Myanmar - The Lady Looks Set to Keep Her Place
The Citizen’s foreign affairs primer.
Myanmar goes to the polls on November 8, 2020 according to an announcement by the Union Election Commission. Voters in the election would choose members of the Upper and Lower Houses of the National Parliament as well as the official state and regional parliaments. Reports indicate that there are likely to be almost 7,000 candidates from 94 political parties.
For the forthcoming elections National League for Democracy spokesman Zaw Myint Maung had announced after a meeting of the party’s Central Executive Committee that Suu Kyi and President Win Myint would run in the November polls. Suu Kyi filed her certificate of candidacy at the district election commission office in Thanlyin township just outside Yangon from where she had fought the last elections.
Some commentators believed that in all likelihood Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will win again though perhaps by a somewhat reduced margin. The tactical alliances that had brought a landslide victory for the NLD in the last elections in 2015 might no longer hold as Suu Kyi’s government had not been able to provide the autonomy that the ethnic minority groups had demanded and they could in all likelihood boost their own parties rather than ally with Suu Kyi’s.
The main opposition would be from the Union Solidarity and Development Party, formed by former generals. But its once powerful stature had been somewhat weakened as the generals had been held guilty in the court of world opinion for the excesses committed against the Rohingya Muslims and become somewhat dependent upon Suu Kyi to defend them at international fora including the International Court of Justice.
Suu Kyi, if the NLD wins, would keep her position as State Counsellor and head of Government. Her ambition to attain the highest office in the land would have to be kept for a future date as her attempt to amend the Constitution to remove the bar on her as the mother of foreign born children, was given up since it was clear that, with their numbers and a few allies in Parliament, the army could thwart the move. The present Constitution gives the army 25% seats in parliament and control over three crucial security-related ministries – Home, Defence and Border Affairs.
Once revered as an icon of democracy for her unstinting opposition to the army junta which included 15 years of house arrest in Yangon, Suu Kyi today wears a very tattered crown for her unwillingness or inability to stop the army and extremist Buddhist violence against the Muslim Rohingyas, more than 70,000 of whom had fled largely to Bangladesh. The crackdown that led to the exodus was reportedly brutal and followed attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 Myanmar police posts and a military base.
But most reports suggest that there has been a surge in her popularity at home for defending Myanmar and its army at the International Court of Justice in the Rohingya “Genocide” case filed by Gambia. She has personally defended both Myanmar and the army dismissing all reports of a so-called genocide of the Rohingyas, including satellite images, interviews with victims and media reports, as “misinformation”.
The United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar had called for the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar, subject its officials to targeted sanctions and set up an ad hoc tribunal to try suspects or refer them to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Myanmar rubbished the report and one prepared by the Independent Commission of Enquiry, a body set up by the Myanmar government, pointed to "inaccurate and exaggerated information" provided by some refugees and the lack of evidence of genocide.
Myanmar had also dismissed concerns voiced by Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner For Human Rights that the government had sought to destroy evidence of the military campaign that drove 740,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh in 2017. But in what is being construed as some acceptance that things did go wrong the the military-run Office of the Judge Advocate General had reviewed a report by a government-backed commission that reportedly accused soldiers of committing war crimes and had expanded the scope of its investigations. The move came after two soldiers who had deserted were taken to the Hague to appear as witnesses or face trial after confessing to killing dozens of villagers in the north of Rakhine State and burying them in mass graves.
Cities, countries and international human rights organisations in the west, which had once queued up to honour her as a champion of democracy, were hastening to withdraw the awards. Among others Amnesty International had withdrawn the Ambassador of Conscience award and the Elie Wiesel Award was revoked by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The European Parliament had excluded her from the group of former winners of its top human rights prize.
Suu Kyi had undertaken a major public relations exercise addressing various organisations and in effect completely dismissing the idea that there had been any massacres or genocide of the Rohingyas. At a panel hosted by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute she had described the generals with whom she shared power as “rather sweet.”
At one of the World Economic Forum’s regional meeting in Hanoi she was in the company people like Cambodia’s Hun Sen, discussing regional development along the Mekong River and lauding Myanmar’s “quantum leaps” in digital connectivity. While some of her supporters feared that any criticism or action against the army could lead to a coup, she was quite vocal at international fora in claiming that there were no tensions between the civilian government and the army.
Earlier reports said that she had also drawn into her inner circle a group of former diplomats who had defended the junta when she was under house arrest- the most prominent being Kyaw Tint Swe who had served as Myanmar’s permanent representative to the UN for much of the early 2000s, defending the military government against international condemnation for its human-rights abuses and violent crackdown on popular uprisings. Some analysts believed that her coordinated public engagements, coupled with her reliance on old regime stalwarts, could stave off the prosecution of generals by the International Criminal Court and Myanmar’s return to diplomatic isolation.
Under her, Myanmar had used Facebook very effectively to project Myanmar’s case and been quite adamant in blocking UN personnel from onsite investigations; denying access to credible investigators; discrediting victims of atrocities and questioning the legitimacy of international bodies. Suu Kyi had remained immune to international criticism of repression of the media and justified the arrest and imprisonment of two Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe who were arrested for reports on the massacre of the Rohingyas and were sentenced to seven years for breach of the Official Secrets Act and finally released in 2019.
