Last weekend, a few hours after the US presidential election was called for Joe Biden, Myanmar voters started lining up for their own chance to decide whether the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, would return for a second term.
With 5,643 candidates from 91 parties competing for 1,119 seats, at both the state and federal level, the country’s almost 38 million voters were asked to cast judgment on the last five years of NLD rule.
After three days of vote counting, the ruling party has claimed a huge victory, likely extending its resounding wins from the 2015 general election.
Under the military-authored constitution, a quarter of the seats in the national legislature are still reserved for military-appointed representatives, who generally vote as a bloc. The NLD, therefore, needed to win two-thirds of the elected seats to achieve a governing majority.
This requirement was designed by the military to be a high, almost impossible, threshold for any democratically oriented party in such a diverse, multi-ethnic political system. But it looks like the NLD has achieved it again, with ease.
The NLD appears to have displaced the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) from some of its strongholds in rural areas and southern Mandalay. And its dominance in Yangon and much of the country has been met with jubilation among die-hard supporters, eager to see a further consolidation of the country’s democratic ambitions.
The renewed mandate for the NLD will also be taken by Suu Kyi’s millions of supporters as repudiation of the widespread international backlash against the government for its handling of the Rohingya crisis, which saw nearly a million people displaced in 2017.
Conflict remains a big issue
During her first term, Suu Kyi sought to broker a new nationwide peace agreement with the various ethnic minority armed groups, but was frustrated by the entrenched complexities of the country’s borderland politics.
Well-armed militias, some of which draw considerable financial strength from wide-ranging illicit businesses, proved unwilling to accept her government’s claims on their territories.
In some of these areas, the Election Commission cancelled voting in the election, ostensibly due to the ongoing fighting. Northern Rakhine state and also areas of Chin, Shan, Kachin, Kayin and Mon states, and in Bago Region, were all affected by these cancellations.
In Rakhine and Chin states, however, elections were able to be held in NLD strongholds less affected by the conflict between the military and the Buddhist ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army, while voting was cancelled in areas held by ethnic minority parties.
In all, 22 seats in both houses of the national legislature will remain vacant until the conflicts have eased, which may not happen any time soon.
Because the decision to call off the voting in these areas benefited the NLD, it called into question the independence of the Election Commission.
About 1.5 million voters were disenfranchised by the move. There are also further Rohingya in Rakhine state and refugee camps in Bangladesh who have historically been denied citizenship and voting rights.
Human Rights Watch has called the elections “fundamentally flawed”, and many countries have qualified their support for the result by highlighting this disenfranchisement.
Is the military really loosening its grip?
At best, the military will only grudgingly accept the election results, especially since its favoured party, the USDP, performed poorly.
The past five years have seen generally amiable relations between the NLD and the military, even in light of the military’s brutal “clearance operations” of the Muslim-minority Rohingya in Rakhine state in 2017.
However, in the lead-up to the elections, the commander in chief of the military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, released a statement criticising the Election Commission, arguing that
weakness and deficiencies which were never seen in the previous elections are appearing.
Recently, a reputable website run by activists investigating the military was blocked and various opposition parties had their political broadcasts censored when they appeared on state television.
In addition to other restrictions on freedom of speech, the election cancellations, internet shutdowns, disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities and campaign restrictions due to COVID-19 have cast a pall over the vote.
Outlook for the new NLD government
While the treatment of the Rohingya — and Suu Kyi’s defence of the military’s crimes against them — is impossible to accept, foreign governments have little choice but to continue providing support for the newly empowered NLD government.
International pressure should continue to be applied, however, to resolve the Rohingya crisis and protect freedom of speech.
If the military were to step in and take back control from the civilian-led government, this would, in every sense, be a significant backward step for democracy in Myanmar. While we have argued the chances of a coup looked relatively low during the NLD’s first term, recent events have demonstrated the military can always find an excuse to reassert itself at the centre of Myanmar politics.
