A decade after the first democratic reforms began taking shape after long years of harsh military rule in Myanmar, its citizens are preparing to vote in a national election on Nov. 8. It will be an important test for the country and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Her once-shining image as she swept from house arrest to the pinnacle of power, capped by a Nobel Peace Prize, has been tarnished by international and domestic critics.
Globally, attention has focused the plight of more than 800,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees who fled or were driven from their homes in western Myanmar/Burma — a majority Buddhist nation — and are now crammed into camps in neighboring Bangladesh, a poor country made poorer by the Covid-19 pandemic. The garment industry and other businesses have been hit in Bangladesh, straining the economy and public sympathies in a Muslim country that acted quickly to help the refugees.
Many of the displaced Rohingya lack clean water, health care or education for their children. They are too afraid to return to their ravaged homes and villages under military control and local ethnic violence, no matter how much the Burmese government promises to help them return.
On Oct. 22, Britain, the European Union and the United States will join the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in a virtual online fund-raiser to support the Rohingya and the relevant refugee host countries, which also includes Malaysia and Indonesia. The event will be livestreamed at various local times around the world. The conference site also provides links to relevant documents related to the crisis.
The UN urgently asked for $1 billion in aid for the refugees in Bangladesh earlier this year. Less than half of that amount has been raised, and time is running out as the year ends.
Aung San Suu Kyi — an ethnic Burman and Burmese Buddhist nationalist — is the daughter of Aung San, the leader of Burma’s independence movement against Britain and the founder of the Burmese army. He was assassinated in 1947, possibly at the behest of a political rival, soon after being installed as the first post-colonial head of government.
The place of the Rohingya in Burma — renamed Myanmar by the military — is an issue dating well back into the 19th century, when the British augmented a Muslim minority on the western Rakhine/Arakan coast populated by Muslim laborers from what was then Indian East Bengal, now Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi has held to the unsupportable opinion that the trouble with the Rohingya is citizenship. They have never been granted that legal status and have endlessly demanded and still await the change.
Aung San Suu Kyi has defended the citizenship position and disputed mounting charges of genocide against the Rohingya, to the level of the International Court of Justice in The Hague in December 2019. There, a case against Myanmar was brought by Gambia, a Muslim majority African country, with Arab support. It seems clear from the violence and flight that began as early as 2012 and took off in huge numbers in 2017 that the tragedy of the Rohingya has long passed the point of granting naturalization and other civic niceties.
The court’s ruling in January 2020 ordered Myanmar to adopt measures to prevent further genocidal acts. The ruling disappointed may human-rights activists globally.
The issue of the Rohingya flight from Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi’s inaction to stop abuse of Muslims, however, will not cost her an election victory in November, media in the region suggest. But it might trim the huge majority that her National League for Democracy won in the last election, held in 2015.
The country faces continuing national issues: unresolved civil conflicts in the east, where various ethnic groups have over the years been carving out near-autonomous jurisdiction or operate from across borders with Thailand and China. Myanmar has met problems in increasing more foreign investment, or holding on to it, given administrative confusion and corruption. Currently, there is also a late but spreading coronavirus epidemic, which some Burmese fear will cause the election to be canceled.
Chinese ambitions in Myanmar also appear to be a major concern. The sense that China wants to dominate the Burmese economy has been symbolized in public opinion by a dam that the Chinese were building on the Irrawaddy River at Myitsone in northern Myanmar.
The project, paused in 2011 by the reformist president, Thein Sein, has galvanized a Burmese environmental protection movement, which was further inflamed by news that most of the energy generated from the dam would go to China. In recent years, the Chinese, including President Xi Jinping on visits to Myanmar, have been pressing for a resumption.
China also sees Myanmar as a vital link for its Belt and Road initiative connecting Chinese commerce to new ocean routes and enhancing its influence and security by opening a back door across Burmese territory by road and rail, or the Irrawaddy River, to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
Bertil Lintner, a regionally based analyst of Burma for decades, reported in February that politicians in Myanmar, now free to express opinions, insist that the Chinese will have to follow Burmese rules. Lintner wrote that “concerns [are] heard in many areas in Myanmar where Chinese companies are active, because of local resentment over the influx of Chinese workers, environmental degradation and a general disregard for local input and sentiment.”
Myanmar society still feels the political weight of the military.
In March this year, army-aligned members of parliament blocked measures to weaken the power of the military in politics. The changes were proposed by Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the country as “state counsellor” because the constitution forbids anyone with a foreign family from serving as president. Her late husband, Michael Aris, a scholar of Buddhism at Oxford, was British, as are their two sons.
Women, a strong contingent in business and politics in some other Southeast Asian societies, have not been a significant factor in Burmese politics, advocates for women say, despite the example of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is more of an historic phenomenon than a feminist. The national election commission has no female members; in the current parliament, only 12 percent of the members are women.
On Oct. 17, The Irrawaddy magazine, an internationally respected source of news from Myanmar and the region, published an online town hall featuring two women on the steering committee of the local Gender Equality Network.
The two, Yee Mon Oo and Myo Khaing Htoo, were asked to discuss whether gender stereotypes are to blame for low levels of political participation by women in Myanmar.
“There have been historical events during which women worked competently, shoulder-to-shoulder with men,” said Yee Mon Oo. “Women also took leadership positions. However, gender stereotyping became entrenched in our society. . . . Because of that, leadership has often been narrowly defined and social norms have been established based on those stereotypes. This has led to the notion that women are followers, rather than leaders.”
“Women are traditionally supposed to be homemakers,” she added. “That notion greatly deters women from advancing to leadership roles. Only when we establish a culture based upon sharing responsibilities among family members will women be in a better position to participate in politics and assume leadership roles.”
Violence against women is also a factor, she noted. “There have been incidents of harassment and hate speech targeted at women [candidates] not only on social media but also in the real world. . . . These threats pose unique challenges to women’s participation.”
For Myo Khaing Htoo, increasing the number of women in parliament is a good goal, but women have to vote for women if they want to make a difference. “I do think female voters play an important role for women candidates seeking election,” she said. “While male voters tend to vote for male candidates because of gender identity, women — due to the misguided belief that they should follow men — also tend to vote for male candidates.”
Ye Mon Oo said that women in Myanmar still have to tear down many ceilings to get out of the kitchen in politics.
“One of the problems in Myanmar is that while women are allowed to participate in politics, they are not in leadership and decision-making positions,” she said. “You may notice that polling station officers are women. But women are rarey allowed to participate in designing policies and making decisions.
There is not a single woman member in the national-level electoral body. In region and state election sub-commissions, women’s participation is low. At the lower level, women are assigned to work at polling stations in townships. This reflects the large degree of discrimination against women that remains in Myanmar.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.