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Rohingya. flickr/photographer AK Rockerfeller. Some rights reserved.

By Ashraful Azad
January 11, 2017

How the international community is failing to protect the Rohingya people.
At this moment, a genocide is happening in Myanmar of which most of the world is unaware. On 9 October 2016, three border posts were attacked in Western Myanmar by an unknown armed group, killing nine policemen. Following the attack, Myanmar government forces have been conducting a coordinated attack on the civilian population which includes mass killing, rape, torture and the burning of houses and crop fields. Because security forces have locked down the whole area, it is difficult to verify the reports of violence. Utilising independent sources, Voice of America has reported that the death toll could be 150 to 300 so far. Based on satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has observed that 1,250 houses or buildings have been destroyed as of 18 November.

As a result of the military crackdown, thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes; many are attempting to enter neighbouring Bangladesh by crossing the Naaf river. However, the Bangladeshi government has refused to accept more Rohingya, stating that the highly-populated country is already hosting half a million Rohingya who have fled the previous violence.

The attacks on the Rohingya people in Myanmar are not a new phenomenon. The Rohingya have had an uneasy relationship with the state since Myanmar's independence in 1948. The Rohingya are an ethno-linguistic-religious minority group in Myanmar. They are followers of Sunni Islam in the Buddhist-majority state. The northern Rakhine State (formerly Arakan) where most Rohingya people live is in the middle of South East Asia and South Asia. The Myanmar government argues that the Rohingya people have migrated from neighbouring Bangladesh and so denies them citizenship rights. However, the Rohingya people can trace their origin in the Rakhine State back for hundreds of years. Rakhine State was once an independent Arakan kingdom comprising north-western Myanmar and south-eastern Bangladesh before being taken over by Burma in 1784.

Within an independent Burma/Myanmar, the Rohingya people have faced widespread persecution in 1978, 1991-92, and 2012. This is in addition to continued discrimination and the denial of basic rights including freedom of movement, the right to livelihood, education, childbirth (the Rohingya are restricted to two children per family), and many aspects of everyday life. As a result, many of the Rohingya have left home and undertaken dangerous journeys in search of safe shelters. There are a significant number of Rohingya people in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Thailand, and Indonesia. Some have reached as far as Australia by boat though many died on the journey there. Still, there are 1.1 million Rohingya people left in Myanmar and the government wants to drive them out. A recent study by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School demonstrates that the actions and inactions of the government satisfy the criteria for genocide as defined by the 1948 Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide. 

Another study by Human Rights Watch in 2013 found strong evidence of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya committed by the Burmese authority, local Arakanese people, and Buddhist mobs. The report notes an incident on 23 October 2013 where at least 70 Rohingya were killed in a massacre in Yan Thei village in Mrauk-U Township by Arakanese mobs; state security forces indirectly helped in the massacre rather than protecting people. The death toll included 28 children who were hacked to death, including 13 under the age of 5.

A research article published in the Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal in 2014 also concluded that there is a slow burning genocide in the Rakhine State. Of the five acts of genocide mentioned in the 1948 Convention on Genocide, four have been committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar since 1978. The article concludes that: “the ruling Burmese, both the Buddhist society and the Buddhist state, have committed the first four acts, including intentional killing, harm to body and mind of the victims as a group, inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, and preventing births.” Researchers from the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University of London School of Law, after months of field work in the Rakhine State last year, also concluded that “Myanmar state’s policies are genocidal.”

It’s clear that there’s an ongoing genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. The state has not only failed in their duty to protect but also occasionally participated in the atrocities. However, that has not stopped powerful states and large corporations boosting business ties with Myanmar. The Myanmar state counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has clearly failed to stop the mass destruction of people and take any action against the military forces.

The international community has done little to stop the suffering of the Rohingyas. They have criticised Myanmar for human rights violations and asked for an independent investigation. However, it’s naïve to ask authorities to investigate the very crimes they support or even perpetrate themselves. Once the Rohingya people took arms to solve their problems. However, the post-9/11 'war on terror' has made armed Muslims guerrilla-terrorists in the eyes of global media and western states. In consequence, there is currently no strong movement among the Rohingya people. Myanmar’s neighbours and regional powers, such as China and India, are busy securing the country’s untapped market. 

