By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Called Swarnabhoomi or the Golden Land, Myanmar was traditionally famous for its bountiful rice harvests and gems. Later, in modern times, it became known for its mineral wealth too.
But come independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar found itself unable to define itself satisfactorily, with the various ethnic groups resenting the dominance of the majority community – the Bamars. Politically and economically, people were unable to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and live up to the expectation of the rest of the world.
The country slid into military rule in 1962 and it was only in 2008 that a watered down democracy was ushered in. But the country is still struggling to find a solution to its ethnic problems. Buddhist religious fanaticism threatens to destroy national unity. Civilian politicians are struggling to establish a system where the armed forces will be under civilian control and not the other way round, as is the case now.
The unwillingness to recognize the Rohingya Muslims as Myanmarese led to violence in Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh. Periodic military crackdowns led to the exodus of about one million Rohingyas to Bangladesh. The Rohingyas are now coming back, not as law abiding people, but as drug smugglers.
Meanwhile, the Arakanese are fighting for autonomy. Only recently, a 12-hour battle between the Tatmadaw ( the Myanmar military) and the Arakan Army (AA) at Paletwa township resulted in the death of ten soldiers. On the same day, another clash on a mountain between Maung Hnama and Nga Tat resulted in the death of 20 more soldiers.
According to civil society groups, more than 30 civilians have been killed, 70 injured and more than 40,000 people displaced by the clashes.
Radical Buddhist Monk
Meanehile, the radical Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, has been stirring trouble on the political front for the Aung San Suu Kyi government by opposing Suu Kyi’s bid to change the military crafted 2008 constitution in order to reduce the powers of the military and increase those of civilians.
Earlier, Wirathu was in the forefront of the anti-Muslim, anti-Rohingya struggle. He was internationally derided as the “bin Laden of the Buddhists”.
Wirathu is for army domination of the government because he believes that only the army can safeguard the Buddhist character of the country; keep the various non-Bamar ethnic groups in check; prevent foreign powers from interfering; and keep foreign cultural influences at bay. Going overborad, he has used filthy language to describe Aung San Suu Kyi as an agent of the West and Westernization.
The Aung San Suu Kyi government issued an arrest warrant against Wirathu for alleged sedition. However, even if arrested, the punishment is expected to be light. This is so for two reasons: (1) he is close to the military, which is the dominant player in Myanmar’s politics. (2) he and his nationalist organization, the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, popularly known by its Burmese acronym “Ma Ba Tha”, are voices of the majority Buddhist community in Myanmar.
Many strongly disapprove of Wirathu’s hate speeches against other religious groups, especially the Rohingya Muslims. But at the same time, they feel that he and Ma Ba Tha are needed to protect the “Buddhist character” of Myanmar against Westernization, secularism and liberalism.
Though Myanmar has an elected government, and its head is a civilian (Aung San Suu Kyi), the military, collectively called “Tatmadaw”, enjoys a superior and entrenched position in the country’s constitution introduced in 2008.
But Suu Kyi is now trying to modify the constitution through a number of amendments. On February 19, parliament approved the formation of a 45-member committee to draft a bill to amend the constitution. The committee is to submit the constitutional amendment bill to Parliament by July 17.
In the committee, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has been allocated 18 MPs while there will be eight military MPs and two each from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the Arakan National Party and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) alongside others from other ethnic parties.
There is a move to amend Art 59 (f) of the constitution which bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming President of the country as she had married a foreigner, and also because her sons are British nationals.
The nationalists and the military are against the amendment of Art 361 which gives a special position to Buddhism as the “faith of the great majority of citizens.”
Brig. Gen. Than Soe, a military MP (a Tatmadaw representative in parliament) said that the Tatmadaw will oppose changes to the “essence” of the constitution. Maj. Gen. Tun Tun Nyi said the make-up of the committee is not fair. Army chief, Aung Hlaing, told Ashahi Shimbun that he is for constitutional amendments but insisted that “no amendment should harm its essence.”
The military-drafted 2008 constitution reserves 25% of seats in parliament for the military and gives them control of the key portfolios of home affairs, defense and border security. Military MPs also have the power to veto any proposed charter changes, especially provisions that would curb their political power.
On February 23, hundreds of nationalists took to the streets in Yangon to protest against amending the constitution. Wirathu took part in the rally. On May 6, Wirathu told a rally in Yangon that the military MPs ought to be worshipped as the Buddha is worshipped.
“They (the military MPs) don’t get the salaries of lawmakers but only the soldiers’ salaries. They should be worshipped for protecting the country despite their poor salaries. But today you loathe them as enemies. This is not the time to amend the constitution,” the firebrand monk said.
Turning the heat on Aung San Suu Kyi in a speech on April 5, Wirathu said: “She only knows how to put on makeup and walk in high heels.What’s more, she likes to shake her ass when she sees foreigners. I don’t see why people want to elect someone who is lecherous as the President. We will be doomed to become the one that General Aung San predicted.”
Wirahu’s reference was to Gen.Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father and freedom fighter. Gen.Aung San had warned that Myanmar would have to earn from prostitution if the people did not work hard.
“The General risked his life for independence because he didn’t know about his daughter,” Wirathu added.
Ma Ba Tha and its leaders, may be despicable in many respects, but they enjoy considerable public support. But others dispute this assessment saying that Ma Ba Tha and Wirathu use intimidation to secure “compliance” which is not the same thing as “support.”
Governments, both military and civil, have made considerable efforts to curtail Ma Ba Tha and have pushed the top Buddhist authority or the Sangha to curb and control it. Yet these efforts have been largely ineffective. Efforts at control have only led to an increase in the popularity of the Ma Ba Tha.
It is also to be noted that efforts to curb the Ma Ba Tha have been half-hearted. This is because from time to time, governments have needed the MA Ba Tha to achieve their political aims.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party do have support. But there is also a widespread nationalist perception that the leader and her party have a Western liberal outlook that gives greater weight to the minorities at the cost of the Buddhist majority.
(The featured image at the top is that of the firebrand Buddhist monk U.Ashin Wirathu)