First fighting for peace and later allowing deadly violence? Where is Democracy in Myanmar? A study of the strings between Aung San Suu Kyi’s governmental party and Buddhism

Image by Claude Truong-Ngoc by Wikimedia Commons

Aung San Suu Kyi, who got known for fighting for peace and democracy in 1988, is State Counsellor and head of the first democratically elected party in Myanmar. However, her reputation is tarnished. Did she change sides? And what is it about her governmental party, the National League for Democracy (NLD)?

Hanna Laird’s up to date research discusses these topics focusing onthe role of religion for the governmental party (NLD)in transitional Myanmar.What is the NLDs official stance on religion? And how does religion impact the NLD`s policy choices?

The findings of Laird’s dissertation are the result of qualitative research among a group of party members within the NLD, who were interviewed about their views on the official and the unofficial role played by Buddhism in the politics of the party.

Buddhism in the front seat

Even though the NLD rejects to position itself as far as religions concernedin their official layout, it comes off as fairly easy to detect their favoritism of Buddhism in the practical life of the party. One of the examples of such favoritism found one of its most explicit forms in the build up to the 2015 general elections. Though they voted against the racial and discrimination laws proposed in the parliament, which was in line with their “official” stand on “freedom of religion” they decided to withdraw all of the Muslim candidates from the election lists. Seen in relation with the NLDs close ties to the Buddhist cloisters (the Sangha) this decision comes off as highly suspicious. This leads up to the second hypothesis of Hanna Laird,namely that: The NLDs official understanding of the term “freedom of religion” and “non-discrimination” is at odds withthe party`s practical politics in relation to Myanmar’s minority religions. In other words, their official self-presentation differs remarkably from their actual politics.

The NLD, a party without any clear politics on religion

After a thorough examination of all available written documents and materials, it was not possible for Laird todetect any official stand on religion by NLDin Myanmar. Even though any such documents in principle could exist from the time prior to the democratization process of 2011, the lack of a substantial and coherent vision of the party`s stand on religion by the informants in the in-depth interviews seem to suggestthat even if such documents in fact exist, they play little or no partin the way in which the NLDconceptualize itself regardingreligion.

The informants tended in large fashion to refer to the party`s take on politics of religion in terms like “secular”, “neutral” and “freedom of religion”. These kindsof answers seem to indicate that the religious-political discourse of the party is mainly concerned with overreaching concepts like liberalism in some sense, which in turn leaves a rather ambiguous perspective on religion altogether. This ambiguity in turn opens for a moresubjectivisticinterpretation of what constitutes as liberalism at a more conceptual level. Thus, the party leaves a considerable room for leniency as to how to incorporate its “liberalism”.

Sometimes, and sometimes not. The NLDs pragmatic relationship with religion

The third,and final hypothesis of Hanna Laird suggests that the NLD employs a rather pragmatic strategy in the face of religion. This pragmatism has been displayed in numerous occasions, but one of the main areas in which it comes to show is in the face of Buddhist criticism of the party`s failure to protect the Buddhismof Myanmar.The weight of such allegations can hardly be overemphasized in a country where the vast majority of the population holds great affection to Buddhism in particular. Faced with the predicament of either confirming its own official standpoint of “freedom of religion” and “liberalism” or pleasing the majority demands, the party most often tend to choose the latter. This move is common as a strategical move,to gain (or keep) their popularity in the broader circles of the population. The NLD sees itself as dependent on the Buddhist votes in order to keep pushing for democratic reforms in Myanmar, and rightly so.In the face of either protectingMyanmar`s religious minorities or to keep the favor of the majority, The NLD tends to fall back on the latter. Whether or not the NLD actually holds agenuine affection in relation with the Buddhist nationalists remains an open question.

What does that mean?

As is clear from the paper of Hanna Laird, the fragility of the Burmese democracy makesa very powerful impact on the politics of the NLD. The fact that the military regime, and its totalitarianism lurks in every corner and at every turn influences the polity choices of the Government to a large extent. Therefore,when it comes to politics the NLD seems to be weighting the value of some sort of transitional democracy over what they consider matters of “lesser importance”. Unfortunately, this places minorities such as the Muslim Rohingya`s very much in harms way. Pragmatism and a limited democracy are simply being valued over the wellbeing of “others “.

Written by: Andreas, Magnhild and Lea

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