Forces for democracy in Myanmar are facing a fierce backlash from the ruling USDP and its murky political alliances
The ruling party and the main opposition have laid down their campaign strategies for next year’s election in Myanmar (Burma).
Both parties will use their political power and support from allied parties to try to win. However the key difference between the two is that the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has the army behind it, which will greatly influence the election outcome. The USDP leadership is almost exclusively made up of former military generals, and the current generals were once their trusted subordinates.
The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is trying to amend constitutional clause 59(f), which prohibits anyone who has been married to a foreigner or has children who hold foreign passports from running for president. Calls from the NLD to transform a one-sided military-drafted constitution into a democratic one via parliamentary amendment are growing louder by the day. Both President Thein Sein and lower House Speaker Shwe Mann have said they will not bar Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from running for the presidency and support her in the event she is elected as president. Meanwhile, however, the USDP has secretly collected 106,000 signatures from party members rejecting a proposed amendment to clause 59(f), which bars Suu Kyi – who was married to a foreigner and has children with UK passports – from running for the top post.
Meanwhile, in Rakhine State, what began as an inter-religious conflict has now transformed into a racial conflict that is spreading across the country. Nationalist Buddhist groups have emerged to form an umbrella organisation known as the National Religious Protection Group (NRPG). The first major effort by the organisation was pushing for a law to protect Buddhist women from being forced to change their religion when marrying Muslim men. The initiative later shifted focus to preventing Buddhist Myanmar women from marrying foreigners, before narrowing its focus and targeting Suu Kyi for marrying a British academic. The leader of the NRPG, a monk called Wirathu who Time magazine has called “The Face of Buddhist Terror”, has indirectly attacked Suu Kyi on this issue. He said he respected Suu Kyi for her dedication to the democratic movement, but because she married a foreigner he would not favour her in the presidential election, instead supporting former general Shwe Mann. Speaking at a conference of the sangha late last year, he directly endorsed the USDP, by default opposing the NLD led by Suu Kyi.
The question that arises here is whether Wirathu’s NRPG, in pushing for the new law, is seeking to protect Buddhism from Islam, or to support the USDP and attack the NLD leader for marrying a British citizen.
Suu Kyi has devoted her life to Buddhism. Her late husband was also a Buddhist, and she followed tradition by having her sons ordained as novices. So why is the NRPG still attacking her and campaigning to convince people not to vote for her? The NRPG is ignoring the fact that her entire family is Buddhist, and carrying out a smear campaign centred on the fact she was married to a British citizen. The NRPG was founded with the aim of protecting Buddhism, not promoting racial discrimination or xenophobia. Yet its leader, Wirathu, has stated that the reason he will not vote for Suu Kyi is that she married a foreigner. In other words, he is against all foreigners, even if they are Buddhists. So a contradiction exists between the NRPG’s stated aim and its actions.
This raises a further question: Does the NRPG really want to preserve the Buddhist faith, or simply manipulate devoted Buddhists to act against the NLD party and its leader who married a foreigner? If the latter is so, the NRPG is not trying to protect Buddhism but simply attacking Buddhists who are foreigners. Unfortunately, it’s likely that many monks and Myanmar citizens fail to understand the NRPG’s true aim.
Two minor political parties rallied in Yangon recently to protest against moves to change clause 59(f) in the constitution. One speaker claimed the clause was written by General Aung San, founder of the military and Suu Kyi’s father. In reality General Aung San did no such thing. One MP stood up to endorse Shwe Mann, the USDP’s presidential candidate, saying he had sacrificed his life for the country like a good soldier. About 1,500 people attended the rally, which authorities were happy to permit without any interference. The same went for a recent rally in the second largest city, Mandalay, where 1,000 citizens, including monks, were in attendance. “If we change the constitution, our race and our religion will disappear in the future,” said the keynote speaker. Meanwhile, the NRPG has called for a conference of Buddhist monks to discuss the issue of constitutional amendments.
The NRPG talks of protecting Buddhism but in the same breath endorses ruling-party candidates for the 2015 election. Several leading monks publicly support the ruling USDP. These facts illustrate that the NRPG’s declared intention to protect religion is a secondary issue. The primary issue is using nationalist and Buddhist sentiment as a springboard to attack Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. In fact, the main role of the NRPG has become to campaign for the USDP – and directly attack the NLD.
Fears that constitutional change is being blocked have been raised further by the make-up of the committee tasked with collecting data for potential amendments. The majority of committee members – 15 – are from the USDP, with seven members from the army, two members from the NLD and eight members from ethnic parties. With this majority, the USDP clearly has the final decision-making power over which amendments will be approved. Of those proposed, 59(f) will be the last one to be decided upon.
USDP presidential candidate Shwe Mann has said the committee follows democratic principles, with the number of members reflecting the number of MPs each party has. This is odd reasoning, as the constitutional amendment process requires individuals with specific expertise in law, not members and representatives of political parties. But Shwe Mann prefers to talk about quantity, not quality. In reality, Myanmar citizens need the constitution to be amended by people who have expertise in law and a real commitment to democratic values, not members who follow party orders without considering what is best for the country.
Amending the constitution will not be easy for the NLD and the country’s democratic forces. The ruling party is employing its full might to block Suu Kyi, using the NRPG and other political allies to bar the way to reform. Those seeking to speak publicly in support of constitutional amendments are usually blocked by local authorities, or their gatherings restricted to 200 people. NLD support is thus limited, while government supporters enjoy the freedom to hold public rallies attended by thousands.
Though unlikely, there is still hope that key constitutional clauses like 59(f) may be amended. Without such changes, it’s possible that Myanmar will see a repeat of the popular uprisings of 1988 and 2007. Such an uprising would likely lead to one of two scenarios: the end of military rule, or the resurrection of another military dictatorship.
Htun Aung Gyaw is a former head of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front who resettled in the US and did a master’s degree at Cornell University. He is currently back in his homeland on a visit.