To avoid further turbulence, and with its fresh mandate, Myanmar’s government will need to quickly concentrate on broad-based economic development and human security. The election result also offers a chance to focus on the peaceful resolution of longstanding conflicts in what remains a tragically divided and impoverished society.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader and de facto president, is under fire from all sides. Domestically, she is facing growing criticism for stalled economic and political reforms, glacial progress on policy and service improvements, and the suppression of freedom of expression and press freedom.
But it is her international reputation that is most in tatters.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, imprisoned for 15 years over a 21-year period in her struggle for human rights and democracy, has suffered a swift and dramatic fall from grace as a global icon. She is now widely seen as an enabler of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
As the Brussels-based International Crisis Group put it recently:
Rarely has the reputation of a leader fallen so far, so fast.
Failures of Suu Kyi’s government
Suu Kyi has been the subject of much criticism since taking power 2½ years ago, but the most recent and vociferous condemnation has centred on two events: the jailing of two Reuters journalists who exposed a massacre of Rohingya civilians by the military, and her government’s failure to respond to international investigations into allegations of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
It is notable that it was Suu Kyi’s civilian government that prosecuted the journalists, not the military. Suu Kyi could have ordered the charges dropped, as she did for student protesters during her early days in office. Instead, before the trial was over, she commented that the reporters were guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act, and once even allegedly referred to them as “traitors”.
The second great disappointment has been the government’s response to the UN Human Rights Council’s report into the violence that drove almost 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh last year.
The report, released in full in September, found conclusive evidence that security forces had indeed engaged in mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya, with genocidal intent. It went on to accuse Suu Kyi and her government of contributing to the atrocities through “acts and omissions”.
The HRC recommended the UN Security Council refer the Myanmar commander-in-chief and five generals to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The UN Human Rights Council also set up a body to prepare evidence for trials.
Rather than pledge to cooperate with the investigation, however, Suu Kyi has consistently defended the military action against the Rohingya and repeatedly pointed to a lack of understanding of the complexities of the situation.
Her only concession to the increasing international condemnation of her government has been this muted statement:
There are, of course, ways in which, with hindsight, we might think that the situation could have been handled better.
Limitations on Suu Kyi’s power
The military remains a very powerful force in Myanmar. It has the power to appoint its own personnel to a quarter of the seats in parliament and oversees the three powerful ministries of Home Affairs, Defence and Border Affairs.
The government has no power to hold the military accountable for actions against the Rohingya. Suu Kyi is therefore in a very weak position.
She has nonetheless gone out of her way to not just defend the military, but praise it. In Singapore last month, she made headlines when she declared that the three generals in her cabinet were “rather sweet”.
Suu Kyi has stressed that her government’s aim of removing the military from politics would eventually be achieved through negotiation, keeping in mind the need for national reconciliation. However, her dream of constitutional reform depends entirely on military approval.
This would appear to inhibit any ability for her to censure the military. She also has no means to compel the military to cooperate with international investigators.
A path to redemption
Suu Kyi still has considerable moral authority within Myanmar, and the military is still widely unpopular. Thus, despite the severe limitations on her power, she does have other options to lead effectively on issues like human rights, the Rohingya and press freedom.
Suu Kyi and her government should start by recommitting themselves to a belief in universal human rights. She should also express empathy with the victims of the atrocities in Rakhine state, which may begin to shift popular opinion against the actions of the military and engender more public sympathy for the Rohingya.
Further, Suu Kyi needs to pledge full cooperation with the ICC investigation into the serious allegations of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and call for a genuinely independent domestic inquiry to pave the way towards true reconciliation.
Suu Kyi may not be able to compel military cooperation with the ICC investigation, or even unfettered access to the country for investigators. But drawing on her moral authority could go a long way to help. She could pave the way for visas and travel approval, for instance, both of which were denied to investigators by her government.
Finally, the government must develop robust, urgent repatriation plans for the Rohingya – in cooperation with Bangladesh and the UN – that guarantee their security, human rights, a pathway to full citizenship and an end to segregation in Rakhine. They need a plan for inclusive development policies in the state, and to restore both media freedoms and humanitarian access to the region.
The opportunity for such moral leadership is quickly evaporating.
Suu Kyi and her government were elected by a landslide in 2015, winning about 80% of seats up for election. Polling released last week showed that only about half those surveyed believe the rights of people have improved in the 2½ years that she has been in power and less than half the population feel there has been any political or economic improvement.
