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Democracy in Myanmar and the Plight of the Rohingyas

By Prof. Anna Malindog
December 24, 2014

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die” 
-Nelson Mandela-

“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”
-Nelson Mandela-

Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, lying strategically between India, China, Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand. In the 19th century, the British took over Burma and formed a single entity under the Indian colonial administration. The Japanese occupied Burma during the 2nd World War but were driven out by the British Empire Forces as the war drew to an end. In view of the strong Burmese nationalism headed by Aung San (Burmese National Hero), British granted Burma independence in 1948. Burma after independence faced communist insurgencies. The government afterwards found itself facing an increasing number of armed ethnic based conflict resistance groups all over the country most of which were seeking their own independence even until this very day.

In 1962, General Ne Win, the head of the Burmese Army, - the “Tatmadaw” overthrew the civilian government and established a military rule. Since then the military junta became the de-facto government of Myanmar. This led to many insurgencies, human rights abuses and atrocities, economic crisis, massive street demonstrations and rallies which killed thousands of people. Many also fled to areas controlled by ethnic and communist armed groups to form their own political rebel groups. 

Then came November 2010, when the first ever general election in Myanmar happened after more than two decades, or to be more precise, after 22 years since the last general election in 1990. Then March 2011 happened when the ruling military government that ruled Myanmar for almost five decades since 1962 was not only dismantled, but more importantly, the generals in Yangon relinquished power to the newly elected and formed “civilian government” headed by President Thein Sein. Undeniably, these two historic political events marked Myanmar’s transition towards democracy and democratization. These events also generated mixed and varied emotions and thoughts among the different stakeholders of Myanmar. For some people, what is currently happening in Myanmar is quite bizarre. Others are simply happy about the prospects of democracy taking a foothold in the country. Others are very skeptical and cynical. But there are also some who are hopeful that, indeed, this path, this transition towards democracy will continue and will persist until Myanmar becomes fully democratic. 

Moreover, cynicism and skepticisms among many observers loom around this new political trajectory that Myanmar is pursuing. For one, the military is still and remains still the “arbiter of power” in the country. The military occupies and governs still all the important state institutions created after the November 2010 Elections. The military directly controls a quarter of the legislatures, which were filled with lower-ranking officers, ensuring that the military bloc remains cohesive and compliant with the wishes of the military superiors. With the provision of a quorum of 75% necessary to change the Constitution, the military effectively has a veto power over constitutional changes, since it occupies more than 75% of all the seats both at the lower and upper house of the Parliament. The new National Defense and Security Council is the most powerful institution and this is controlled by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In terms of civil–military relations, the military remains fully autonomous subject to neither executive nor judicial civilian authorities. Furthermore, the issue about the on-going conflict between the Burmese army and the ethnic-based armed groups remains crucial and unresolved. To add, this current “civilian government” in Myanmar needs still to fashion a politically inclusive process of national reconciliation with the involvement of all possible actors such as, the National League for Democracy, the military, and the ethnic nationalities among others if it wants to confidently sustain the democratization process that is said to be taking place nowadays in the country. 

Moreover, the already skeptical and cynical perception of many international observers about the real score if indeed Myanmar is serious in its quest towards democratic transition once again was challenged by recent events in Myanmar. The cynicisms and skepticisms of people whether Myanmar is serious and genuine in pursuing democracy grew more due to the worst ever humanitarian disaster on the planet that happened just in the recent past, and that’s the enormous “genocidal vehemence” against the “Rohingyas”. These apartheid atrocities against the “Rohingyas” already claimed thousands of lives of ethnic-civilian “Rohingyas”. It is being estimated that around 1.3 million “Rohingyas” from Myanmar’s Western Arakan/Rakhine region have been uprooted since June 2012. “Rohingyas” are victims of intermittent religious violence, killings, internal displacements, and most of them ended up in filthy camps for internally displaced peoples in countries like Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia to mention the least. In these countries, “Rohingyas” are seen as illegal migrants and they writhe from stern discriminations, hefty restraints on marriage, religious activities, health, and educational opportunities. In extreme cases, they are not even permitted to identify themselves as “Rohingyas”, and are forced to ascertain themselves as “Bengalis”. 

“Rohingyas” are a minority ethnic group who practice Islam. They speak “Rohingya”, an Indo-European language of the Easter Indic branch, closely related to “Chittagonian” of Bangladesh, and more distantly to Bengali. The UN ascertained that these people are one the most discriminated and persecuted minority groups so to speak of this day and age. Their sojourn in Myanmar is disputed. 

Some claim that they are to some extent indigenous inhabitants of Rakhine/Arakan state given that they settled in this part of Myanmar for thousands of years already. But many Burmese, most especially the Buddhist Rakhines are challenging this claim. They are saying that “Rohingyas” are originally from Bengal (Bangladesh) and therefore are “Bengalis”. Accordingly, “Rohingyas” migrated to Myanmar during the British rule. Thus, they are not indigenous to Myanmar and are categorically being labelled as illegal migrants. 

Sadly, the perpetrators of this “genocidal infringement” against the “Rohingyas” are said to be government-sponsored “state security forces”, and the “Rakhine Buddhist extremist militias”. Just this year (2014), the so-called “civilian government” of Myanmar disqualified “Rohingyas” from participating in the census. The same government according to reports just last September also drafted a plan conscripting “Rohingyas” to identify themselves as “Bengalis". In any case, “Rohingyas” remain stateless and many of them are unfortunately forced to stay in detention camps, ghettos, are internally displaced, and worst of all, those who fled from Myanmar to take refuge in other countries like Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia suffer from severe discriminations, and are way too far being treated as lesser mortals. The plight of these people is indeed somewhat bleak and precarious. 

Many have observed and even the Burmese people in general alleged that the root cause behind all the atrocities against the “Rohingyas” are far more complex and has historical underpinnings. Nonetheless, whatever the root cause of these persecutions and discriminations against the “Rohingyas”, one thing is clear, a government that claims to pursue a democratic path, and in this case the current “civilian government” in Myanmar, must not turn a blind eye to the quandary of these people. One of the basic tenets of democracy is the recognition and respects of the basic rights and existence of people including minority/indigenous groups like the “Rohingyas” regardless of their creed, religion, color or race. Recognition and respect are not always or not necessarily and directly denote political recognition if the situation does not seem right yet given the volatile political landscape of the country. However, at the barest minimum, recognition and respect of the basic rights of peoples, and in this case the “Rohingyas” can mean accepting that indeed these people exist, that they are human beings, and that they need to be respected and treated accordingly and humanely.

If indeed, the so-called “civilian government” in Myanmar that claims to be crisscrossing the pathway towards democracy is serious in its democratic pursuits, then by all means, they should resolve and do whatever is necessary to put an end to the atrocities, discriminations, and persecutions accorded to “Rohingyas”. This same government in Myanmar, if it truly wants to pursue a democratic path where recognition and respect for the fundamental freedoms of human beings flourish, must extend to the “Rohingyas” the rights to self-identification and citizenship. Only through this democratic act, to a greater extent, one can ascertain that indeed Myanmar is truly in its path towards a genuine democracy. 

Anna Malindog is the human rights advocate. She is also an academic. You may get in touch with her through

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Rohingya Exodus