The UN and human rights organisations focus on the humanitarian aspect of the problem: urging the Bangladeshi government to provide shelter to the fleeing Rohingyas. However, these organisations often lack the strong voice needed to deal with the violence in Rakhine state. Myanmar will not heed calls for human rights if such calls aren't backed by credible hard power. The regional and global players are not sincere enough to engage with Myanmar strongly. Perhaps the only remaining solution lies in the hands of the people, who can put pressure on their governments to take immediate and serious action.

A Rohingya Muslim living in Malaysia cries during a protest against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar at a stadium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. (Photo: Lim Huey Teng / AP / Press Association Images)

By Alexander Macleod
Global Risk Insights
December 29, 2016

Since October 9th, political conflict has re-emerged in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The global media has reported widely on the atrocities committed against the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, with some even calling it a genocide.

These reports expose the absolute power that Myanmar’s military continues to wield over state and society. They have dampened the expectations for democratic progress under the fledgling civilian government, led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The optimism exhibited as Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy (NLD) took power was coupled with a changed political attitude from the west. Myanmar quickly established itself as the new darling of Southeast Asia; a real mover and shaker.

But for some experts, Suu Kyi’s role quickly evolved from being an icon of democracy and defender of human rights to that of a working politician. This meant courting majority (Buddhist) interests and re-establishing amicable relations with the military regime which had imprisoned her.

It is within this equation that Myanmar’s Rohingya population, around one million strong, have suffered. Suu Kyi has been accused of not doing enough to improve their situation, appearing indecisive and unwilling. Arguably, her silence on the injustices against the Rohingya risks eroding her substantial political legitimacy as well as her moral authority. But will this happen and, if so, is it significant?

What has Suu Kyi done, and what more can she do?

Much of Suu Kyi’s work so far has focused on strategic political reforms aimed at opening up the country to investment. President Obama’s decision to lift all remaining sanctions on Myanmar had provided Suu Kyi with some breathing space. This has distracted attention away from the fact that the Rohingya remain “at the bottom of Myanmar’s social and political heap.” Due to her own struggles for emancipation, her failure to address the plight of the Rohingya is in one sense surprising.

The Rohingya problem has been described as “untouchable” – reflecting the structural constraints that limit the possibilities for meaningful political action. The still-powerful military, the quasi-democratic constitution and the powerful Buddhist-nationalist lobby are just a few of these constraints.

They render the NLD incapable of forging ahead on meaningful change for the Rohingya. Lest she wish to provoke the Tatmadaw, it would be unwise for Suu Kyi to make the Rohingya a central political issue. As a politician and a pragmatist, Suu Kyi will be aware that by ignoring Buddhist sensitivities she also risks alienating her political support base.

Some argue that the Rohingya will become collateral damage in Myanmar’s eventual transition to democracy. However, Suu Kyi’s pledge to implement a sustainable solution for all communities in Rakhine did not include a time limit. Realistically, the transition taking place – the first peaceful transfer of power in Myanmar’s history – will be a delicate and protracted process. The country is treading unknown territory and Suu Kyi must gradually increase her and the NLD’s power and legitimacy, all while maximising their re-election chances.

Suu Kyi’s slow and cautious approach was exemplified when she recently downplayed the Rohingya issue, asking the international community not to stoke communal tensions. This rhetoric was mirrored by Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General employed to head the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. According to Annan, the Rohingya conflict will not destabilise the region, but “will be contained.” Collectively, these statements signal that little will change on the ground, at least for the short term.

Realistically, Suu Kyi has many other problems to deal with, which may prove more feasible than the ‘untouchable’ Rohingya, around which she can build legitimacy. Brokering a fragile peace deal with the various ethnic insurgent groups is one such example (despite the persistent obstacles faced in achieving this).

What will happen if Suu Kyi fails to address the Rohingya issue?

But the deteriorating situation in Rakhine state has caused concern among ASEAN member states, with Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia the most vocal. Yet some argue that these countries have only shown ‘crocodile tears’ for the Rohingya, who are exploited “as a convenient political football.”

Indonesia has only intervened because the Rohingya issue has translated into negative political sentiment for President Joko Widodo’s government. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also has an ulterior motive. His condemnation of Myanmar at a recent political demonstration was likely to divert attention away from his own abuses of power.

