Political Transition in Myanmar: Recent Ethnic Clashes and Road Ahead

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With Myanmar attempting to make the transition to democracy from one of the most repressive regimes on earth, recent rising ethnic hatred and attacks’ mild turn the country into a twenty-Ss^t century version of post-Cold War Yugoslavia. This anti-Muslim sentiment [and, at times, anti-Chinese, anti-Indian, and anti-anyone who is not ethnic Burmese] has clearly been intensi-fying in Myanmar, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in Asia over the past two years [Still, Buddhists comprise by far the majority of religious groups]. The 969 Movement has been giving anti-Muslim speeches, holding anti- Muslim rallies, and distributing DVDs full of vitriol for at least a year. Meanwhile, the Myanmar Internet, though only accessed by less than 5 per cent of the population, already is overwhelmed by hateful screeds against Muslims, Indians, Chinese, and other ethnic minorities, among others. Even in Suu Kyi’s prodemo¬cracy National League for Demo¬cracy, there are worrying levels of prejudice against Muslims—com¬prising about 5 per cent of the population and those not from the Myanmarese ethnic majority group.
Myanmar has had a long history of xenophobia and inter-ethnic tensions, exacerbated by the British colonists’ use of divide-and-rule tactics and then by the army’s oppressive five-decade rule over the country. In 1962, the government forcibly expelled many Indians from the country, and since gaining independence in 1948, the military, dominated by Myanmareses, has fought more than fifteen ethnic minority insurgencies. While Myan¬mar has made great strides in the past three years of reforms, without more proactive measures to halt ethnic and religious violence, the country could descend into chaos.
969 Campaign
The most crucial element is the new ‘969 campaign’ invented in early 2013. The Myanmar numerology has a powerful appeal. ‘969 campaign’ is a mass-based movement led by extre¬mist monks including a firebrand named Wirather. The number ‘969’ was derived from Buddhists tradi¬tion in which the Three-Jewels or ‘Tiratana’ is composed of 24 attri¬butes (9 Buddha, 6 Dhamma, 9 Sangha). However, it is said by the movement to follow the model of the Muslim ‘786’ which is only used in South Asian Muslim tradition, as a representation of a holy Quranic phrase—”In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the ever merciful.” This is the correct interpretation of ‘786’. But, the hardcore Buddhists of Myanmar have long misinterpreted ‘786’, as Muslim conspiracy to take over the world in the 21st century, as they see 786 to represent 21 (7 + 8 + 6 = 21). In opposition and reaction to 786, the fundamentalist Buddhists invented 969 as a symbol of religious movement. The movement is spread¬ing with the help of flags and stick¬ers, pasted on the houses, shops and taxis.
The campaigners argue that 969 is about protecting race and religion by peaceful means. But in practice, it is explicitly an anti-Muslim campaign in which the shops, commercial orga-nisations, firms and factories owned by Muslims are being targeted. Muslims in Myanmar are being port¬rayed as dangerous foreigners who came to Myanmar only to dominate its every aspects and exploit the natives. Muslims are accused of domi¬nating the economy, destroying the cultural fabric of society by spreading Islam in every way possible. The hardcore Buddhist monks propagate that the Myanmarese race/nation will become extinct if liars, aliens, ruthless people and those who bite the hands of their own masters are not expelled. In this way Myanmar has entered into an era of domestic hatred and violence. The communal tension is rampant.
Myanmar in Political Transi¬tion
Burma, or Myanmar as it is called by the Military Junta, is passing through the critical stage of political transition. On April 23, 2012 newly elected members from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), including pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, took up their seats in Myanmar’s national legisla¬ture. That didn’t seem to happen when Suu Kyi and her party boy¬cotted the assembly of the union’s first session over the wording of the oath, which requires members to ‘safeguard’ rather than the NLD’s preferred ‘respect’ the 2008 consti¬tution. The NLD finally acquiesced to the wording and were sworn into Parliament. But the semantic dispute signals a rocky start for Myanmar’s more inclusive brand of parlia¬mentary democracy. While the NLD’s temporary boycott generated global headlines and expressed the party’s dissatisfaction with what it views as an ‘undemocratic’ charter, the party will need to choose its points of contention wisely to be an effective opposition, particularly in considera¬tion of their small numbers in the 664 member bicameral legislature.
