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Key challenges for Myanmar

Photo: Kachin Baptist Convention
Villagers displaced by fighting in Kachin State now live in makeshift shelters in the jungle

By Jared Ferrie
November 11, 2015

BANGKOK -- Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party is headed for a landslide victory in Myanmar’s first reasonably free elections since a 1990 vote that the NLD won but the military ignored. Preliminary results show the NLD steamrolling the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which took power in a quasi-civilian government in 2011 after 49 years of military rule. The NLD is expected to surpass the 67 percent share of the vote needed to assure a parliamentary majority – unusually high because 25 percent of seats are reserved for unlected military officials.

Even if the NLD dominates parliament, the military will retain an influential role, including control of the all-important ministries that oversee the security of the country. Aung San Suu Kyi is barred by the constitution from becoming president, even if she leads a parliament that would elect her to that role. The constitution prevents anyone with children or a spouse holding foreign passports from being president. Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, as are her two sons.

“The Lady”, as she is known, has indicated she will make the decisions even if someone else has to be president. She has called for “national reconciliation” talks with the military. Since 2011, the generals have governed by proxy through the USDP, which is comprised mainly of former officers who retired to join the party. Although it’s not clear what exactly Aung San Suu Kyi has in mind when she calls for “reconciliation” with the military, she will need to forge a working relationship with the generals in order to address a host of issues facing the country. 

Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia, and is riven by ethnic conflict and sectarian tensions. Here are the top humanitarian issues Myanmar’s new government will have to deal with:

 - About a million Rohingya live in Myanmar and almost all of them have had their citizenship rights gradually stripped away. The Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority of Muslims living in a Buddhist majority country. Despite having roots in Myanmar that go back generations, many consider them illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, including some government officials. 

- The perception of the Rohingya as interlopers has fueled discrimination that has become entrenched in policy. The Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions in western Rakhine State, confined to displacement camps and villages, with little access to healthcare or education.

- Rohingya voted in the 2010 election – which was marred by fraud – and Rohingya candidates were elected. Almost all were disenfranchised earlier this year.

Human trafficking
- Desperate Rohingya have fled Rakhine State in droves on rickety boats and many have fallen into the hands of human traffickers.

- It’s not just Rohingya who are trafficked. Many others from Myanmar have fled poverty and found themselves enslaved on fishing boats.

- About 140,000 people are living in displacement camps in Rakhine State after their homes were destroyed in violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya in 2012. Most of the victims were Rohingya who make up almost all of those who remain in displacement camps.

- Fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups has forced about 100,000 into displacement camps in Kachin and Shan states over the past four years. The United Nations says 6,000 people were displaced in northern Shan State in October alone, as the election campaign was going on. 

- About 120,000 people remain in refugee camps across the border in Thailand after fleeing decades of war. There is a push to return them to Myanmar, but the security situation remains uncertain and many areas are contaminated with landmines.

Ethnic conflict
- Myanmar has been riven by ethnic conflict since independence from Britain in 1948, and about two dozen ethnic armed groups operate today. The government signed a ceasefire agreement with eight ethnic armed groups on 15 November. But many of the most powerful ethnic armies refused to sign, while the government refused to allow others to take part in negotiations.

- There is little trust in the peace process, as ethnic armed groups accuse the military of undermining negotiations by launching offensives. Aung San Suu Kyi may be able to build confidence, but it will be a balancing act between reaching out to ethnic armed groups, while maintaining a working relationship with the military.

- Corruption became deeply entrenched over decades of isolation and autocratic rule by successive military governments. The unfettered rush to exploit Myanmar’s rich natural resources has fuelled ethnic conflict. Aung San Suu Kyi has campaigned on rule of law, which is desperately needed in Myanmar, not least to regulate the resources sector. 

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Rohingya Exodus