NEW DELHI: Myanmar dominated world headlines as elections concluded with a victory for Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), securing a transition of power from President Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) -- which is effectively a political extension of the country’s military.
As Myanmar makes a bolder push toward a democratic future, questions relating to inclusiveness, peace and nation building stem from the fact that several of Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups have remained absent from the democratic process. This is for two reasons: one, because many ethnic groups continue to wage a war against the State, because of which inhabitants of these war torn areas were not able to participate in the democratic process; and two, the minority Rohingya community are not allowed by the State to participate, being repeatedly denied basic citizenship rights that form fundamental human rights.
On both these counts, the “what next?” question is increasingly relevant given the transition of power to the NLD. How will the NLD negotiate peace deals with armed rebel groups active in the country? And will the groups that signed President Thein’s nationwide ceasefire in October abide by it?
Although the signing of the nationwide ceasefire on October 15 was an important milestone, only eight of the 15 regional militant groups have signed up for the ceasefire. Further, the eight groups that signed the ceasefire had already entered into some sort of agreement with the government that acted as a framework for the permanent deal.
The deal therefore took into account only eight of the fifteen regional groups, and there are at least a total of 21 armed groups in the country, if not more. Most notably, the Kanchin Independence Army (KIA) -- one of the biggest armed groups -- did not sign the deal.
The KIA, in fact, can serve as an example to elucidate the crisis in Myanmar. The Kachin Independence Movement was started in colonial Burma, with the purpose to address questions of minority representation in the predominantly Bamar country of Burma. The KIA was formed in the 1960s, when Kachin forces withdrew from the Burmese army, organising under the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). The region functioned autonomously till 1994, when a Myanmar offensive seized jade mines from the KIO, culminating in an agreement between the government of Myanmar and the KIA leading to a ceasefire that lasted till June 2011, when government forces violated it.
In the three years since the resumption of fighting, thousands have died and been displaced, with reports of torture, child soldiers and systematic rape emerging from the ground. A report released last year by the Bangkok-based Fortify Rights group has alleged that the Myanmar military “systematically” tortures civilians in the conflict-ridden Kachin state. The Fortify Rights group’s report details the victims being stabbed, beaten and having wire tied around their necks, hands and feet. It alleges that many victims were told to dig their own graves, whilst others were forced to lick their own blood off the ground following severe beatings. "We've documented such consistent practices across many different areas that would indicate that it is certainly a systematic practice and a widespread practice,” the report notes.
The report further comments on the ethnic dimensions of the conflict, with victims’ ethnicity and Christian faith being highlighted. "You are Kachin, and we will kill all the Kachin," one victim claimed to have been told.
Another notable group absent from the deal is the United Wa State Army (UWSA), an armed group that is fighting for the Wa people.
The question remains -- how will the NLD negotiate the framework for talks with the country’s most active ethnic rebel groups? The answer remains to be seen.
The second narrative on inclusiveness, democratic participation, and nation and peacebuilding, is centred on the question of the Rohingya Muslim -- a minority group in Myanmar whom the UN describes as the most persecuted minority in the world.
Aung Saan Suu Kyi, for her reputation as the country’s democratic rights champion, has remained silent on the Rohingya -- careful not to anger Myanmar’s powerful Buddhist lobby. Since the results, Suu Kyi’s party has spoken about the Rohingya, albeit only to say that helping the persecuted community is not a priority for the soon to be government. U Win Htein, a spokesman and leading figure in Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), said, “We have other priorities,” he said. “Peace, the peaceful transition of power, economic development and constitutional reform.” “We’ll deal with the matter based on law and order and human rights, but we have to deal with the Bangladesh government because almost all of them came from there,” he said.
In fact, this continuation of denying the Rohingya the right to a nationality makes direct violence against the Rohingyas far more possible and likely than it would be otherwise. The system’s context lies in the 1982 Citizenship Act, which supersedes all citizenship regimes in Myanmar. The Act created three classes of citizens - full, associate, and naturalised. Full citizenship is reserved for those whose ancestors settled in Myanmar before the year 1823 or who are members of one of Myanmar’s 135 recognized national ethnic groups - which, according to the recent census, continues to exclude the Rohingya. Associate citizenship applies to those who have been conferred citizenship under a previous 1948 law, which requires an awareness of the law and a level of proof that few Rohingyas possess. Naturalised citizenship is applicable to those who have resided in Myanmar on or before 1948, and here too, the Rohingya are denied citizenship as the government of Myanmar retains the discretion to deny citizenship even when criteria are adequately met.
It is under the legal system and the denial of recognition that the Rohingya continue to remain a stateless people. Myanmar, which as a member nation of the UN is obligated to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction,” fails to do so for the Rohingyas who are subjected to policies and practises that constitute violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms. They face restrictions on movement, forced labour, land confiscation, forced evictions, extortions and arbitrary taxations, restrictions on marriage, employment, healthcare and education.
There is an element of political opportunism in reference to the Rohingya in Myanmar. In 1990, Rohingya were permitted to form political parties and vote in multiparty elections. Myanmar even accepted about 250,000 repatriated Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in 1992 and 1994 issuing Temporary Resident Cards to some. Rohingyas were permitted to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 elections. In fact, in the 2010 elections the voting rights were tied to the promise of citizenship if the Rohingya voted for the military regime’s representatives. However, Rohingyas are yet to be included as a part of any reconciliation programme involving ethnic groups, with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, in the wake of the 2012 violence, stating that the Rohingya could not and would not be accepted as citizens or residents of Myanmar, going as far as to asking the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to consider placing the Rohingya in camps outside of the country and resettling them to others. While it is true that Thein Sein and other Myanmar officials have had to moderate their position since due to external international pressure, Myanmar continues to violate UN convention by rendering the Rohingya stateless. A relevant convention is the Convention of the Reduction of Statelessness which obligates states to prevent, reduce, and avoid statelessness by granting “its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless.” The Myanmar government is in clear violation of this convention, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya having been displaced in the last 25 years.
It is this system that has perpetuated violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar, with violent clashes between the country’s majority Buddhist population and the Rohingyas leading to deaths and displacement of the minority muslim community in 2012, 2009, 2001, 1978 and 1992, amongst other instances. In the most recent case of widespread violence in 2012, hundred of Rohingya villages and settlements were destroyed, tens of thousands of homes razed, and at least 115,000 Rohingyas displaced in camps in Myanmar, across the Bangladesh border, or further afield on boats.
The UN has termed the Rohingyas one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, a condition aggravated by the role of countries such as Bangladesh and Thailand that have turned back genuine refugees, with Thailand’s military being accused in 2009-10 of towing hundreds of Rohingya out to sea in poorly equipped boats and scant food and water after they tried to flee Myanmar. Although Thailand “categorically denies” the charge, the accusations have some merit as about 650 Rohingya were rescued off India and Indonesia, some saying that they had been beaten by Thai soldiers.
It is under these circumstance that rights groups have alleged that the Myanmar government is supporting a policy of “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, with William Schabas, a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars saying that “the Rohingya are the prima facie victims of the crime against humanity of persecution,” consisting of “the severe deprivation of fundamental rights on discriminatory grounds.”
It is a combination of the actions of the Rakhine Buddhist majority and the inaction of the Myanmar government, within the context of a legal system that ratifies, condones, and perpetuates the systematic discrimination of the Rohingya in Myanmar. And there is no one speaking up for them.
While the narrative of negotiations with armed ethnic groups is a question mark, the future of the Rohingya Muslim is a known certainty: nothing is going to change.