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Myanmar can achieve democracy, but in name only

*Content warning: descriptions of racially/ethnically motivated violence and genocide*

On the first of February, General Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army) successfully deposed Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of Myanmar, and a member of the National League for Democracy Party. The military ushered in a yearlong ‘state of emergency’ while detaining Suu Kyi and others on completely bogus charges. Hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters have crowded the streets, with at least 18 having been shot down by Tatmadaw forces. This latest coup has many wondering if it’s possible to sustain a successful democratic regime in the country.

The currently imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi is something of a hero to the Buddhist majority of Myanmar. The daughter of a revered independence fighter who helped free Myanmar from British rule, she is political royalty. She was a prominent figure in the 1988 pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, which resulted in her being placed under house arrest for around 15 years. Not to mention she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was adored by both Democrats and Republicans in the US. But she is not all that she seems, and with her at the helm, Myanmar may very well be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

From day one of Suu Kyi’s leadership, the military has had its hands on the steering wheel. First of all, she isn’t even actually president because the 2008 constitution (drafted by the military I might add) says she can’t be as a result of her familial ties to a foreign power; her sons are British citizens, as was her late husband. Not to mention she has no military experience! Therefore, she is a ‘state counsellor’, who is essentially the head of state but there is a man who assumes the role of president while she does all the work. The military drafted constitution also mandates that 25% of the parliament has to be reserved for the military, and that the ‘head of state’ can’t actually nominate anyone for defence, home, or border affairs – which can only be done by someone in the military.

But for argument’s sake let’s say that Myanmar brings back relative democracy following this latest coup (third time’s a charm) will anything really change? Is Suu Kyi a desirable leader? Prior to 2011, maybe I would say yes. But since then, Suu Kyi has proven to be far from that, notably because of her staunch support of the Tatmadaw throughout their ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and genocide against the Rohingya population of Myanmar, a Muslim minority group. The Rohingya like other minority ethnic groups in Myanmar saw a new dawn in Suu Kyi, a Myanmar for all. Unfortunately, that has proven to be far from the case.

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The Rohingya are one of many ethnic groups in Myanmar with their own language and culture. But they are not part of the Buddhist majority, being Muslim, and as a result, they have faced continuous oppression. Labelled as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as a result of their religion, they have been historically excluded from the census and accused (including by Suu Kyi) of possessing terrorist factions, an excuse Suu Kyi has used to defend the actions of the Tatmadaw in the Rakhine state, the homeland of the Rohingya. As of 2017, thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children have been slaughtered by the Tatmadaw, and those who survived have had to flee their homes in a mass exodus to escape a military and government (to be quite frank they are often one and the same) who wants them to be anywhere but Myanmar. The International Court of Justice as well as UN representatives have declared the Tatmadaw to be committing acts of genocide, given that the killings are focused specifically on one ethnic group including many children, which constitutes an attempt at elimination of the next generation; not to mention the dehumanizing rhetoric spread on social media across Myanmar along with exclusion from the census.

Suu Kyi is an intelligent woman, educated at Oxford. It is for this reason that her denial of the occurrence of genocide in the Rakhine state is all the more horrifying – she knows what is going on and has done absolutely nothing. She understands the gravity and yet stands by her brutal military with not a single nod to what is going on right in front of her. If the military is overthrown and Suu Kyi returns to power, she very well may be re-elected by the people as a result of a popular vote. But her leadership will not result in the kind of democracy that the people of Myanmar deserve, especially the Rohingya, who deserve to come home.

Image: Rohingya displaced muslims via Wikimedia Commons

By Anna Hendricks

Opinion Columnist

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