The Burmese Deadlock of Democracy

Ellinor Häggebrink by Ellinor Häggebrink, Engagement Manager at GES

Significant progress has been made in the transition towards democracy and peace in Burma in recent years, with Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy taking office in April 2016 being perhaps the most prominent step. However, the new government inherited challenges, such as an economy ruined by decades of sanctions and a struggle to end ethnic conflicts and human rights abuses.

A year later, it is clear these challenges remain and with regard to the protection of human rights the situation has even regressed. Ethnic minorities are still oppressed in the country, especially the Rohingya. This group has suffered systematic human rights violations for decades and the authorities continue to commit abuses including killings, torture and forced labour. There are more than one million stateless Rohingya in Myanmar whom the authorities deny access to citizenship rights and impose severe restrictions, particularly on freedom of movement[1].

The situation deteriorated significantly in October 2016. Following an attack on three police outposts in the Rakhine state, the Burmese authorities blamed the Rohingya for the incidents. A security operation and a lockdown of the area was initiated, denying access to humanitarian aid groups, independent media and human rights monitors. According to Human Rights Watch, the military committed serious human rights abuses including torture, rape and extrajudicial executions[2]. The UN has also reported that there are around 100,000 Rohingya refugees in the area.

Several UN human rights experts have urged the new government to allow access to the region for humanitarian groups so that they can conduct impartial investigations of the violence. The term genocide has even been used to describe the ongoing situation as the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has expressed concern at the reports of the deteriorating security and human rights in the Rakhine state[3].

Despite this alarming development, in autumn 2016 the EU partly eased sanctions against the country. The US took it one step further and decided to lift all remaining sanctions[4]. This suggests that international pressure on Burma to improve its human rights situation may decrease despite the fact that Burma still has a long way to go before it fully respects human rights, democracy and peace.

The new government needs to clearly demonstrate its commitment to ensuring the human rights of all its citizens and find a solution to the situation of the Rohingya that is compliant with international human rights standards. However, this remains challenging as the government’s ability to act unilaterally is limited due to the country’s constitution which provides the military with a veto on constitutional changes, and further complicated by the fact that the military controls certain key ministerial posts. So far, the government with Aung San Suu Kyi at the front has resisted international pressure to criticise or call for an independent investigation of the violence, putting her status as Nobel Peace Prize winner in a different light.

Another concern is that the large number of Rohingya refugees could be a potential pool of recruits for militant Muslim groups like IS, particularly if seeking asylum in Malaysia or Indonesia from which IS known to actively recruit[5]. If the government’s military crackdown continues, this could drive despairing Rohingya into becoming radicalised with potentially far-reaching consequences, not only for Burma but also on a global level.

Police Checkpoint with Closed-Off Rohingya Area. Photo credits: Adam Jones

[1] http://www.fortifyrights.org/publication-20161012.html

[2] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/21/burma-new-wave-destruction-rohingya-villages

[3]http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/pdf/29%20November%202016_Statement%20AD%20on%20northern%20Rakhine.FINAL.pdf

[4] https://www.ft.com/content/39ca35a2-7acb-11e6-ae24-f193b105145e

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/05/rohingya-plight-making-myanmar-a-target-for-isis-malaysia-warns

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