There have also been increasing complaints about the performance of the government.
With her support eroding both home and abroad, Suu Kyi appears to have a limited window to adequately address the Rohingya crisis and regain her moral authority. Otherwise, Myanmar risks slipping back into isolation and again becoming a pariah state.
Junta targets ethnic minority states as civil war looms.
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, December 8 (CDN) — Civilians in two ethnic minority states with large Christian populations fear their lives will be in danger as skirmishes between rebels and a Burmese junta bent on instilling Buddhist nationalism threaten to escalate into war.
“It is likely that the military junta will carry out a military offensive against ethnic armed groups now that the elections are over,” Nang Mya Naddy, ethnic program coordinator of the Democratic Voice of Burma radio program, told Compass.
Christians fear that full-scale civil war in Burma (also known as Myanmar) could result in either ethnic cleansing or total subjugation of minorities. Persecution of Christians in Burma is part of a wider campaign against ethnic minority tribes to create a uniform society in which the only accepted religion is Buddhism, according to the British daily Telegraph, citing a 2007 government memo circulated in Karen state giving instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state.
Independent media reports suggest that the possibility of a major clash between ethnic armies and government troops is highest in Kachin and Karen states. Burma’s ethnic minorities, who inhabit states along Burma’s border with Thailand, China and India, have been demanding independence or autonomy for decades.
There are an estimated 1.2 million people in Kachin state, of which around 1 million are Christian. About 40 percent of the 3.5 million people in Karen state are estimated to be Christian. The Burmese junta, dominated by an ethnic Burman Buddhist majority, also seems to be preparing for war in the predominantly Buddhist state of Shan.
The junta has blocked trade links and deployed troops in Karen state, where the Karen National Liberation Army has not been offered a truce.
“The refugees from Burma continue to flow into neighboring Thailand as fighting fails to die down in Karen state between Burmese government troops and breakaway forces of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army [DKBA],” reported The Irrawaddy, a Chiang Mai, Thailand-based publication covering Burma and Southeast Asia. “The latest military action was reported early on Monday [Dec. 6] from Myawaddy Township, where the Metta Linn Myaing village was shelled by junta troops. More than a dozen artillery shells hit the area of the village, according to local sources.”
Around 1,200 refugees are living at a border patrol police base in Mahawan area in Tak Province’s Mae Sot district in Thailand, a Thai official told The Irrawaddy.
“Sadly, so far neither side in the recent fighting has shown much regard for the civilians caught in the crossfire,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The Irrawaddy. “The situation in Karen state was further complicated when the Karen National Union (KNU) entered into the conflict in support of the DKBA breakaway forces.”
David Takapaw, vice chairman of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy, “We will not stop fighting if they [the Burmese army] insist on trying to deploy in our area.”
The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers (FBR) relief aid group. The Burmese Army attacked a Christian village in Karen state four months ago, according to the FBR, and on July 23 burned all houses and the state’s largest church in Tha Dah Der village.
To intensify its battle for control in ethnic minority states after its Nov. 7 election victory, the Burmese army has blocked sea and land routes to Karen and Kachin states, increased deployment of troops in areas controlled by rebel groups and transported ammunition in large quantities.
In 2008, Burma’s government ordered all armed groups under ceasefires to meld into the Border Guard Forces. Many rebel groups have refused to comply.
Although the election – the first in the last two decades – was held last month and the government released pro-democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it is becoming clearer daily that the junta is in no mood to address grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.
While rights groups around the world are calling for national reconciliation, the Burmese junta, whose proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is likely to have a majority in parliament, is preparing for a military fight with ethnic minority rebels.
“The recent purchase by the State Peace and Development Council [SPDC] of 24 Russian military helicopters, as well as the establishment of new helicopter bases near the Salween River, suggests that the Tatmadaw, the name for the Burmese military, is gearing up for a ‘military solution’ to the ethnic issue,” noted an opinion piece in The Irrawaddy on Nov. 29.
