Richard Cockett is the Economist’s former Southeast Asia bureau chief and is the author of “Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma.”
The Yangon School of Political Science, squashed into an upper floor of a grimy old apartment block, is almost as hard to find as the liberalism that it tries to teach. Inside, the head of the school, U Myat Thu, concedes that the small foundation he has created to nurture “tolerance, liberal individualism and freedom of conscience” suddenly finds itself out of step with the times. Beyond the walls, the rest of the country has largely given itself up to the easy certainties of prejudice, hatred and ignorance.
Yet Myat Thu has spent many years as a member of National League of Democracy (NLD), the party co-founded by Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 to challenge the murderous military regimes that hijacked Burma in the early 1960s. He thought, like many other members of the opposition, that he was fighting for those hallowed values of a liberal, tolerant and open society. In November 2015, his devotion finally seemed to have been vindicated when the NLD won a landslide majority in a historic general election, ushering in Suu Kyi as the de facto leader of the country.
He was hopeful. But a great deal has happened since then — above all, the military-led ethnic cleansing campaign that has terrorized hundreds of thousands of Burma’s ethnic Rohingya minority into fleeing the country. “It’s horrible, and people have no feelings for them at all, no sympathy at all.”
Sadly, he is right. But what most worries him is that none of his fellow political warriors in the NLD have spoken out in the same way. Indeed, merely his use of the R-word marks him out in contemporary Burma as something of a hero of our time. The term “Rohingya” is officially banned, and so cowed are most people by this edict that almost no one uses it in private conversation, either.
Myat Thu believes that one reason for the NLD’s silence is that party members have for so long taken their cue from the top. If Suu Kyi is not going to say anything about the Rohingya, then they aren’t going to, either. In this sense, he, and others, wonder whether the NLD was ever the human-rights-based democratic movement that its Western supporters took it to be. Today it looks more as if it was merely a Suu Kyi fan club all along. Now that she is in power, nobody seems interested in advancing the values that the NLD was supposed to have stood for. “The process of democratization has stopped,” laments Myat Thu.
Anti-Muslim prejudice has a long history in Burma. The British encouraged millions of South Asians, many of them Muslims, to emigrate to Burma during the colonial period to run and exploit the latest addition to the empire. Burmans bitterly resented this, particularly the consequent loss of cultural and political control even in the Burman heartlands. By the eve of World War II, Yangon, the political and commercial capital, was an Indian-majority city.
The independence movement, and radical politics in general, thus became as much an anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner struggle as it was a specifically anti-British one. Suu Kyi herself is only one NLD activist to have written eloquently about the existential threat that Burman Buddhists felt from the unwelcome, uncontrolled influx of Indian Muslims, particularly when the men, relatively privileged in the colonial pecking order, started marrying Buddhist women.
These same fears dominate political discourse in Burma today, and they are as deeply embedded in the NLD as anywhere else. When the Rohingya issue first flared up before the 2015 election, some local party committees started to expel their Muslim members — despite orders to the contrary from NLD leaders. Animus against Muslims is widespread. The militant, xenophobic Buddhist monks who have whipped up most of the anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya rhetoric in the country regard Rakhine state as the “Western Gate,” the first bastion against the oncoming Muslim hordes of South Asia. The Rohingya breached that bastion and have to be pushed out again. It is a view shared by many Burman Buddhists.
Furthermore, although NLD activists still use a lexicon of human and political rights, as Suu Kyi sometimes does, the Rohingya can effectively be excluded from this because they are not citizens of Burma. Notoriously, they were not granted citizenship in the old military regime’s deeply flawed 1982 Citizenship Act, despite the fact that many of them had been living in Rakhine state since precolonial times. Often, young NLD supporters, sounding very progressive, tell me that they want to extend the same democratic and political rights to all “citizens” of Burma, but it does not seem to occur to them that this should include the Rohingya, as they are not citizens. Too often, I suspect that this is an easy excuse, masking deeper, rather less progressive sentiments. Maybe it is just ignorance, but they seem to forget all too easily that the Citizenship Act was designed by the military regime — their enemy — to divide and rule. Now many in the NLD seem happy enough to play the same game.
Myat Thu will keep on teaching against the current, but fewer and fewer want to hear what to has to say. He himself is a practicing Muslim, but he proudly traces his ancestry to many of the ethnic groups of Burma, intertwined over many generations. He embodies the promise of a different NLD, but one that now, sadly, appears to be gradually receding.