Even at the International Court of Justice the preliminary ruling did not hold Myanmar guilty of genocide but merely said that Myanmar should take all measures within its power to prevent:
a) killing members of the group;
b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to the members of the group;
c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; and
d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
The case would take quite some time for a final judgement and the onus of proving genocide lies on Gambia which had filed the case. Gambia would have to prove that the Myanmar security forces acted with genocidal intent against the Rohingya. In the genocide case against Serbia in 2006, the ICJ did not find such intent and had dismissed the genocide charge.
Survival and a continuing hold on power have perhaps been the motivating factors that have led Suu Kyi to countenance cooperation with the same army she had opposed. Sage advice to her had come from fellow Noble Prize winner Desmond Tutu who had told her …“If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep..”
Suu Kyi had spelt out her priorities on the occasion of the latest Meeting of the 21st Century Peace Conference held recently. In addition to amending the Constitution, she said ceasefire deals were needed with the seven NCA holdouts, and a renewed effort in the negotiations with the 10 NCA signatories on implementing the accords signed at previous peace talks, particularly those relating to the country’s democratic transition and the building of a federal union. She said that the Constitution must be amended to ensure that the accords reached in the talks were in line with the country’s supreme law.-
But there was no mention of the Rohingya issue. That was not surprising as there is little sympathy for them and they are reviled in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though they consider themselves native to Myanmar. They are called Bengalis and not Rohingyas.
Suu Kyi has called the Rohingya issue a complex one. The agreement that Myanmar and Bangladesh had reached to repatriate those who had fled Rakhine state has been marked by hiccups with Human Rights Watch describing it as “troubled from the outset,” for forcing people who fled to Bangladesh to return to Myanmar against their will.
If the NLD wins there are fears that the Rohingyas would be completely disenfranchised. Though wanting to participate in the elections Muslims have explained the difficulties they face in getting identity cards. Even Myanmar’s Hindus numbering about 250,000 are often branded as "mixed bloods" and face similar problems.
On the ethnic issues, Suu Kyi had been making an effort to follow through on her father, independence hero General Aung San’s legacy. He had arranged the first Panglong Conference in 1947 to grant autonomy to the Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minorities when he was head of an interim government as Myanmar prepared to gain its independence from colonial rule by Britain. But his assassination in July 1947 prevented the agreements made during the conference from reaching fruition, and many ethnic groups then took up arms against the central government in wars that went on for decades.
The government is conducting negotiations with these groups in a bid to convince them to sign the NCA, which the military requires before they can join the peace process. Participants in the talks are limited to the 10 NCA signatories – the All Burma Students Democratic Front, the Arakan Liberation Party, Chin National Front, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Karen National Union, KNU/KNLA Peace Council, the PNLA, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the NMSP, and the Lahu Democratic Union.
The fourth Meeting of the 21st Century Peace Conference was held on August 21 this year. Earlier conferences had taken place in 2016, 2017 and 2018. In her opening speech Suu Kyi called on the participants to inculcate a culture of compromise to reach agreements on sensitive issues and move forward to form a federal union, and eventually amend the country's constitution, which now favoured the military.
Government negotiators and representatives of 10 ethnic armed groups--who were signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, first signed in 2015--signed agreements on implementing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and the key principles of a democratic federal union- something that even the Army had now shown a willingness to accept. The main purpose of the three-day conference was to lay down action plans for peace to be implemented after the 2020 general elections. Seven groups turned down the invitation to the conference.
The ten groups that participated were the All Burma Students Democratic Front, the Arakan Liberation Party, Chin National Front, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Karen National Union, KNU/KNLA Peace Council, the PNLA, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the NMSP, and the Lahu Democratic Union.
The signing of the Union Accord Part III at the end of the fourth round was expected to give new impetus to the country’s peace process after it nearly ground to a halt last year amid disagreements. It provided for 15 things including troop deployments and movements; demarcation of territories; and on dealing with skirmishes between the Tatmadaw (military) and the 10 ethnic armed groups that had signed the NCA. Negotiators from the two sides had however failed to reach a deal on allowing ethnic armed groups to draft their own state constitutions but five agreements were signed on the principles of a federal democratic union.
Whichever government is formed it is highly unlikely that the Rohingya and ethnic issues would be suddenly resolved and international focus and criticism would get diluted. Myanmar might not face UNSC admonition as China remains a staunch ally because of its economic and strategic interests. Suu Kyi’s other agenda, to alter the Constitution, might have some hope of success if the army softens its position since its only viable defender against world opinion is Aung San Suu Kyi.
There could of course be the other reality—that China gets more involved with its own concerns; that some Generals are hauled up before the International Criminal Court; that hard line Buddhists conduct another massacre of Muslims; and that changing the Constitution might be seen as revenge by Suu Kyi. If the Constitution is not amended it is also unlikely that the demands of the ethnic groups for their own Constitutions and a truly Federal Structure would be met.
In such a scenario Myanmar might be heading for more “ troubles” aided now by the corona virus.