A year and a half after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory, criticism is everywhere. Abuses against the Rohingya and battles with armed ethnic groups are eclipsing one of the world’s most interesting political turns
Text Zigor Aldama
Photos Zigor Aldama and Miguel Candela
In November 2015, Moe Thway couldn’t conceal his excitement. He was about to vote in a democratic election for the first time in his life. As a founding member of Generation Wave, a youth pro-democracy movement born during the so-called Saffron Revolution of 2007, he considered this first free general elections since 1990 – when the military refused to accept its defeat and remained in power – a personal victory. He would not think of voting for any other party than the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent almost 15 years under house arrest.
“It doesn’t matter that the constitution, written by the military junta in 2008, bans ‘the Lady’ – as many call Suu Kyi – from contesting for presidency, because her kids have a foreign passport. We know that she will exert power through her candidate, Htin Kyaw,” Thway explained.
The young activist was right: The NLD won a landslide victory and secured the presidency with 360 out of the 652 votes in parliament, where the army still holds 25 percent of the seats. “That gives the military veto power on any constitutional amendment, and it also keeps three key ministers. It’s going to be tough to reform the current system, but we believe change will come fast,” Thway said before the elections.
Fighters from the Karen National Liberation Army await orders before the daily flag raising ceremony (Image credit: Miguel Candela)
Now, almost a year and a half after Htin Kyaw was sworn in, optimism has faded and disappointment has set in. Promises are proving empty and little has improved in the country. Even Thway doesn’t show much enthusiasm anymore. “I’m not sure whether we were wrong or whether hopes were just too high. But the government is definitely not living up to the expectation,” he shares. For many people, that’s an understatement. Since the elections, even the unthinkable has happened: People have marched on the streets to express anger at Suu Kyi – who was practically a deity for many before. She has had to concede that things aren’t going smoothly.
“If you think I am not good enough for our country and our people, if someone or some organisation can do better than us, we are ready to step down,” Suu Kyi said in a televised address to the nation on the commemoration of the first anniversary of democracy in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
In the latest by-elections held in April 2017, the NLD won only nine of the 19 seats up for grabs. This stood in harsh perspective compared to the 2012 by-elections (the first in which the NLD was eligible), where Suu Kyi won 43 out of the 44 seats, securing her ticket into parliament. “She has proven to be just another politician,” criticises Zin Mar Lin, from the Brave New Burma Federation.
The eroding figure of Suu Kyi shows that not everything is rosy in the democratisation process. Myanmar’s transition to democracy has been lauded as a glowing example of how a dictatorship can turn into democracy without a bullet being fired – because the generals decided to hang up their uniforms and turn the military junta into a civil government in 2011.
A transition period began, and with inspiring results: Political prisoners were freed, ceasefire agreements were negotiated with a dozen armed ethnic groups, and the world responded with open arms, lifting the embargo that had been crippling the economy for years.
Companies from all over the world flocked to Myanmar in search of a virgin market to explore, and people dreamed of a democratic president, something that the former British colony hadn’t seen since 1962.
Lin concedes that there has been positive development. “Yes, economic growth is there and many have started to label Myanmar as the new economic miracle of Asia,” he says. “But the truth is that the bonanza is only benefitting a few. And it’s easy to understand why: Even if they stepped down, most of the land still belongs to the ex-military who ruled the country, and their families. They pocket huge amounts of the investment flowing into Myanmar. Regular citizens just see prices soaring. Rental prices for apartments, for example, are now ridiculously high. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening.”
And complaining about it is dangerous. As a journalist at Frontier magazine says under the condition of anonymity: “The enactment of Section 66d of the 2013 telecommunications law is a step backwards in freedom of speech, and has been written by the executive power to threaten those who speak against it.” Technically, it punishes defamation using a communications network with a prison term of up to three years, but many denounce it as too ambiguous and vague.
“Journalists, bloggers and activists are censoring themselves for fear of the law, which is a step backwards that nobody expected,” the reporter shares.
“Even prominent NLD figures – like U Myo Yan Naung Thein – have been arrested under Section 66d. But, surprisingly, Suu Kyi and the NLD are not even considering its amendment – something they could do.”
Still, no disappointment can rival the political failures in terms of handling one of Myanmar’s most pressing social issues. Democracy has been unable to defuse the crisis of the persecuted Rohingya – a Muslim minority whose population is estimated at around one million people, mostly living in the western Rakhine State – and the military confrontation with several armed ethnic groups who control peripheral territory. They are not only key to peace, but also to the prosperity and well-being of the country. Suu Kyi has tried to secure ceasefire agreements with all the ethnic guerrillas, but the army keeps at its hostile operations, often using artillery and aviation.
