Political siblings beyond bordersHuman rights advocacy and supremacist jingoism do not go together.
The fall from grace of Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been fast, furious and harsh. Repeatedly held under house arrest for nearly two decades, she was once celebrated as one of the most famous political prisoners in the world. Feted as an icon of peace, democracy and human rights, she strode into the parliament with ease in 2012 through military-controlled elections.
Suu Kyi soon agreed to share power with the junta that had run Myanmar as a vast prison for nearly half a century and had kept her under detention throughout her political career. She failed to flinch from fear or anxiety when the commander-in-chief, U Min Aung Hlaing asserted that the military would maintain its 'leading political role'.
The Nobel Laureate, the winner of Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and a global icon of democracy, Suu Kyi floundered in persuading even her own party stalwarts—let alone the military brass—that patronising the ‘Buddhist Bin Laden’ and self-described ‘James Bond’ Wirathu was suicidal for the ethnic harmony at home and the image of the country abroad. The hate-mongering monk was partly responsible for inciting violence against Rohingyas.
The final fall came when the discredited human rights champion stood up at Hague to defend the indefensible—the genocidal ethnic cleansing of the most prosecuted minority in the world. Militant monks have since come out in support of the military coup and subsequent detention of the fallen idol of democracy on frivolous, if not downright fraudulent, charges.
The Burmese youth have begun to protest against the suspension of limited democracy and detention of its mascot Suu Kyi, but critics are also asking where they were when the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas had created the largest refugee crisis in South Asia since the partition of British India.
The problem of peace and democracy in Myanmar lies in the way it's national identity is conceived by the dominant Bamar population, which is based on taingyintha or 'national races' theory that underpins it's three layers of citizenship. There is little difference between NLD politicos and the Tatmadaw brass on the fundamentals of state racism.
Confirming James Madison's worst fears— 'Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob'—from The Federalist Papers, Prof Michael Mann writes, ‘Modern ethnic cleansing is the dark side of democracy when ethno-nationalist movements claim the state for their own ethnos, which they intend to constitute as democracy, but then they seek to exclude and cleanse others.’
While ethnic cleansing is an extremity reserved for the 'othered' section of the population, the exclusion of minorities by the majoritarian establishments espousing democracy is common in South Asia. Religious minorities such as Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Shias and Ahmadis in Pakistan or the despised Madhesis of all religious faiths in Nepal have routinely been discriminated against irrespective of the nature of the regime.
Beautiful landscapes sometimes hide harsh realities. Even though indirectly controlled by the British through their proxies, Afghanistan was never colonised; yet, its people have endured tremendous hardships. Kashmir has rightly been described as 'heaven on earth' but is better known as the most militarized place in the world. Some of the largest rivers that feed the majority of the Asian population originate in Tibet, but the 'Third Pole' continues to be drained of its resources.
Back in 2013, flying into Myanmar from Thailand was a startling experience. The view from the window in the late-evening was revealing—the Burmese side of the international border was enveloped in darkness while the Thai landscape glowed a luminescent bright.
Unlike well-kept Thai forests that appear more like woods, Burmese jungles still retained the tropical feel even after being denuded of its hardwood for centuries. Urbanites of Rangoon above 70 spoke optimistically in quaint English reminiscent of the Raj and the younger generation appeared expectant. At a conclave of political party leaders and media-persons in early-2013, the ambience resembled that of Kathmandu of 1990-91: full of hope and a sense that things could only get better.
In a meeting organised to discuss ways of strengthening democracy, the erect posture and defiant attitude of some participants struck a discordant note. When requested to share their experiences and expectations, several speakers looked sideways before speaking up in a controlled manner. Spontaneity was absent from deliberations.
A very senior and erudite politician of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) era who claimed to have known several Nepali Congress leaders of the 1950s explained during the lunch break that at least a third of the participants were either retired or serving members of the Tatmadaw and Suu Kyi's 'deal with the devil' was responsible for the 'controlled democracy'. Perhaps it was fated to end the way it did, through a bloodless coup.
After another deliberation later the same year with activists of non-governmental organisations and media-persons, it became abundantly clear that the Tatmadaw was confident in its belief that Bamar supremacists in politics will be their effective tool of dominating Burmese society and polity.
By late-2015, cadres of the NLD had begun to identify themselves with their earlier tormentors in the establishment. In a closed interaction with representatives of several insurgent groups that had gathered at a secluded spot to listen to international experiences of conflict resolution, it was evident that the so-called Panglong promise of building a multi-national polity was slipping away under Suu Kyi's watch.
A conference to discuss issues of inclusion in 2019 made it clear that the Burmese democracy was determined to be majoritarian. Somewhat like the multi-donor funded and glossily produced inclusion study of Nepal in 2006 that had forgotten to mention the word Madhes in its report, the term Rohingya wasn't pronounced even once during the three-day conclave. Political parties had made Rohingyas an unmentionable group of 'non-people'.
Similar to the hierarchy of belongingness in Burma that constitutionally 'others' non-Bamars, Nepal has institutionalised at least four categories of citizenship in Nepal in the order of ease of obtaining a citizenship certificate—descent, birth, naturalised and honorary. Designed to protect and promote the hegemony of the Khas-Arya male, such patently discriminatory laws and their prejudiced practice continue to enjoy widespread democratic support across the political divide.
The Hindutva supremacists of India are determined to make the largest democracy of the world into a farcical one—'an elected autocracy'—and have come up with a slew of ludicrous citizenship and 'love jihad' laws. Sri Lanka's citizenship laws are meant to maintain Sinhala hegemony. The Khas-Arya supremacists in Nepal have succeeded in establishing their primacy through a controversial constitution.
Colonial powers drew random boundaries around countries that had never existed in the past and where people lacked a shared sense of culture, history and beliefs. They are multi-national states in the making with dormant or active antagonism between dominant and subservient ethnicities.
Krishna Pahadi and his band of human rights activists did the right thing by demonstrating outside the Burmese embassy in Kathmandu on March 15, 2021, against the brutal suppression of anti-coup protestors. One just wonders where had they all gone when Madhesis were being shot at random in 2015 for disagreeing with a divisive constitution. Human rights advocacy, xenophobic nationalism and supremacist jingoism don't go together.