Suu Kyi’s Attendance ‘Unsure’ at Planned Sittwe Reform Rally

By Simon Roughneen 3 June 2014

RANGOON — Aung San Suu Kyi’s constitutional reform roadshow is due to hit Sittwe sometime over the coming weeks, but it is not yet confirmed whether the opposition leader will speak in the troubled Arakan State capital.

“It is not sure yet whether The Lady will travel,” said Kyi Toe, a senior member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), referring to Suu Kyi by her popular nickname.

“We are still in planning,” Kyi Toe told The Irrawaddy on Monday. With Suu Kyi, an MP, currently attending the recently reconvened Parliament in Naypyidaw, June 28 and July 12 dates have been proposed for the event.

Burma’s biggest opposition party, the NLD, along with the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, a group of prominent former student dissidents, are jointly campaigning to have Burma’s 2008 Constitution amended, saying the charter gives Burma’s military too much say in politics.

Sittwe is the regional capital of Arakan State in western Burma and, until mid-2012, was a mixed town, with Arakanese Buddhists and Muslims living and working in close proximity. Riots in June 2012 saw most of the towns Rohingya Muslims expelled into grim ghettoes at the town’s edge, where they now live in shacks and depend on aid delivered by the United Nations and other relief organizations.

Most of those displaced and living in camps outside Sittwe and elsewhere in Arakan State are Rohingya Muslims, a group thought to number anywhere from 800,000 to 1 million people. Suu Kyi, a former Nobel peace laureate and for a time the world’s best-known prisoner of conscience, has been criticized internationally for failing to speak up for the Rohingya, who live under discriminatory laws and are labeled “Bengali,” or foreigners, by the region’s ethnic Arakanese and most Burmese politicians.

Despite this reticence, Suu Kyi is seemingly unpopular among the Arakanese, who perceive the opposition leader as aligned with Western criticisms of how Rohingya are treated in Burma.

During a recent interview in Sittwe, Thein Khine, a member of the recently formed Arakan National Party (ANP), slammed Suu Kyi for what he described as “seeking equally treatment between Buddhist and Muslim.”

“We don’t want this,” Thein Khine said, linking the NLD’s perceived stance on Arakan State as similar to that of foreign aid organizations, which were attacked en masse by Arakanese mobs in March after being accused of favoring Rohingya in their provision of humanitarian aid. UN figures show that all but 5,000 of the almost 140,000 people left homeless by violence in Arakan State since 2012 are Rohingya.

Asked if Suu Kyi would receive a warm welcome in Sittwe, should she travel there to speak at the reform event, Aye Maung, the former leader of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), now merged into the ANP, said “I don’t know.”

The RNDP made submissions to have the Constitution amended, including Article 436, Aye Maung said, telling The Irrawaddy that at the moment there are no plans for the ANP to take part in the proposed NLD/88 Generation event in Sittwe. It would follow recent rallies attended by tens of thousands of people in Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw.

But for Rohingya like Myo Win, the proposed constitutional reform rally will be a reminder of their second-class status.

“Even if the Constitution is changed, it might not give us any hope,” said Myo Win, speaking by telephone from Aung Mingalar, a Muslim district of Sittwe that has been cordoned off by police. “We will not able to attend the event, and I don’t think we will be able to sign any petition for change.”

While Article 59(f) currently bars Suu Kyi from becoming president even if her NLD wins elections scheduled for late 2015, the reform campaign has of late focused on Article 436, which outlines the tricky process by which constitutional changes can take place.

A committee of MPs set up to examine reform has said it will recommend revising Article 436. To pass, the amendment will require at least 75 percent of MPs to back it—as laid out in Article 436—meaning at least one “yes” vote from the 25 percent bloc of unelected soldiers in Parliament will be needed for a change that would likely reduce the military’s political role.