One of the military’s main targets is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The KIA has had a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government since 1994, but “it has recently been broken, and we are waiting to see what will happen next – if we can reconcile or not,” a leader of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand identified only as Shirley told Compass. “The KIA wants reconciliation with the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council, Burma’s junta-controlled regime], but the government hasn’t allowed Kachin political groups to participate in politics or in the recent election.”
Indirect negotiations for peace are underway now, she said, adding that she was unsure if the Kachin will be attacked or not. “The KIA is ready to fight back,” she said.
Media reports indicate that the likelihood of the Burmese regime attacking is greater than chances of it seeking reconciliation.
“The threat to the Kachin Independence Organization [KIO, armed wing of the KIA] has increased manifold with the Burmese military junta dispatching significant quantity of arms to Kachin state, northern Burma,” reported the independent online Kachin News Group (KNG).
The military has also ordered the KIO to close down all its branch liaison offices in northern Burma. Only the main liaison office in Kachin’s capital, Myitkyina, has been allowed to function, KNG added.
In addition, the junta has provided arms training to workers of an agriculture company it supports, Yuzana Co., “in preparation for civil war with the Kachin Independence Organization,” the news group reported. In October, the military provided “60 Chinese-made M-22 assault rifles, copies of the Russian AK-47” to Yuzana workers in the Hugawng Valley, according to KNG.
The Rangoon-based Yuzana Co. came to the Hugawng Valley in 2006 and “grabbed up about 400,000 acres from the ethnic Kachin people with assistance from the local Burmese military and administrative authorities,” KNG reported. “Since 2006, the company has transported thousands of Burman ethnics from southern Burma to the Hugawng Valley every year.”
Mizzima, a New-Delhi based news organization, reported that the KIO has urged businessmen in the northern Burma stronghold of Laiza to leave, given the high probability of military conflict. A KIO spokesperson told Mizzima that “fighting was likely to break out soon.”
KNG also reported on Dec. 2 that Burma’s military junta “has a secret mission” to spread HIV in Kachin state as part of an ethnic cleansing effort. “Beginning 1990, the junta has systematically dispatched HIV-infected sex workers from the Thai-Burma border to Kachin state, especially to the Hpakant jade mining city,” it reported.
Shirley of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand said she was not sure if “ethnic cleansing” was the goal of the Burmese army, but that the junta did want to spread AIDS as well as sell drugs to the Kachin people.
“The SPDC does not allow the expansion of churches and took over church land in certain areas,” she said. “The construction of new churches is not allowed, and the Kachin people have to ask permission to organize religious meetings, which is a detriment to community-building activities since the church is the foundation for the community, with 85 percent of the population being Christians.”
Emulate Sri Lanka?
Christians also fear that the Burmese regime may emulate the Sri Lankan government’s recent war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Rights groups say thousands of civilians were killed in Sri Lanka before its government claimed victory over the areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers.
But Htet Aung, election specialist for The Irrawaddy, told Compass that while the Burmese regime may use Sri Lanka’s military strategy, “the nature of armed conflicts and their historical contexts are different.”
“While Sri Lankan’s government faced LTTE alone, the junta is now facing several armed ethnic groups,” Aung said. “The junta, unlike Sri Lanka’s present government, is facing a strong democratic leadership by Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Tensions in ethnic states are far greater than has been reported, sources said. Shirley added that there are only a few channels of communication in Kachin state, and the suffering of civilians there often goes unreported.
The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.
The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.
Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.
Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”
Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”
Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.
Report from Compass Direct News
Government punishes pastor for refusing to wear campaign T-shirt, amid other election abuses.
DUBLIN, November 18 (CDN) — Officials in Mergui Region, Burma, ordered a Baptist church to cease holding worship services after the pastor refused to wear an election campaign T-shirt supporting the military government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
The election commission summoned 47-year-old Pastor Mang Tling of Dawdin village, Gangaw township, Mergui Region on Nov. 9, two days after the election and ordered him to stop holding services and discontinue the church nursery program, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported yesterday.
The CHRO works against human rights abuses, including religious discrimination, for the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest estimated to be 90 percent Christian.