Suu Kyi recently met in Yangon with ASEAN foreign ministers to discuss current political tensions. According to Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the meeting contained “open, frank and constructive discussion.” That being said, it is unlikely that such discussion will translate into concrete policy. ASEAN does not make decisions without consensus, and so inaction on the Rohingya remains a strong possibility.

Crucially, ASEAN was also founded on a policy of non-interference among member states. Although this has encouraged member states to ignore human rights abuses in favour of concentrating on trade, it also means there is no regional ‘moral order’ within which Myanmar is ranked. For this reason the idea of expelling Myanmar from ASEAN, as requested by various Malaysian political figures, is not realistic. It would risk setting a precedent that could land other member states in trouble in the future.

ASEAN members must choose their battles carefully in order to ensure that the fabric of political cooperation is not undone. Applying anything more than light pressure could compromise these states’ economic arrangement, as happened recently with Myanmar’s ban on workers traveling to Malaysia. Regional unity must take precedence at a time when the region faced with significant threats. The rise of China is one; the growth of homegrown Islamic State (IS) activity is another.

International pressure has also proven ineffective, aside from curbing the exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar on a temporary basis. President Htin Kyaw has in the past criticised the U.S for claiming a moral high ground despite refusing to allow foreign investigations into Guantanamo Bay. The presidency of Donald Trump could further dent the West’s ability to claim this high ground.

Trump’s potential turn away from the region may also encourage Myanmar to seek rapprochement with Beijing. In fact, Suu Kyi has “adopted positions that are generally accommodating to Beijing’s interests.” This includes expressing support for China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) strategy, but also – and more interestingly – muting her concerns about human rights in China.

Moving forward

It is perhaps too early to criticise Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya situation, for she is yet to complete her first year in power. Nevertheless, so far she has failed in a game of brinkmanship that has sought to balance Buddhist political sensitivities with progressive and meaningful reforms. Certainly in the short to medium term, Suu Kyi will continue to tread carefully.

Regional pressure is unlikely to produce much in the way of solving these problems. Regardless of the moral or political implications, ASEAN was built to withstand and de-emphasise diplomatic rifts like these. We can, however, perhaps expect more soft political blows to be exchanged between Myanmar and its Muslim-majority neighbours.

The risk of more serious fallout is limited, despite the posturing of certain political leaders. A worsening migration crisis may force Myanmar’s neighbours to step into gear, though recent history shows they would not welcome an open-door policy for Rohingya refugees. The recent meeting in Yangon is also unlikely to amount to much, as ASEAN is hostage to its own design: human rights abuses do not equate to a reduced political standing in this organisation.

America’s change in political direction could prove detrimental for the fate of the Rohingya, with president-elect Trump set to turn his back on the region. Against this backdrop, the Rohingya could indeed become ‘collateral damage’, as western nations fail to take the lead in forging a solution – or imposing punishment.

Domestically, given the structural constraints in place it is unlikely that Suu Kyi will be able to rein in the military and militia groups. Nor is it likely that she will switch from her current stance that communal tensions should not be stoked.

The upcoming report from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State is unlikely to contain immediate and actionable solutions, despite Suu Kyi’s pledge.

On the other hand, denying the extent of the problem and discrediting the international community is certainly unsustainable and could negatively impact Myanmar’s investment reputation. As previously argued, continued neglect of Rakhine state could influence a vicious circle that perpetuates human rights abuses caused by an over-concentration of Chinese investment.

Although it is the region’s collective responsibility to forge a solution, Suu Kyi will bear the brunt of the blame. While the military has continued to exercise its power, Suu Kyi has cast herself as the soft, democratic face of the country. But as the military’s actions continue to impede democratic progress, the international community will increasingly question exactly who and what Suu Kyi represents.

By Dr Maung Zarni
December 7, 2016

From the outset, I have dismissed Kofi Annan's involvement as nothing more than a public relations exercise launched against the backdrop of strident calls for the UN Commission of Inquiry.

That is, after having done background checks on the 3-Rakhine commissioners on his commission, the scope and the underlying philosophy on which the commission seems premised, and the make-up.

It has made its initial impact on the human rights networks internationally
and the Rohingya activists themselves:

The announcement below poured water on the burning coal - calls for COI.

