SPECIAL REPORT

New government faces complex challenges dealing with minorities and military

The rights of minorities, such as Muslims who wish for freedom of worship, will be an issue the NLD government has to take into account.
The rights of minorities, such as Muslims who wish for freedom of worship, will be an issue the NLD government has to take into account.PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON • It was the day after the terrorist attacks in Paris, and the middle-aged Muslim man selling rubber stamps in downtown Yangon didn't want his picture taken.

He shook his head. "As Muslims, we face a lot of harassment. Whatever happens with Muslims in other parts of the world has nothing to do with Muslims here, but we have a feeling of insecurity.''

He ticked off his wish list for the National League for Democracy (NLD) government: "First, human rights. Then, freedom of worship. And elimination of poverty and better status in the international community.''

There are no Muslim MPs in Parliament. Observers and analysts have said the Nov 8 election was not as inclusive as it should have been. Hundreds of thousands of minority Muslims self-identifying as Rohingya, for example, were disenfranchised and are effectively stateless.

But even in areas where the voting was inclusive, with the exception of Rakhine state, it led to a rout of almost all ethnic minority parties. Building bridges with ethnic minorities will be a key challenge for the Bamar, or Burman-dominated NLD.

NLD co-founder and patron, U Tin Oo, told The Straits Times: "We won in most of the ethnic areas. But, you know, they do not trust the (Bamar) majority. At the same time, they desire to cooperate. So we have to collaborate with them.

"We have given our promise that if we are in power, this country will be a democratic federal state, a federal system."

Apart from the challenges of poverty, development, natural resource use and infrastructure, at a deeper level, the running sore of the Rohingya issue and accommodating the interests of ethnic minorities are two of the most complex challenges the NLD has to deal with.

The party also needs to build a working relationship with the military. A potential deal-breaker may be the NLD's insistence on changes to the Constitution to roll back the powers of the military, which has a guaranteed 25 per cent seat allocation in Parliament and controls three key ministries. In private meetings with advisers, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi is known to have remarked: "I need to break the ice with the military."

But she can be imperious, and may have to act against her instincts, said one Yangon-based Myanmar analyst who asked not to be named. "The military is starting from a position of wariness and antagonism. This is going to be a test of her statesmanship," he said.

Nirmal Ghosh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'New government faces complex challenges dealing with minorities and military'. Print Edition | Subscribe