, that Myanmar had gone about it the wrong way around by putting a constitution in place before peace was made.

“Many constitutions have been made as a way of ending conflicts and were seen as the culmination of a process of peacemaking,” Ghai said.

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