Many seem intimidated, impressed or pleased to get former UN Secretary General Annan and Chair of The Elders (retired heads of state and other famous politicians). The "welcomers"
ignore well-documented criminal role Kofi Annan played in the death of 800,000;

Annan concealed a crucial and urgent cable addressed to him and which he received straight from the field - Rwanda - by Head of the Peacekeeping Force, Canadian Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire on Jan. 11, 1994 warning of the risk of genocide. Annan was the Head of UN Peacekeeping Force in New York headquarters.

Annan chose NOT to share it with the Security Council, not did he follow up such an important piece of evidence deserved. 

That was according to the UN-sponsored inquiry led by a former Swedish Prime Minister. 

The rest is history.

To be fair to those who welcomed it and showed initial enthusiasm, having a 3-member international team including Annan was certainly better than the previous Rakhine Inquiry Commission formed on 17 Aug 2012 - under previous Thein Sein regime. It was chaired by old history tutor at Mandalay and a friend, with another old, but now former friend Kyaw Yin Hlaing as Secretary.

The RIC ended up - again as I expected - up nothing more than a tool for whitewash for the regime-sanctioned mass violence and destruction of Rohingyas that took place in June and Oct 2012.

Now have a quick read at what Annan claimed officially his commission was going to.

There are 4 problems with Kofi Annan Commission:


like the previous Burmese-only Presidential Inquiry Commission of 2012, Kofi Annan Commission has absolutely no Rohingya representation. (Burmese Muslims do NOT represent Rohingya Muslims and are NOT seem by Rohingyas as their representational voices, naturally).

2) Of the 3 Rakhines, Saw Khint Tint (Rakhine woman leader) holds well-known and well-documented genocidal views towards Rohingya; 2) Mr WinMra defended the Burmese military as its ambassador mass atrocities in the past at UN and other fora including Geneva and New York, and is currently head of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, which does NOT respect ROhingya's right to self-identify; and 3) Dr/Mr Tha Hla Shwe recently denies that there is any racial or religious discrimination - in Rakhine or in Burma; that's rather blatant in law of the passage of 4 race-and-faith-based national laws, and everything else that has been going on including the Burma Army leadership claiming its institutional duties now includes the defence of Buddhism and "Burmese" race.

3) Allegations of mass atrocities repeated in waves are excluded from its focus

In the last 4 years there have been credible and well-documented reports of international human rights crimes committed against the Rohingya. Those reports come from the UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights situation in Myanmar. And they identity the role of state security troops and authorities in these rights abuses. Besides there is a growing body of legal, sociological analyses and field studies which increasingly adopt a common view: a genocide is in the process. 

The Commission's scope is only on the two communities - Rakhine and Rohingya the latter of which cannot even be officially mentioned.

4) its sentiment is ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT will lessen the tensions in the communal conflicts and pave the way for future reconciliation between these two communities.

Because the Commission completely ignores or effectively unaware of the state's CENTRAL role in formulating the destruction of Rohingyas as a group it is keen to serve Development up as the panacea. 

Kofi Annan had made it clear that his mission was NOT about investigating allegations of international crimes and human rights violations, despite the human rights activists urging him to do so. 

Now Kofi Annan has clearly veered off the official scope of his Commission and began to make comments to the media which can only be construed as words of the genocide whitewash.

Kofi Annan downplays claims of Myanmar genocide

6 December 2016

This is extremely harmful to the Rohingyas who have jus begun to receive the kind of grassroots and worldwide attention they deserve. 

Despite his fame, Kofi is the man who has Rwandan blood on his hand: 800,000 of them. 

I will NOT trust this man's integrity, will to stop or motives in getting involved a case which is increasingly described by researchers and scholars, and law practitioners with years of personal and direct understanding of the nature of persecution.

How is Kofi Annan in a position to 'downplay or confirm" any allegations of genocide?

He's spent a total of less than 7 days in Rakhine, chauffeured around in an SUV, accompanied by anti-Rohingya Rakhines and all choreographed by Aung San Suu Kyi's Office in Nay Pyi Daw - over two whirlwind visits.

It took years to collect evidence, interview Rohingyas, army officers, Rakhine, etc. as well as do archival research in Burmese, Bengali and English to try to assess the nature of the persecution and claims of rights abuses. 

After nearly 6 years in his capacity as Special Rap on human rights in Myanmar the

Argentinian human rights lawyer Tomas Ojea Quintana has publicly stated that Myanmar is committing a genocide, that UN has an unwritten policy of not calling a genocide genocide and that Aung San Suu Kyi shows no signs of ending it. 

