In a previous article for Words in the Bucket, contributor Laura Naude convincingly pleaded for the recognition of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Naude concluded her piece on a hopeful note, stating that “the recent open elections and the possibility of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president has for many signalled the birth of a Myanmar which upholds human rights and a respect for the rule of law.”
Suu Kyi was not able to become president because of a constitutional amendment hastily adopted by the military-controlled Parliament before the election, which prohibits candidates personally affiliated with foreign nationals from running for the highest office (Suu Kyi’s two children, as well as her late husband, are British citizens). Nevertheless, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party has won an overwhelming majority in the legislative elections of November 2015 and she was appointed Foreign Minister and State Counsellor, thus holding a position she described as “above the president.”
Despite her national and international popularity, after 100 days in power “the Lady” has been decried as a “democratic dictator” for refusing to acknowledge the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Western Myanmar. She has notably been accused of catering to the Buddhist Burmans who represent the great majority of the electorate: during the elections, Suu Kyi decided to remove all Muslim candidates from her party’s electoral list and has recently demanded that the U.S. Ambassador refrain from using the term “Rohingya”.
Why is a Nobel Peace laureate engaging in racist and xenophobic rhetoric against a small Muslim minority?
A Long History of Islam in Myanmar:
Contrary to common conceptions, Islam is not a modern phenomenon in Myanmar. Indeed, the first Muslims can be traced back to the 8th century and Myanmar is considered by many scholars as one of the oldest sites for Islam in all of Southeast Asia. By the eighteenth century, large Muslim communities were present in all important cities in Myanmar.
However, similarly to other countries in Africa or the Middle East, European colonization had a devastating effect on the fragile cohabitation of different religious and ethnic groups. During the British occupation between 1824 and 1885, Burma was administered as a province of British India and in order to meet their labor needs, the British forcibly relocated over a million of Bengalese Indians in Myanmar. Most settled in the modern Rakhine state, where Rohingya Muslims currently live.
The settlements thus permanently altered the fragile ethnic and religious balance of the country. Although the majority of Indian immigrants were Hindus and returned to India after independence, it became impossible to distinguish between pre-colonization Burman Muslims and Burman-born Indian Muslims. Therefore, all Muslims were quickly regarded as foreign even though, to this day, a great majority of Burman Muslims have been living in Myanmar for at least 200 years!
The Rise of Islamophobia in Myanmar:
Rohingyas are caught in the middle of this confusing situation. According to the Buddhist majority, Rohingyas are an invention: they are a group of disorganized Bengalis who immigrated to Myanmar during the British occupation and who assembled, following the country’s independence, as “Rohingyas” in order to obtain greater autonomy from the central government. Numerous historians agree however that, even if they became organized in the wake of the independence, the ethnic reality of the group precedes that moment and should not be dismissed.
Interestingly, there has been a shift in the (negative) perception of Muslims, including Rohingyas, by Buddhist Burmans. At first, they were perceived as a demographic threat. Although government and outside data indicate that the percentage of Muslims living in Myanmar has hardly exceeded 10% and has been stagnating for the past decades, a common fear until recently was that they would overtake the Buddhist majority. As a matter of fact, one of the official slogan of the Burmese Ministry of Population and Immigration was: “A nation will not disappear even if it is swallowed up by the earth. But a nation will disappear if it is swallowed up by another people.” And, a symptom of this fear was the rise of conservative Buddhist groups such as the 969 movement, which successfully advocated for the “Burmanization” of schools and mores, and has justified the use of violence against Muslims.
However, recent data show that, similarly to Europeans, Buddhist Burmans increasingly associate Muslims with terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Nevertheless, Muslims in Burma have been consciously kept secluded from the rest of the Dar el Islam by the Burmese military as, for instance, the Qur’an was not translated into Burmese until the 1970s and the numbers of hajjis is capped every year to a few hundred in a country with a Muslim population approximating 5 million.
Should We Disavow Suu Kyi?
Because Suu Kyi’s stance appears opportunistic and morally reprehensible, many commentators have repudiated her. However, her hands are tied. An economic recovery is impossible without a negotiated peace agreement between the multiple ethnic minorities, who have been fighting the Yangon for decades and who live in resource-rich borderlands, necessary for economic revitalization. But the military is unwilling to compromise on the issue and retains control over 25% of Parliament, has a constitutional veto and oversees the Defense, Home and Border affairs ministries. Finally, the new government also has to deal with a rise in Islamophobia in the public opinion and the increase in islamophobic attacks against mosques and Muslim cemeteries.
It is clear that Suu Kyi is not a proponent of racist, anti-Muslim policies but she is merely attempting to drastically transform and improve the economic and political situation in Burma in spite of these hurdles. She is also fiercely aware that a failure on the part of her government would be a dramatic blow to the democratic prospects of her country. “The Lady” may thus have no other choice but to act pragmatically – albeit immorally – to efficiently reform the country, all the while retaining the approval of her majoritarily Buddhist electorate.
Moreover, Burma’s council of Buddhist monks has recently distanced itself from the violent and radical Ma Ba Tha group and has called for its disbandment. The Ma Ba Tha’s leader, U Wirathu, has accused Aung San Suu Kyi of being the instigator of his probable demise, and he just might be right this time: it is possible that Suu Kyi could be playing the ultra-Buddhists’ game in order to better subdue them.