A FEW MONTHS before the refugee crisis gripped Europe, there was another – in Southeast Asia.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslim asylum seekers denied citizenship in their native Burma were trapped at sea, unable to find harbour in neighbouring countries. For the western media, sickened by the images of starving waifs, there was one key question: Why was Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize laureate – the hope for democracy in Myanmar – staying silent on their treatment?
Even the Economist last month, in proclaiming Myanmar its country of 2015, fretted that “things could still go wrong” as “Myanmar still treats the Rohingya and other minorities disgracefully.”
To attuned observers, the Lady’s silence speaks volumes about the delicate dance she’s had to perform to prise power away from the military. She steered clear of the divisive ethno-religious issues so as not to further divide an electorate already disenfranchised by the military’s automatic hold on 25% of Parliamentary seats.
Finally, after receiving 77% of the vote, Suu Kyi is poised to take control of the government. She has called her role “above president,” mocking the clumsy constitutional ban on anyone with a foreign spouse or child becoming president. And now – at last – it’s time to make her views known: establishing peace with Myanmar’s ethnic minorities will be her single most important goal in government, she said.
Her priority aligns with investors and most observers. Burma, under U.S.-led sanctions for decades, has been fighting dozens of ethnic groups around its perimeter since independence from Britain. While the ethnic struggle in the 1950s was to break away from the Union government in Yangon, these days the regions are on a more reasonable quest for devolution and – crucially – access to deposits of jade, gold, coal and tin under their soil.
Despite a peace deal last October between the military government and about half of the ethnic groups participating in talks, fighting has continued in some states including Rakhine, home to the Rohingya.
So what are the chances of Suu Kyi quashing multiple insurgencies that have eluded the army? Fairly high, according to Yan Lynn, an analyst for Myanmar Investment in Yangon.
Most of the insurgencies are “related to the previous regime’s oppression,” Lynn says on the Emerging Opportunities show on Share Radio. “All of these insurgencies can be stopped with a political settlement. All of them are calling for a federal state.”
With Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy leading the new government, “national reconciliation can be achieved,” says Lynn. “The insurgencies will not be deepened but rather will be stopped.”
There are compelling incentives for all sides. Apart from the mineral wealth, Myanmar’s perimeter is a potential tourist goldmine. One benefit from decades of sanctions is that the country’s cultural identity has been kept intact, from the women and children painting their faces with the yellowy cream thanaka paste to the men wear in their longyi sarongs. The country has a diverse landscape – from the snow-capped Himalayas to lakes and beaches – dotted with ancient temples and monasteries.
More than 3 million tourists flocked to Myanmar in 2014, the latest official data. Neighbouring Thailand “can be compared to Myanmar in terms of beaches and tourist sites,” says Lynn. “However, the number of tourists in Thailand is many, many times that of Myanmar.”
Beyond the hotels, motels and hostels, there’s a huge opportunity in telecommunications and other infrastructure, says Lynn.
One reform even Suu Kyi is unlikely to have the support to do is change the country’s name back to Burma from the military invention of Myanmar, according to Lynn.
“Our generation and people who were born in the eighties and nineties are all familiar with Myanmar,” says Lynn. “They will probably stick with Myanmar.”
14 January 2016.