I find it extraordinarily IRRESPONSIBLE, ARROGANT AND CALLOUS to dismiss allegations of atrocity crimes by the State of Myanmar - in light of the on-going media reports based on fleeing Rohingya refugees - by now 20,000 - in Bangladesh, telephone transmissions, etc.

Two most recent reports here - one from AFP:

21,000 Rohingya flee to Bangladesh from Myanmar: IOM

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE | Published — Tuesday 6 December 2016


Myanmar Rakhine: Inside the closed Rakhine region

Additionally, it is extremely stupid for Kofi Annan to make dismissive comments about these allegations whereas in fact there is a growing body of serious longitudinal (multiyear and on-going) studies of the atrocities against Rohingya. 


Here is my short-list of studies and analyses.

We must not allow this career UN bureaucrat to let another 800,000 destroyed. 

Their destruction may not come as swift as Tutsis in Rwanda.

But as Lancet's Harvard study pointed out - just look at the doctor: patient ratio in the two Rohingya towns of Buthidaung and Maung Daw, you will get a deeply troubling and shocking picture of the kind of existence Rohingyas have been forced to lead - by the national hybrid-gov of Suu Kyi-Min Aung Hlaing:

1: 150,000 Rohingya 
1: 670 (non-Rohingya) in near by Sittwe. 

Raphael Lemkin, the man who gave us the term genocide, discussed how guns and weapons were not the only instruments of genocide.

Sub-survival level nutritional provisions are a part of a genocidal arsenal. 

I condemn both Suu Kyi and Kofi Annan for their criminal irresponsibility in dismissing and downplaying the allegations of genocide. 

[1] Confronting the genocide in Myanmar, Katherine Southwick, Asia and
Pacific Policy Society, 1 Dec. 2016.

[1] The Slow Genocide of Rohingyas, Amartya Sen, Harvard Conference on
the Rohingya Persecution, 4 Nov. 2014.

[1] Recognising the Rohingya People, Editorial, Lancet, 1 Dec. 2016

The Rohingya People of Myanmar: Health, Human Rights and Identity,
Lancet, 1 Dec. 2016

Rohingya Face Health Care Bias in parts of Asia, study finds, New York Times, 5 Dec. 2016.

[1] A Genocide In the Making, Foreign Policy, Sir Geoffrey Nice and
Francis Wade, Foreign Policy, 30 Nov. 2016

[1] Genocide Roundtable, Oxford University Conference on Myanmar’s
Democratic Transition and the Rohingyas, 11 May 2016

[1] Dr. Gregory Stanton at Myanmar Muslims Genocide Awareness

[1] Burma’s Million-Strong Rohingya Population Faces ‘Final Stages of
Genocide,’ Says Report, TIME, 28 Oct. 2015.

[1] Clinic Study Finds Evidence of Genocide in Myanmar, Yale Law
School, 29 Oct. 2015

[1] The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya, Maung Zarni and
Alice Cowley, Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal, June 2014

Hindu devotees take part in Durga Puja festivities in Yangon. Nationality in Myanmar is based on membership of one of 135 ‘national races’, excluding others from full citizenship. Photograph: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty

By Julia Wallace
November 5, 2016

Citizenship legislation in Myanmar excludes some communities and restricts the rights of others, even where families have lived in the country for generations

Aung Kyaw Min Tun has lived in Myanmar for all of his 24 years, his native tongue is Burmese, and his parents and grandparents were born here. But he is not officially a citizen of the country and has no idea if he ever will be.

The problem is that he is a Tamil Hindu, an ethnicity that does not fit neatly into the country’s complex citizenship law, in which nationality is based on membership of one of 135 “national races” that supposedly lived within the country’s boundaries before the British invaded in 1824. The law, created by Myanmar’s military dictatorship in 1982, excludes others from full citizenship, but allows them to apply for two lower tiers with fewer rights.

The law’s heavy emphasis on ethnicity has led rights groups to call it discriminatory. The legislation has also been enforced selectively, with multiple layers of bureaucracy and endemic corruption.

The result can be years of waiting for those who do not fit obviously into the list of national races, including ethnic Chinese, Indians, Nepalese, many Muslims, and people with a foreign parent or grandparent.

“The citizenship process has been a shambles, at least since the military took power in 1962,” said Ronan Lee, a political consultant and PhD candidate at Deakin University in Melbourne who has studied the issue.

