The plight of millions of Muslims throughout Myanmar, not only those suffering the worst human-rights abuses in Rakhine State, may never have been greater than after the murder on Sunday of a prominent pro-democracy lawyer at Yangon International Airport.
On January 29, U Ko Ni, a respected 65-year-old legal adviser of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, was shot dead after returning from a fact-finding trip to Indonesia.
A long-time activist, former detainee and constitutional specialist, Ko Ni was instrumental in crafting Aung San Suu Kyi’s current position as state counsellor and de facto leader of Myanmar. He had also been a staunch advocate for overhauling Myanmar’s much-derided 2008 Constitution – setting himself against more conservative forces, especially the military.
As thousands attended his funeral in the North Okkalapa Township, observers pondered whether the contract-style killing by a lone gunman was inspired by his work with NLD or because of his Muslim identity.
Certainly, the killing could not have come at a worse time for Myanmar. The treatment of the Rohingya people in Rakhine State is drawing global condemnation. This unprecedented assassination could destroy what little intra-religious trust remains between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, increasingly one of Southeast Asia’s most intractable religious fault lines.
U Tin Win, a 71-year-old driver, still speaks with great pride about his home country, even though he has been a witness to Myanmar’s growing divisiveness for decades. He was born in Mandalay but has long been settled in Yangon with his wife, his eight children and 18 grandchildren. His Indian-Muslim father worked on the railways and his Burmese mother died when he was still an infant. Tin Win (his Muslim name is Mohamad Esa) grew up speaking only Burmese and was desperately unhappy when he was briefly enrolled in an English-language school.
He grew up fascinated with lorries – driving them became his livelihood after serving four years in the army as a radio-operator in Chin State. As he tells it, his grandmother showed up at his base driving a lorry to take him back home.
“Back then, joining up and leaving the army was much more straightforward,” he said with a smile.
He relished the freedom of being on the road, and criss-crossed the country for 35 years visiting every state in the union, save Kachin to the far north.
Adventures were not scarce: “After [Prime Minister] Ne Win took over in 1962, things became much more difficult for everyone. I remember this one time when I had to cross the border into Imphal [India] on foot. I had onions, potatoes and garlic which I exchanged for clothes and spices. Returning was a headache. There were lots of checkpoints and bribes to be paid. I vowed never to do it again.”
Leaning over a large map spread out before him, he pointed out the various towns and provinces he had driven through over the years, reciting their names one by one: Monywa, Sittwe, Dawei, Mawlmyine, Lashio and Taunggyi. Tin Win spoke with intense pride about his country: “There have been Muslims in Burma for centuries. We served the kings and we were accepted as citizens.”
But there is also a deep sadness about him as the realities of present-day Myanmar come screeching back into plain sight.
“I feel so sorry for the Rohingya ... but there are some differences between us. While many speak Burmese, others can’t. Some have also definitely come from Bangladesh.”
Even the size of the Muslim Burmese community is hotly disputed. Government sources state that they make up no more than four per cent of the population, while independent non-governmental organisations have claimed this figure is closer to 12 per cent.
Discrimination is now institutionalised, and Muslims have found dealing with the government much more difficult. Tin Win, for instance, has run into difficulties securing identity cards for his many grandchildren. Without a card, it’s almost impossible to open a bank account, secure travel documents or buy property. Yet his opinion of “The Lady” – Suu Kyi – remains undaunted. “I am a supporter,” he said.
This may surprise her many detractors around the globe. But perhaps it is understandable given the community’s vulnerability, not to mention the fundamental weaknesses of the NLD government in its dealings with the military.
For Tin Win, the possibility that his beloved country may turn on him and indeed his family is too horrible and depressing to comprehend. For his sake and the country’s, Myanmar’s dangerous descent into sectarianism must be arrested.
The death of Ko Ni, something Tin Win insisted was political and not religiously motivated, is a tragedy. However, it is important that the broader lessons from Indonesia – the need for political reform, cultural diversity, civilian control over the military and decentralisation – are not lost on Myanmar’s leaders.
At the same time, it’s imperative that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations acknowledges the scale of the challenges facing Myanmar with its fledgling democracy and impoverished people. While the bloodshed in Rakhine must be curbed, efforts must also be made to protect the millions of Muslims living across Myanmar. They could well become hostages to the Rohingya issue if cooler heads do not prevail.