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Myanmar Election has Demonstrated Yet Again the Grossly Misunderstood Mindset of Ultra Nationalism

Beyond a point, nationalism does not have any use for any standard scale of universal moral rectitude. For those convinced that humanism informs all moral judgment of humans, the ways of nationalism can often be counter-intuitive. Nowhere was this starker than in the results of the November 8 elections to Myanmar’s bicameral National Assemblies as well as its 14 State Assemblies. The ruling National League for Democracy, NLD, led by de facto head of government, State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate much vilified in the Western world now for her defence of the country’s military action against Rohingyas, returned with a landslide larger than her historic 2015 victory.

NLD now commands absolute majority in the bicameral National Assembly, together known as Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, one of which is Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house) and the other Amyotha Hluttaw (upper house). There are also 14 sub-national Hluttaw corresponding to the country’s seven Ethnic States and seven Regions. By the 2008 constitution, 25 percent seats in all Hluttaws are reserved for the military. NLD’s main opposition, Union Solidarity and Development Party, USDP, together with its 23 allies in the 93-party fray, have been pushed further into the margins from their roughly 10 percent representation won in 2015.

Few ever doubted NLD would emerge on top. However, the cautious popular prepoll forecast was, NLD would be the single largest party and therefore have to necessarily seek alliance partners to form the next government, and that the pound of flesh for such a compromise would be expensive. These predictions are now in history’s dustbin.

What is proven again is, nationalism cannot be read on a conventional moral scale, and is also generally a majoritarian enterprise. When minority populations are given to similar instincts, these are treated as aberrations, settlements to which must remain an inhouse project. Hence, when Suu Kyi formally defended the Myanmar military’s alleged genocidal campaign against the Rohingyas at the International Court of Justice in December 2019, she was treated as a pariah by much of the Western world. However, in her own country, especially amongst the majority Bamar, under a sense of siege from this very same international scrutiny, respect for her only deepened. They see her as a martyr defending what they see as the truth which the international community largely ignored.

Failure to read this is despite an emerging pattern of ultranationalism worldwide, including India. At all these places, conventional morality ended up thrown into the winds not just by right wing political parties but also by large sections of the populations. Indeed, Myanmar Rohingya problem should remind those in India of its own bitter tussle over the Citizenship Amendment Act, CAA, which seeks to cut all routes to citizenship for Muslim migrants from neighbouring countries while at the same time provide a shortcut to citizenship for other migrants from these same countries if they are Hindus or aligned religions.

At The Hague, Suu Kyi also did not once use the term Rohingya and instead by inference pointed to them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, a contention of not just the Bamars but also the Buddhist Rakhines who share the same state as the Rohingyas. Interestingly, amongst the Rakhines have now arisen the Arakan Army, one of the toughest ethnic military challenges to authority of the Myanmar government, pointing to the complex ethnic relations in the country. The sordid drama unfolding in this conflict theatre has demonstrated beyond doubt that the Rakhines and the Bamars, both Buddhists, are averse to the presence of the Muslim Rohingyas in the Rakhine State, but the Rakhines and the Bamars themselves share no cordial relations either.

There can be no dispute that the Rohingyas must be entitled to humanitarian law and given their rightful place in Myanmar. However what needs to also be noted and understood is the claim of the Rakhines and Bamars that the Rohingyas, though many of them have roots in Myanmar, there are newer waves of Bengali speaking migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh constantly crossing the border and merging with the Rohingya population, threatening to demographically transformation the Rakhine State in favour of the Rohingya ultimately. The fact of the fate of Buddhist Chakmas and Marmas, the ethnic cousins of the Rakhines, across the border in the adjacent Chittagong Hill Tracts, CHT, is what the Rakhines fear. The Chakmas and Marmas are now marginalised in their traditional homeland by constant population transfer from mainland Bangladesh. In the Rakhine state, the Rakhines are the majority with a population of about 3 million and the Rohingyas are a minority with about 1.3 million. But in the larger region that includes Bangladesh with a population of 161 million, the Rakhines and indeed the entire Myanmar with a population of about 53 million are minorities. There is therefore the phenomenon of what has been referred to as “majority with minority complex” in this situation too. This is not a justification of the persecution of the Rohingyas, but a call against simply dismissing the reaction of the Rakhines as bigotry, for this is a wrong diagnosis. When the diagnosis is wrong, it is quite obvious that remedial measures will also go wrong. The results of the recent Myanmar election should serve as an alarm for those who wish for a fair and lasting resolution to this bloody conflict.