Aung Kyaw Min Tun’s family exemplifies the chaos. His father holds a citizenship card that he obtained before the 1982 law, while his brother paid a bribe of about $300 (£245) for one in the early 2000s. His mother and older sister only have residency permits, and he and his younger sister have been unable to obtain any documents even though they are technically eligible to be second-class “associate citizens”.

He said two-thirds of his community in Yangon faced the same problems – mostly those too poor to pay large, informal fees. Without citizenship documents, he said, he cannot travel freely within the country, obtain a passport, or buy property. “If someone tried to kick us out, we’d have to go, because we have no documents. It’s scary,” he said. “I was born here and will die here, so I should have documents to show that.”

Most talk of citizenship is focused on the Rohingyas, a stateless Muslim minority of about 1 million people living in Rakhine state, on the border with Bangladesh.

They fall outside the list of national ethnicities and live under an apartheid-like system that restricts their ability to move around for employment or other reasons, and severely limits their access to healthcare and education. They have suffered from bouts of communal violence, and almost 120,000 remain in squalid camps after being driven from their homes in 2012.

The plight of the Rohingyas seems unlikely to improve without an overhaul of the citizenship law.

The Seagull Foundation, a human rights organisation, recently surveyed 100 religious or ethnic minorities in Mandalay and found that almost all had problems obtaining a national registration card. Many said they were told they had to change their ethnicity or religion to fit into a prescribed category to receive the document.

Respondents also reported paying bribes of up to 500,000 kyat (£315) and said their children were being excluded from programmes issuing national registration cards in schools. Several people, particularly Muslims, said they were forced to accept third-tier “naturalised citizen” status in order to get their documentation.

Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary at Myanmar’s ministry of immigration, said the government was trying to combat such corruption by conducting spot checks in local immigration offices and promptly investigating complaints. He declined to comment on broader problems with the citizenship law.

But for Harry Myo Lin, the head of the Seagull Foundation, fundamental reform is necessary, in addition to more stringent anti-corruption efforts. “Ethnicity and religion should not be on ID cards,” he said. “An immigration system should have citizens and non-citizens.”

Given the unrest in Rakhine and elsewhere, as well as a resurgence in Buddhist nationalism, it is not surprising Muslims have often borne the brunt of this corruption.

Lee said that even Muslims who qualified as citizens under the 1982 law had experienced problems asserting their rights. “Travel restrictions in Rakhine state seem to be enforced based on religion and skin tone rather than whether people have the correct documents,” he said.

Among the victims is Phwey Phwe New, 26, an ethnic Kaman woman who has been stuck in That Kay Pyin camp in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, since the 2012 violence. Kaman Muslims are on the list of national ethnicities yet suffer similar treatment as the Rohingyas. Before 2012, it had never occurred to her that she might need a citizenship card. She had taken her status for granted and travelled freely.

She set out to obtain documentation, but said it took two years. “When I went to the office, they asked for bribes,” she said. “I spent a lot of money.”

Despite receiving her identity card in 2015, she cannot leave the camp because her husband, also a Kaman, is still waiting for his card.

As for the Rohingyas, efforts to normalise their situation have stalled. This is not only due to animosity from nationalist Buddhists but also because of the Rohingyas’ mistrust of the government.

Muslim Rohingyas in the courtyard of a school sheltering displaced people in the village of Theik Kayk Pyim, on the outskirts of Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Photograph: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Many Burmese consider the Rohingyas interlopers from Bangladesh despite the fact that some families have been in Myanmar for generations.

A pilot citizenship verification programme launched in 2014 under the former military-backed government failed because the Rohingyas were forced to list their ethnicity as Bengali, implying they were immigrants from Bangladesh. This year, the newly elected government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, attempted to avoid the issue by allowing Rohingyas to register without listing any ethnicity or religion. But this option has also proved unpopular. 

Shom Shul Alom, a Rohingya man living in the Maw Thi Nyar displaced persons camp, said ethnicity was so important to the social and political fabric of Myanmar that he would refuse to accept any identity document that did not identify him as a Rohingya. “If you try to distribute identity cards but you do not put race or religion, it wouldn’t work. We will not accept it,” he said.
Men set up a sign against UN and humanitarian aid organisations’ assistance in Rakhine State, outside a monastery in Maungdaw on October 19. Photo: AFP

By Fiona MacGregor
October 21, 2016

Among all the murky reports to emerge from Rakhine State this week, one thing that is clear: When it comes to the biggest crisis to hit Myanmar since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian led administration was elected, the military is undoubtedly running the show.