Village headman U Than Chaung had given the pastor a campaign T-shirt to wear in support of the USDP, and when he refused to wear it, the headman filed a report with local authorities accusing him of persuading Christian voters to vote in favor of an opposing party.
Under Burmese law, religious leaders can be penalized for “engaging in politics,” giving the pastor a solid legal reason to decline the T-shirt. The law also bans leaders of religious groups from voting in national elections, according to the CHRO, although lay members of those groups are able to vote.
“The election law is quite vague,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass today. “One of the things we were watching out for during the election was to see if church elders or council members might be excluded from voting. But these people were able to vote. The law seems to apply only to pastors, monks and imams.”
Officials interrogated Mang Tling in Gangaw until Sunday (Nov. 14), when he was allowed to return home.
Meantime, the USDP won the election amid widespread evidence of “advance” voting and other forms of voter manipulation throughout Burma.
Previously known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and before that the State Peace and Development Council, the USDP was formed by a ruling junta composed largely of army generals. The junta has ruled Burma without a constitution or parliament since 1998, although in 2008 they pushed through support for a new constitution that will take effect following this month’s elections, according to the 2010 International Religious Freedom report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
The new constitution forbids “abuse of religion for political purposes,” the report stated. Election laws published in March also banned members of religious orders from voting for or joining political parties and reserved 25 percent of seats in the new parliament for members of the military.
The 2008 constitution “technically guarantees a degree of religious freedom. But then, it’s Burma,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass.
The Chin National Party defeated the USDP in three electorates in Chin state despite reports of widespread voting anomalies, some of which were outlined in a CHRO press release on Nov. 7.
In Tedim township northern Chin state, for example, USDP agent Go Lun Mang went to the home of a local resident at 5 p.m. the day before the election and told the family that he had already voted on their behalf in favor of the USDP. He added that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained.
On Nov. 5, the local government had already ordered village officials to instruct residents to vote for the USDP. On Nov. 7, the day of the election, USDP agents in campaign uniforms stood at the gate of the polling station in Tedim and asked voters if they intended to vote for the USDP. Those who said yes were allowed into the station, while those who said no were refused entrance.
USDP agents also warned Chin voters in Thantlang town that they should vote for the USDP “while the door was open” or they would regret it, Burma News International reported on Nov. 5.
David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the intimidation indicated that the junta and the USDP knew how unpopular they were.
Reports by the CHRO show a long history of discrimination against the majority Christian Chin, including the destruction of crosses and other Christian monuments, state-sponsored efforts to expand Buddhism, forced contributions of finance and labor to Buddhist construction projects, arrest and detention, torture and particularly harsh treatment of pastors. In addition, officials have refused construction for all new church building projects since 2003.
A report issued by HRW in January confirmed serious and ongoing abuses against Chin Christians.
One Chin pastor interviewed by HRW described how soldiers held him at gunpoint, forced him to pray in a Buddhist pagoda and told him that Burma was a Buddhist country where Christianity should not be practiced. (See “Report Documents Abuse of Chin Christians,” Feb. 20.)
Suu Kyi’s Release Stirs Guarded Hope among Burma’s Christians
NEW DELHI, November 18 (Compass Direct News) – The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma on Saturday (Nov. 13) has sparked cautious optimism about human rights among Christians and the country’s ethnic minorities even as the junta does battle with armed resistance groups.
Freeing her six days after elections, the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar) kept 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi from running in the country’s first election in 20 years, but ethnic minorities are still “very happy” and “enthused with hope and anticipation,” said Plato Van Rung Mang, who heads the India chapter of Chin Human Rights Organization.
Suu Kyi is the only leader from the majority Burmese community – predominantly Buddhist – who is trusted by the ethnic minorities, said Mang, an India-based Christian originally from Burma’s Chin state, which borders India.
“We have faith in Suu Kyi’s honesty and leadership, and she has been our hope,” he added.
The ethnic Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni people – many of whom are Christian – as well as mostly Buddhist ethnic Shan, Mon and Arakanese (some of them Muslim) people have been fighting for self-determination in their respective states and opposing the military junta’s policy of centralized control and Burmese dominion.