The November 2020 elections also belied another expectation. The ethnic states were predicted to drift further away from the mainstream, and for the ethnic political parties to consolidate as a block, or blocks, outside of the NLD to become kingmakers. Quite to the contrary, NLD has made inroads into the states as well, and if the NLD wishes, can foist their own governments there too, given also the fact that the 2008 constitution leaves it up to the national government and not the winners in contests in the local arenas to form the state governments. Many however think that this victory by the first-past-the-post system may be deceptive, for though losing out on the number of seats won, support bases of the defeated ethnic parties can still be very large, therefore their alienation can still mean big trouble for the militancy-torn country.

The challenge before Suu Kyi therefore is to acknowledge this and opt for what many peace scholars like John Paul Lederach have called the “Moral Imagination”, which rests on the belief that often a sincere handshake can resolve conflicts better than the best legal treaties or victories. Despite its super majority, the hope among many then is NLD would still strive to partner with ethnic parties and see beyond just the immediate politics of power. Many still believe Aung San Suu Kyi, despite her tarnished image now, is quite capable of such a magnanimous gesture.

But how Myanmar has come to be in the state of chaos it is in today. Although not writing about Myanmar, the jurist A.G. Noorani in his book India-China Boundary Problem may have provided a glimpse into a possible answer in describing the nature of decolonisation of India and Myanmar. In the case of India and Pakistan, it was a transfer of power, and India retained all the existing institutions of governance to maintain a continuity and then transform according to needs. Ireland also agreed to a similar transfer of power, but once its own legislative institution was formed, they overturned all that reminded them of the British administration. In the case of Myanmar, it was simply an end of the paramountcy of the British, leaving the country to begin institution-building from scratch, throwing it into turmoil. Shelby Tucker’s profile of this chaos in Burma: The Curse of Independence is convincing. Apart from radical ethnic unrests and a plummeting economy, the country was also being taken for granted by foreign powers. With CIA patronage, two army divisions of the Chinese nationalist, Koumintang, had even retreated into Myanmar in their fight against Mao’s communist regime. The apprehension of the nation falling apart was so omnipresent that even the 1962 military coup was welcomed by the people, thinking this would be temporary. Power, however, works differently, and those who wield it have seldom relinquished it willingly, and Myanmar’s military regime lasted five decades. Even now, this subliminal anxiety of the nation disintegrating lingers on, and this is noticeable even in the 2008 Constitution which envisages a very centralised polity, with the outlying Ethnic States treated no more than surrogates of the Union Government.

As to what this subliminal national anxiety is, should not be difficult for India to understand. In the chapter on federalism is Fali Nariman indicates this in his well received book The State of the Nation with respect to India. At the time of Independence, India to was uncertain of the shape its unfolding future would take. The trauma of partition was one, but there were 560 Princely States to be brought under one roof, and many of these were either reluctant to join the Union and some were even openly opposing such an integration. Hyderabad, Travancore, Junagadh, Kashmir and Manipur were only some of these. It cannot be a coincidence that the word federalism or federal are conspicuous by their absence in the entire text of this voluminous document. Only Article-1 of the Indian Constitution which says “India, that is Bharat, will be a union of states”, indicates without stating it explicitly that decolonised India will have a federal structure. The second article indicates India at that time was still an incomplete project and can incorporate more territories when it became necessary. It was by this article that the Buddhist, proto Tibetan sovereign monastery state of Sikkim was made a part of India in 1975.

The most telling statement of this anxiety that the nations territorial integrity may come under threat because of rebellious Princely States however is Article-3. If Article-1 indicates India will be a federation, Article-3, Nariman points out, is a rebuttal of Article-1. By its provision, the Centre can, with or without the consent of the States, alter their boundaries, bifurcate them, merge two or more into one, change their names or else abolish any altogether. Although it was not the stated purpose of the constituent assembly Article-3, the underlying meaning of this is clear. This was meant as a warning to the recalcitrant Princely State that they can cease to exist if any of them did not conform to the new norm. In earlier articles and lectures, including at a International Federalism Conference in New Delhi in 2007, and at an India Today annual conclave the following year, Nariman had repeatedly suggested that India now has outgrown these subliminal insecurities therefore some of these articles addressing past insecurities should be done away with so that its federal spirit is not compromised any more. In The State of the Nation however, he has moderated this view considering that the basic features of the Indian Constitution now cannot be changed, he suggests that Article-3 should be archived as a relic to remind India of its past and never to be used again in its original form.

Though the ground realities are widely different, Myanmar’s undercurrents of insecurities are similar and there apparently is a long way before they are put to rest. In the meantime, as democracy begins to set roots on its soil, the country’s struggle continues to be also very much about building credible institutions of governance, trusted by the entire nation. The way ahead quite certainly will not be a garden walk for the NLD despite the super majority it has won again this time.

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