Roots of the Crisis
Myanmar hasn’t had a conven¬tional government for almost half a century. Over recent decades other countries have, of course, experienced military dictatorships—but usually they are seen, even by their sup¬porters, as short term temporary expedients rather than semi-perma¬nent arrangements. But Myanmar’s military dictatorship is different for four historical reasons—a strong
military tradition, a relatively weak civil society (diversity of ethnic groups), a long-standing fear of national disintegration and an equally long-standing fear of foreign intervention.
Unlike most Asian and African countries, Myanmar did not win its independence by conventional civilian-based political agitation. Modern Myanmar was born partly out of an Allied military struggle against Japanese occupation—a strug¬gle which, by 1945, also involved Myanmar’s forces led by the leaders – of what became the country’s post¬independence army. However, throughout all these politically- induced changes in nomenclature, the embryonic Myanmar’s military was led by modern Myanmar’s greatest national hero—Aung San. Indeed it’s his iconic status that sustains lot only Myanmar’s military tradition (and therefore to an extent the c&rrent military dictatorship) but also> the status of Myanmar’s main opposition leader, his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi now leading NLD. ,
Ethnic Diversity and Remedy
Myanmar is home to more than 135 ethnic groups some of which are situated in geographical areas known to hold highly valuable natural resources. Post-colonization, the issues of ethnic minority’s separatist aspirations was a main reason for the military take over of the country and centralized control in 1962. Certain ethnic groups have been at war with the government for over five decades. To break the deadlock and open dialogue towards peace negotiations with various ethnic groups govern¬ment assured ethnic group leaders of socio-economic development in their respective, often impoverished regions, a role for their groups in the new Parliament and that the 2008 Constitution could be amended to meet their agreed demands.
Thein Sein’s government has made great advances with ethnic groups, including new announced ceasefires, to bring an end to border clashes and provide ethnic leaders with an opportunity to voice their ideas about the transition towards democracy. Yet there is still much uncertainty about how these policies,
including promised economic deve-lopment for ethnic territories, will be translated in concrete terms.
NLD, Democracy and Beyond
The historic bypolls in Myanmar have been concluded and Daw Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been declared victorious by a huge margin. This has led the country to a point of no return in terms of credible reforms which will make the civilian government a lot more trustworthy internally as well as globally. The bypolls were conducted following the resignation of the members of the parliament who were elected in the November 2011 national elections and were nominated to the Council of Ministers (as specified in the constitu-tion). The NLD decided to re-register itself as a political party and contest these elections after the civilian government amended certain party registration provisions to which the NLD had earlier objected.
Although the NLD, having won 43 of the 45 contested seats, will only have a limited representation in the parliament, there is sufficient opti¬mism that Suu Kyi’s would be a strong presence. The USDP and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party won the final two seats. Suu Kyi will be representing her constituency of Kawhmu near Yangon, most prob¬ably from July 2012, when the lower house of the parliament starts its new session. With only 37 out of 440 seats in the lower house, the NLD may not have a big voice, but it will be the largest individual opposition party. With these results, the NLD will now have 37 seats in the lower house, four in the upper house and two in regional assemblies. Suu Kyi has heralded these results as a “triumph of the people, who have decided that they must be involved in the political process of this country.” So far, no indiscretion has been reported in the polling process.
Timeline : Recent Reforms in Myanmar
Year 2010
# November—The main military-
backed party, the Union Soli¬darity and Development Party
(USDP), claims a resounding victory in the first elections for 20 years. Opposition groups allege widespread fraud and many Western countries condemn the vote as a sham. The junta says it marks the transition from mili¬tary rule to a civilian democracy.
• A week after the election, Aung San Suu Kyi—who had been prevented from taking part is released from house arrest.
Year 2011
• January —The government authorises internet connection for Aung San Suu Kyi.
• March—Thein Sein is sworn in as President of a nominally civilian government and the transfer of powers to the new government is complete.
• May—The new government frees thousands of prisoners under an amnesty, but few political prisoners are among them and the move is dismissed by one rights group as ‘pathetic’.
• August—Ms Aung San Suu Kyi is allowed to leave Rangoon on a political visit; days later she meets President Thein Sein in Nay Pyi Taw.
• September—President Thein Sein suspends construction of controversial Chinese-funded Myitsone hydroelectric dam, in move seen as showing greater openness to public opinion.
• October—More than 200 political prisoners were freed as part of a general amnesty. New labour laws allowing unions are passed.
• November—The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed that Myanmar would chair the grouping in 2014. Ms Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to contest to parliament, as her party rejoined the political process.