“We are willing to negotiate a ceasefire, but that’s impossible when the military keeps bombing our positions. We need to defend our people,” says Gun Maw, a general in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Meanwhile, internally displaced Kachin inhabitants find themselves trapped in rudimentary camps after fleeing from battle. “Soldiers keep ravaging towns, raping, killing, and burning houses to the ground. The situation of almost 100,000 displaced people is critical,” explains Labang Dai Pisa – who manages KIA’s camps – at one of the facilities in Jeyang.
Not far from here, in the main hospital in Laiza, where the KIA is based, patients can’t be treated for the lack of medicines. They are so many that even those with infectious diseases can’t be separated from the rest. Here, the adoption of democracy hasn’t seen a change for the better. “We also thought that over the last year things would get a lot better, and we are still hoping that they will, but unfortunately, what we are seeing at the moment is an increase in fighting, not a decrease, and people need to be able to get to places where they can get aid,” the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Mark Cutts told Al Jazeera during an interview. He also conceded that access to help for displaced people was easier with the military government than it is now. “It’s baffling,” he says.
The KIA can’t afford to stop training new recruits. Its camps are teeming with teenagers as young as 14 enrolling in military crash courses. Girls and boys practise with wooden guns before they can handle the homemade version of the Kalashnikov AK-47 and be sent to the frontlines. “We have to fight for a future in freedom,” says Maran, a 16-year-old “coach”. Her trainees are barely one or two years younger than her – or older, even – but they obey with diligence. Physical training and strategy are taught in the morning. After a frugal lunch, they sleep in bunks during the scorching hours around noon, and then everything starts again. “It’s exhausting, but we do it for our families. We have lost everything to the army,” a young man explains.
Five hundred kilometres southeast in Kayin State, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) holds similar training – but with a big difference: They are now at peace with the Burmese military. Still, their leaders expect war again at any time. Zipporah Sein, vice president of the KNLA’s political arm, explains why: “The only way to achieve permanent peace is to honour what Suu Kyi’s father – Aung San, the hero of Burma’s independence – promised 70 years ago: a federal state where we all share power equally. Without that, ethnic minorities will always feel discriminated against by the Bamar majority, and they will fight for more autonomy or even independence.”
The 1.3 million Rohingya in Rakhine State, just 150 kilometres to the east, fight for survival. Their tragic situation has become the darkest stain on Suu Kyi’s ballot sheet since she became a member of parliament. “The Lady” has refused to call them Rohingya, and her party refers to them as Bengalis, although the Muslim group has lived in the Buddhist-majority country for generations; Bangladesh has repeatedly refused to take them in and those that fled to the country are kept in crammed refugee camps.
“We want to amend the 1982 citizenship law to make sure that they don’t remain stateless and that their rights are respected, but we don’t think they make a new ethnic group in the country,” says the NLD’s U Nyan Win, a prominent figure in the party.
Foreign NGOs are criticising the government’s inaction, as more than 150,000 people confront death every day in what some already call concentration camps. Their situation has worsened due to damage caused by Cyclone Mora, which struck in May 2017. “Overcrowding and malnourishment are becoming critical,” says Aung Win, a Rohingya activist. “And the young have been deprived of their future, because education in the camps is poor and discrimination outside means they won’t be able to get a job.”
Tensions have always been very high between the Buddhist Bamar and the Muslim Rohingya. The current climate of violence dates back to May 28, 2012. On that day, three Rohingya men were accused of raping a Buddhist girl. Six days later, in an act of revenge, a crowd of Bamar attacked a bus full of Rohingya and killed 10 people. Rage erupted, and some 300 people died in the worst riots in recent history.
The camps were set up to prevent that from happening again, but they have become the main tool for implementing an apartheid, in turn fuelling even more violence. Now, Suu Kyi has to add another insurgent group to an already long list: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
“Nobody expected the democratisation process of Myanmar to be without hurdles. A year in power is still too short to judge whether Suu Kyi is a good leader,” Naga minority activist Tort Reign says. “There has been too much expectation and excessive pressure. We have just closed half a century of dictatorship, and true democracy will take time to develop.”
Despite all the problems, Reign says that the people should exercise patience, and give Suu Kyi some time – at least five years. “But some matters require a solution sooner,” he adds. “Otherwise, many people may die.”
This feature appears in Asian Geographic Issue 04/2017 No. 126