Barter in Myanmar

Barter in Myanmar

By Jamil Maidan Flores

 on 9:55 am January 13, 2014.
Aung San Suu Kyi may become president of Myanmar after all. It’s still a struggle, but in recent days the odds have improved in her favor. The national clamor has gotten louder that the constitutional provision strongly barring her from seeking the presidency be abrogated.That provision bans citizens with close family members “who owe allegiance to a foreign power” from running for president. The military authorities who once fettered the country wrote that provision with her in mind: her two sons are British citizens. Today the people of Myanmar would have none of it.

A few days ago, no less than Myanmar President Thein Sein voiced support for that proposed change in the constitution. So Suu Kyi’s chances of becoming president have gotten much better.

But there’s a question more important than whether she becomes president. What kind of leader has she become?

Dr. Dewi Fortuna Anwar, one of Indonesia’s most respected foreign policy thinkers, minces no words when she answers that question. “I’m really disappointed,” she says. “She has proven herself to be the leader of the Burmans and not the whole of Myanmar. And she has proven herself to be a politician and nothing like her role model, Gandhi.”

Dewi’s dismay runs deep. “I admired her very, very much,” she says, “but once she entered the system, she gave no thought about the rights of a minority group.” The Rohingya, of course.

“She is less than Abdurrahman Wahid when it comes to moral courage. Gus Dur had the courage to speak against the persecution of religious minorities in Indonesia.

“President Thein Sein is showing greater moral courage than she does. He has faced the [Rohingya] issue and has proven that he cares more about the Rohingya problem,” Dewi concludes.

In August 2012, Thein Sein was quoted as saying: “We have the citizenship legislation of 1982, which, as far as I know, gave protection to those who are living here. Roughly, as I know, these people were brought in for farming, then they stayed here. … The 1982 legislation already stated that it recognizes third-generation Rohingya — Bengali — as citizens, those who are grandchildren of those who migrated.” He’s got some of his facts wrong, but his heart is in the right place.

On the other hand, it’s clear that Suu Kyi has bartered her claim to the mantle of her role models — Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela — for a chancy bid to become president. It’s a barter as unwise as that allegedly made by Esau (Al-Eis) in the biblical story. Exhausted from the hunt and hungry, Al-Eis foolishly exchanged his birthright for a bowl of stew.

The Myanmar presidency is but a bowl of stew compared to the reverence of all humankind forever, which should have been her birthright.

However, for now, most of us remain soft on her. I myself cling to the hope that if and when she becomes president, her position on the Rohingya will evolve into one that’s truthful and just. I hope this will happen before the Myanmar majority exterminates the Rohingya to the last helpless child.

Meanwhile, her behavior today bares this anomaly of the human condition: that the greatest tragedy is not that we are defeated by the evil we hate. The greatest tragedy is that, sometimes, we seem to emerge victorious from the struggle, but after a while, without realizing it, we have become the thing we hate.

By denying the ruthless persecution of the Rohingya, by criticizing Thein Sein for suspending a hated hydroelectric dam project that will devastate the environment, and by supporting a mining venture that threatens havoc on whole villages, she has become the thing she once fought against.

Isn’t that utterly heartbreaking?

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. He is also an English-language consultant for the Indonesian government. The views expressed here are his own.

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