• Aung San Suu Kyi and Timeline of Important Developments
• 1989 : Put under house arrest as Myanmarese junta declares martial law
• 1990 : NLD wins election; military disregards result
• 1991: Wins Nobel Peace Prize
• 1995 : Released from house arrest, but movements restricted
• 2000-02 : Second period of house arrest
• May 2003 : Detained after clash between NLD and junta forces
• Sept 2003 : Allowed home after medical treatment, but under effective house
arrest
• May 2007 : House arrest is extended for another year
• Sept 2007 : First public appearance since 2003, greeting protesting Buddhist monks
• May 2008 : House arrest extended for another year
• May 2009 : Charged with breaking detention rules after an American swims to
her compound
• August 2009 : Sentenced to 18 months further house arrest
• November 2010 : Released from house arrest
• April 2012 : Stands for Parliament for first time; wins and become Member of Parliament.

• President Thein Sein signed a law allowing peaceful demon¬strations for the first time. The NLD re-registered as a political party in advance of by-elections for Parliament held in 2012.
• Myanmar’s authorities have agreed a truce deal with rebels of Shan ethnic group and order the military to stop operations against ethnic Kachin rebels.
Year 2012
• January —The government signed a ceasefire with rebels of Karen ethnic group.
• A day later, hundreds of pri¬soners were released—among them the country’s most promi¬nent political prisoners, includ¬ing veterans of the 1988 student protest movement, monks invol¬ved in the 2007 demonstrations aitd activists from many ethnic minority groups.
• April—Taking part in an election 7for the first time since 1990, the
NLD won 43 out of 45 seats in landmark parliamentary by- elections seen as a major test for Myanmar’s reform drive. The polls are thought to have been generally free and fair.
• The US responded by easing sanctions on Myanmar. The EU also agreed to suspend most sanctions in Myanmar and opens an office in the biggest city, Rangoon.
International Reaction on Myanmar’s Political Transi¬tion
UNO—U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a landmark visit to a fast-changing Myanmar to encourage its government to carry out more democratic reforms and shore-up peace deals with ethnic rebel groups. Ban’s trip was his first since a reformist; quasi-civilian government took office a year ago, ending five decades of authoritarian military rule and frosty and frus¬trating ties with the international community.
Thein Sein government has started overhauling the tattered economy, easing media censorship, legalizing trade unions and protests, freeing political prisoners and agreeing ceasefires with more than a dozen ethnic rebel armies. Ban met Thein Sein and other former generals who were part of Than Shwe’s inner circle but now seen as key drivers behind Myanmar’s stunning facelift, which has led to an easing of some sanctions this month by the European Union, United States, Australia and Canada and a resumption of aid and debt relief by Japan.
European Union—European
diplomats are reported to have reached a preliminary agreenient to suspend most European Union sanctions against Myanmar. The final decision will be taken later on at a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers. But senior sources in Brussels have told the BBC they expect that there will be agreement to suspend a ‘big chunk’ of the current sanctions. Only the arms embargo would stay in place, they said. Aid and development money would be allowed into the country, as would investment into key parts of the economy particularly the mining and logging sectors. Exports from these industries would be allowed into the EU. There is also talk of establishing a preferential trade agreement with Myanmar.
EU foreign policy Chief Cathe¬rine Ashton met with Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as she became the latest in a series of high-ranking international figures to visit the country. Recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron also visited Myanmar and called for a ‘suspension’ of the suffo¬cating economic sanctions slapped on the military rulers.
The United States—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said some travel and financial restrictions would be relaxed, with Myanmar’s leaders allowed to visit the United States. Mrs. Clinton, who paid a visit to Myanmar last year, praised President Thein Sein’s ‘leadership and courage’. “We fully recognize and embrace the progress that has taken place and we will continue our policy of engage¬ment,” she said. Under the moves, the US will name an ambassador to Myanmar and establish an office for its Agency for International Develop¬ment in the country. The US would also begin ‘targeted easing’ of the ban on US financial services and invest¬ment in Myanmar, added Mrs. Clinton.
India and Myanmar—India, by contrast, has the most ground to make up, having neglected its eastern neighbour for years. And it could yet prove to be the country most affected by Myanmar’s opening. Certainly, India can draw on the ties of history. Millions of Indians settled and prospered in what was then called Myanmar when it was part of Britain’s vast Indian empire. Even after mass expulsions of Indians by Myanmar’s new military governments in the 1960s, there are still thought to be up to 3 million people of Indian descent in Myanmar. This is the sort of

December—US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited and met Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and held talks with President Thein Sein. The US offered to improve relations if democratic reforms continue.

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