Almost two weeks on from three deadly attacks on border police stations in northern Rakhine State, evidence about who was behind the attacks and their underlying motivation are no more certain. Yet that has done nothing to damp the military’s lockdown, nor to staunch the anti-Muslim rhetoric from the President’s Office.

It is a situation that does not bode well for long-term democratic progress in this country.

Following the deadly October 9 attacks on the border guard posts, the military assumed control over Maungdaw and Buthidaung township. Outside observers have been excluded from the region as security forces carry out “clearance operations” which have sparked great fear among the Muslim population there.

An estimated 9000 to 15,000 people from the Rohingya minority are reported by sources on the ground to have fled their homes, with claims that at least 100 civilians have been killed during military operations, although those numbers remain entirely unsubstantiated due to access restrictions. The military has acknowledged that at least 30 alleged attackers have been killed by security personnel in what senior officers described as a necessary use of lethal force.

Allegations that Muslim civilians have faced extra-judicial killings and seen their villages burned by security forces have also gone entirely unmentioned in the missives coming out of the President’s Office, and have been widely ignored by the local media. Yesterday it was reported that two people arrested in relation to the attacks had died in custody, with authorities blaming asthma-related complications.

Meanwhile according to the UN, an estimated 3000 people from the region’s Buddhist population have also fled their homes and being looked after by state authorities.

Reports from the government have focused entirely on support being offered to the ethnic Rakhine villagers. A representative for the Mynmar Red Cross, which is providing assistance in Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Sittwe townships, said he had no knowledge of the displaced Muslim population.

Aid organisations have stressed that they are deeply worried about more than 70,000 people in the Muslim-majority northern townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung who are being kept from receiving humanitarian assistance, including vital food rations, because the military refuse to allow agencies access while their operations are ongoing.

Meanwhile those elsewhere in the state are also facing restrictions, humanitarian actors say, as fears among local staff and uncertainty about protocol hampers access and supplies.

These clampdowns are risking the lives of people in already-vulnerable communities, despite the fact that authorities have acknowledged that the only violence to have occurred in recent days had broken out when they entered villages on a clearance operation and allege that they have brought the wider security situation under control.

Indeed the entire “terrorist” narrative is being questioned, not only by international observers, who point to the fact that the attacks were targeted at security officers not civilians, but even by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

“We don’t know the full details. We don’t know when those six months were,” she told the Hindustan Times while visiting India earlier this week, referring to the government’s reports that arrested suspects had said during interrogations that the man organising them had received six month’s training in Pakistan.

“And we are also told he had been receiving funding from various Islamic countries. That is just information from just one source, we can’t take it for granted that it’s absolutely correct,” she said.

But the state counsellor’s attempt to bring some balance to the terror narrativehas been of little avail. The matter has continued to dominate both the national and social media agenda.

Even as updates from the President’s Office make no mention of the perilous situation the Muslim population in northern Rakhine State unquestionably face as security forces search their villages for assailants, those behind the department’s daily updates are less reticent about depicting Muslims as violent, extremist liars.

On a post on the official government website from October 18 entitled “Voices from government employees, local people in Maungdaw over deadly attacks”, which did not cite a single Muslim voice, stories such as the following – purportedly the words of an evacuated school teacher – reinforced the demonisation of the Muslim population.

“I have been here since 2007 as a middle-school teacher and a high-school teacher. The government told us that people here often resorted to violence because they were not educated. Now, they are learning from us and some of them are good at English. However, they posted lies and religious instigation on the internet,” she added. “Later, helicopters from the Tatmadaw evacuated us to a safe place.”

It is concerning, but not unexpected, when military chiefs in Rakhine State start making biologically and mathematically questionable assertions about the Muslim population rapidly increasing because some people practise polygamy.

However when the president of a democratically elected government widely seen to be a proxy for one of the world’s best-known rights campaigners-turned-politician starts churning out such pernicious writings, it is alarming.

The president may wear a civilian gaung baung, but the messages coming from his office show every sign of having been penned by a propagandist wearing a military cap.

