As a new government takes over, political tensions chafe in Myanmar’s ethnically divided westernmost state
A new civilian president was sworn into office in Myanmar on March 30, the first time in more than half a century that a figure without military ties had assumed the country’s highest office. The new president, U Htin Kyaw, rode the coattails of an electoral sweep by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) last November, marking a step further away from decades of military dictatorship.
Although Myanmar is gradually becoming more democratic, the violence and ethnic tension that has defined much of its political history is still very much a reality. Rakhine State, which spans Myanmar’s coast along the Bay of Bengal from Bangladesh to the Irrawaddy Delta, is an area of particular concern, riven as it is with ethnic and political hostilities.
The state’s ethnic Rakhine majority has long had an antagonistic relationship with the country’s political centre, dominated by Myanmar’s ethnic Burman majority. Ever since an independent Rakhine kingdom was conquered by the Burmese in 1785, many Rakhines have felt neglected and exploited by the political establishment, a dynamic that was exacerbated by decades of successive military dictatorship that saw the state devolve into Myanmar’s second-poorest.
The true people’s choice for president, NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is constitutionally barred from assuming that role because her children are British citizens. U Htin Kyaw is, by the NLD’s own admission, her puppet, and on 5 April, the NLD-controlled parliament passed a bill that will give Suu Kyi the effective powers of a prime minister, despite vocal opposition from the military.
Although friction with the military is inevitable, the formation of the new government is an occasion for cautious optimism. Although the military still controls some key ministries, the symbolism of the former opposition in power – after many current MPs served decades-long, politically-motivated prison sentences – is undeniable.
But the NLD is far from universally loved across the country. The party announced that it would choose all state and regional chief ministers directly, and its desire to put one of its members in Rakhine’s highest office has raised the hackles of the ethnic-nationalist Arakan National Party (ANP), which enjoys vast popular support in Rakhine State (“Arakan” is an alternate term for “Rakhine”). The chief ministers of Myanmar’s states and regions remain directly appointed by the executive branch, a holdover from Myanmar’s military-led, top-down past.
In November, the ANP swept the race for the Rakhine State legislature, winning 22 seats to the NLD’s nine in the 47-seat house (12 seats are reserved for the military). On the Union level, the party won 22 of 28 seats up for grabs. The parliament in the state capital, Sittwe, is one of just two regional legislatures in Myanmar where the NLD does not control the majority of the seats.
The state’s new leader is U Nyi Pu, an NLD parliamentarian from Gwa Township in the southern part of the state. But as far as the ANP’s chairman and founder, Dr. Aye Maung, is concerned, that the NLD was unwilling to discuss the chief minister appointment with the ANP amounts to a betrayal of democratic principles. Dr. Aye Maung is widely believed to have been angling for the state’s top job himself, amid concerns that his party’s antagonistic stance towards Muslims and the country’s mainline political establishment could negatively impact stability.
“So far, we have [had] no chance to meet the NLD, the responsible persons,” he told Migrant Report. “They should be encouraged to meet with my party, and show their sympathy to discuss the relationship between the two parties and federal principles. They should have discussed this proposal for the chief minister of Rakhine State before [the announcement]. But they didn’t discuss with us.”
The NLD is holding firm in its decision to freeze the ANP out of the selection process. “If U Nyi Pu is an unqualified person, [the ANP] can protest him as a chief minister. But otherwise, he has the qualifications to be an MP, so he can become the chief minister of Arakan State,” said U Zaw Myint Maung, an NLD spokesman. “This is the only way. This is a constitutional fact,” he said.
Rakhine grievances are not the only driver of political uncertainty in the state. Roughly one-third of the population are Rohingya Muslims, widely perceived in Rakhine State and further afield in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, despite the fact that they trace their ancestry in the region for centuries.
Rendered stateless by Myanmar’s draconian 1982 citizenship law, they have been subject to waves of expulsion over the past few decades, precipitating a refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. In 2012, a revived swell of violence targeting Rohingyas and other Muslims left more than 140,000 displaced; most remain confined to dismal camps for displaced persons four years on.
Hundreds of thousands more in the northern part of the state are subject to severe mobility restrictions and poverty, factors that have prompted thousands to make risky sea journeys across the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia over the past decade.
The Rohingyas were a missing constituency in last November’s election. For the first time in modern Burmese political history, they were not allowed to vote or run for office. In the 2010 elections, the government permitted Rohingyas to cast ballots using “white cards” – temporary identification documents issued to non-citizens. The Rohingyas rewarded the military-derived Union Solidarity and Development Party in kind, electing Rohingya USDP candidates to represent Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, adjacent to Bangladesh, where Rohingyas constitute the vast majority of the population.
Although the USDP extended few rights to the Rohingyas aside from voting during its time in office, their ballots were seen as a bulwark against rising Rakhine nationalist political power in the state. Succumbing to popular pressure from Rakhine and other Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar, the government of outgoing president U Thein Sein refused to renew the validity of the white cards last year, effectively disenfranchising the Rohingyas in the process.
The Rakhine nationalist juggernaut has since turned its attention to the NLD. On 23 March, roughly 500 people opposed to U Nyi Pu’s nomination took to the streets of Sittwe, demanding that the chief minister post go to an ANP member.
While Dr. Aye Maung claims the ANP did not organise the protest directly, he feels the election results should make obvious where popular sentiments lie. “The people don’t believe the NLD government can bring stability to Rakhine State. The NLD should think about what the people desire,” he said.