“We trust that Suu Kyi can fulfill her father’s ideal and political principles which have been subverted by the Burmese military junta’s Burmanization policy,” said Mang. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the nation’s leader at the time of independence and favored autonomy for ethnic minorities.
“Just as her father was trusted and held in high esteem by the ethnic people, Aung San Suu Kyi also has the ability to work together with the minorities to build a better, peaceful Burma where the human rights of all citizens are respected and protected,” said Garrett Kostin, a U.S. citizen who runs the Best Friend Library, built by a Buddhist monk in support of Suu Kyi, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
While sections of the ethnic communities have been involved in armed resistance against the junta’s rule, many local residents in the region remain unarmed but are also at risk of being killed in the post-election conflict.
In the wake of the Nov. 7 election, as expected (See “Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election, Oct. 22), clashes between armed ethnic groups and the Burmese army erupted in three of the seven ethnic states – Karen, Shan and Mon – mainly along Thailand and China border, reported Thailand-based Burma News International. The violence has resulted in an influx of over 20,000 people into Thailand – the largest flow in the last five years.
According to US-based Refugees International, the Thai government forced many of the asylum seekers back.
There are also tensions in Kachin and Karenni states, which could erupt at any time, between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-North, and the Karenni National Progressive Party.
Rights advocates, however, were still heartened by Suu Kyi’s release.
It’s “a wonderful opportunity for the ethnic minorities of Burma to unify in support of each other’s rights and desires,” said Kostin.
In September 2007, many Buddhist monks joined democracy activists in street protests against the military regime’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, leading to a sharp rise in gas and diesel prices. Known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths as government security personnel resisted it militarily.
In numerous clashes between the repressive military regime and political opponents and ethnic minorities, over 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced and thousands killed over the years.
Suu Kyi will continue to enjoy the trust of ethnic minorities because “she has been working so hard since the beginning [of her political career] to speak out about the plight of ethnic people with an honest and sincere commitment,” said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, deputy secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.
Chiang Mai-based Christian relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) recalled that Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, along with allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament “in Burma’s only truly democratic election” in 1990. “The military regime, however, did not recognize the results and continued to hold power,” it said in a statement.
Last week’s election was “neither free nor fair,” FBR said, adding that “thousands of political prisoners [estimated at 2,200] are still in jail, ethnic minorities are attacked [on a regular basis], and the people of Burma remain under oppression.
“Still, we are grateful for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as she is a leader who gives real hope to the people of Burma.”
An FBR team leader who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled Suu Kyi requesting his prayers when he met with her during a brief period when she was not under house arrest in 1996.
“The Global Day of Prayer for Burma and the ethnic unity efforts we are involved in are a direct result of that meeting,” the leader said. “As she told me then, one of her favorite quotes is, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
Some Christians, however, remained cautious.
“Although San Suu Kyi wants Burma to be a true federal country, there is no certainty in the hearts of the Karen people because they have suffered for very long, and the so-called Burmese have turned their backs on them several times,” said a Karen Christian from Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph.
La Rip, a Burmese activist in China, also said that while Suu Kyi deserved to enjoy freedom, she and her party “do not seem to have a clear idea on how to solve the long-standing issues” related to ethnic minorities.
For her part, Suu Kyi spelled out a plan to hold a nationwide, multi-ethnic conference soon after she was freed. Her father held a similar meeting, known as the Panglong Conference, in 1947. Aung San, then representing the Burmese government, reached an agreement with leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin states to accept full autonomy in internal administration for the ethnic controlled frontier areas after independence from Britain.
Suu Kyi’s planned conference is seen as the second Panglong Conference, but it remains uncertain if the new Burmese regime, which is likely to be as opposed to ethnic minorities as the junta, will allow her plan to succeed.
In the awaited election results, the junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is likely to have majority in parliament to form the next government. Suu Kyi’s party had been disbanded by the military regime, and only a small splinter group ran in the election.
It is also feared that Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years since 1990 until her release last weekend, could face assassination attempts or fresh charges followed by another term under arrest.
Burma has a population of around 50 million, out of which around 2.1 million are estimated to be Christian.
Report from Compass Direct News