U Nyi Pu’s nomination quashed speculation that the outgoing chief minister, General Maung Maung Ohn, would have his post renewed. A former Deputy Minister of Border Affairs with close ties to the military, Maung Maung Ohn developed cordial relations with international NGOs and UN agencies operating in Rakhine State over the course of his two-year tenure.
Rakhine nationalists loathed Maung Maung Ohn, who was widely perceived as an outsider, the long arm of a despised ethnic Burman establishment that did not take ethnic Rakhine concerns into account. But his outsider status – and proximity to the military – gave him a reputation as an effective and firm administrator. For the NLD, these are big shoes to fill – particularly as the party does not enjoy the explicit backing of the military establishment.
This doesn’t appear to be of particular concern to the NLD. “U Nyi Pu is a very official person. He is member of the NLD Central Committee. He can manage [the Rakhine nationalists] and the situation in Arakan State,” U Zaw Myint Maung said.
The embryonic Rakhine political order is already showing signs of strain. Unlike the country’s other regional parliaments, the legislature in Sittwe has barely sat since it first convened on February 8. On 28 March, ANP lawmakers staged a walkout over the chief minister issue, in an apparent attempt to raise the political stakes and spur further deadlock.
The ANP itself is a fractured party. It is a fairly new creation, borne of the merger between two Rakhine parties in 2012. One of them – the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) – was previously aligned with the NLD; the other, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), founded by Dr. Aye Maung, was more staunchly ethno-nationalist in its orientation.
On 13 March, the ANP’s central executive committee expelled six senior members who disagreed with the decision to take a hard stance against the NLD, raising the prospect of increased factionalisation that could tilt the balance of power in the Rakhine State parliament further in the NLD’s favour.
Another factor to note is the proximity of the ANP to the Arakan Army (AA), which has conducted a low-level insurgency in Rakhine since April 2015.
The parliamentary speaker elected by the ANP-dominated parliament, U San Kyaw Hla, is the father-in-law of the commander-in-chief of the Arakan Army, Brig-Gen Tun Myat Naing. The insurgents have been operating with uncharacteristic boldness over the past few months, and support from politically well-connected circles may bolster their ambitions, to the detriment of the overall security picture in Rakhine State.
The military is unlikely to allow the AA insurgency to spiral out of control just because Maung Maung Ohn is no longer in office. It has reinforced its positions in Rakhine in recent months, and although the AA insurgency shows no signs of going away, it is unlikely that it will target Muslims, as its primary enemy is the union government in Naypyidaw and the military establishment attached to it.
Against this backdrop of factions and mistrust, it is highly unlikely the NLD will do anything meaningful to alleviate the Rohingyas’ predicament because it is wary of provoking Rakhine nationalists further.
Of note is the NLD’s choice for the Minister of Labour, Immigration and Population, U Thein Swe, an MP from the military-derived Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
U Zaw Myint Maung claims that this high-profile appointment from the opposition is part of an effort by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to build a government based on “national reconciliation,” but his appointment indicates that the NLD’s policies on the Rohingya are unlikely to change substantially from the old government’s.
U Thein Swe isn’t the NLD’s only controversial appointment from across the aisle. The new minister of religious and cultural affairs, Thura Aung Ko, is a former high-ranking general from the USDP, who was a deputy minister with the same portfolio under the former administration.
On April 1 – his first day in office – Thura Aung Ko stated in a radio interview that Islam and Hinduism were the religions of “associate citizens” – a lower tier of citizenship in Myanmar’s stratified system. The implications of this are clear: Muslims and Hindus, the thinking goes, could never be ‘full’ citizens, as their religion makes them innately ‘foreign.’
Two days later, he met with U Wirathu, a firebrand ultranationalist Buddhist monk known for his extreme anti-Muslim screeds. While Thura Aung Ko claimed the meeting was intended to promote dialogue to temper hate speech, engaging with Wirathu so early in his term invariably serves to legitimate the monk as a significant actor in Myanmar’s political space.
All of this bodes poorly for the Rohingyas, many of whom are clinging to the prospect that the NLD will take concrete steps to alleviate their plight. But based on the new government’s words and actions to date, this is probably hoping against hope.
Before and after the November election, the NLD has repeatedly stated that tackling the Rohingya issue is not an urgent concern. Just after the NLD victory in November, spokesman U Win Htein told The Telegraph the party had “other priorities,” including “peace, the peaceful transition of power, economic development and constitutional reform.”
Suu Kyi herself has remained tight-lipped on the Rohingyas’ plight, a silence many believe to be calculated to minimise backlash from both those that support the Rohingyas and those that do not. But this reticence to act has thrown her pro-democratic credentials into question, and she has faced mounting accusations that she, too, holds deep-rooted anti-Muslim beliefs.
For Rohingyas and Myanmar’s other Muslim minorities, the advent of NLD government is unlikely to bring with it much in the way of substantial positive change. There are currently no Muslim parliamentarians serving in any of Myanmar’s regional legislatures or on the Union level – the first time this has been the case in the country’s independent history. In Rakhine State, internecine struggles between the NLD and ANP may portend further deterioration of Muslim rights; in a best-case scenario, the grim status quo will remain much as it is now.
And denied the opportunity to help determine Myanmar’s trajectory towards a more inclusive system, all of these changes will invariably be of little comfort to Rohingyas themselves.