In an October 14 statement on events in Rakhine State the previous week, the government noted the following: “According to the findings of the interrogations, the attacks in Maungdaw were intended to promote extremist violent ideology among the majority Muslim population in the area. Using Maungdaw as a foothold, this was an attempt to take over the areas of Maungdaw and Buthitaung. For this, they received significant financial support from extremist individuals in some Middle Eastern countries. This funding was not provided by particular organisations, but was provided secretly through contacts between individuals.”

If a single paragraph were to encapsulate the fears of Rakhine people and the wider population, exacerbated by various provocateurs for various nationalist and political reasons, that paragraph would be it.

And it appears to be working. It is not just social media users who are buying into and promoting the “our military will protect us” message.

National newspapers, many of them staffed by journalists who have bravely questioned the military’s motivations and stood up to oppression in the past, have almost entirely failed to question what is happening to the Muslim population in Rakhine State – the vast majority of whom have shown absolutely no appetite for militant uprising in the past four years.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s protests in India that it is very unclear who and what was behind the October 9 attacks are little more than a whispered acknowledgement of uncertainty contending with the booming onslaught of military-backed propaganda.

The international community is, behind the scenes, horrified by the lack of access and expressing serious concerns about the extent of the rights abuses potentially now being perpetrated against the Muslim population in the north.

Yet, public demands for access have so far failed to highlight these very genuine concerns.

The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, finally had a formal briefing from the government on October 19, but as yet its only statement was on October 14, deploring the attacks, but making no mention of possible or alleged reprisals.

Meanwhile Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN secretary-general, on October 19 noted a “sober response” by the security forces in northern Rakhine State, an observation that appeared to be made more on trust than fact, given he also stressed concerns that UN staff were not being given access to the area and people concerned.

Whether such trust is misplaced remains to be seen. However even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has this week stressed the insecure state of democracy in Myanmar right now.

“We as a nation are struggling to make the democratic culture take root,” she told reporters after meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on her visit to New Delhi.

“We too have many challenges to face, but we are confident that these challenges can be overcome because our people are determined to overcome them.”

It is to be hoped she is right, but such determination will only succeed if it is rooted in the principles of human rights and respect for others, rather than fear and politically motivated propaganda. For now, in Rakhine State, the latter appears to be winning.

By Paul Frieze
September 9, 2016 

In a sign of its commitment to ending the ethnic wars that have bedeviled Myanmar for six decades, the country’s first civilian-led government in half a century held a four-day peace conference last week, to much fanfare.

“Ethnic peoples in areas of our country where there is not yet peace are awaiting expectantly for the outcome of this conference,” said Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and de facto head of Myanmar's new government, with the special role of State Counsellor.

“Many, of all ages, have had to flee their homes to avoid conflict, and it has been long since their hopes have dimmed,” she told conference participants in the capital, Naypyitaw. “We must not forget their plight.”

Refugees and other victims of the long-running conflicts might be forgiven for thinking they have indeed been forgotten, and advocates told IRIN they don’t expect much to change in the wake of the conference, despite all the high-flying rhetoric.

Some 100,000 refugees have languished in camps in Thailand since the 1990s, while about 113,000 civilians in northern Myanmar have been displaced by conflict since 2011. In the western state of Rakhine, 120,000 people – almost all ethnic Rohingya Muslims – are still living in displacement camps four years after being driven from their communities.

Reverend Hkalam Samson of the Kachin Baptist Convention, which assists internally displaced people, mainly in Kachin state, said peace talks often gave people more reason to be scared than hopeful.

“Every time there is a meeting like this, there is more fighting in the Kachin area, so the IDPs are also worried about that,” he said. “For the IDPs, the conference wasn't meaningful.”

‘Losing their futures’ 

The conference held little meaning too for IDPs in western Rakhine state as it did not touch on their ethnic and sectarian conflict, which exploded in two bouts of violence that drove them from their homes in 2012 and is still simmering.

The UN’s emergency aid coordination agency, OCHA, said in a report this week that “urgently needed shelter upgrades” are being done in camps in Rakhine state. The longhouses were built as temporary shelter and many “are now at the end of their lifespan” after four years of being battered by monsoon rains and a cyclone last year, the report said.

The vast majority of the victims of the 2012 violence were minority Rohingya who were burned out of their homes by mobs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. But there are still some displaced ethnic Rakhines living in camps too. 

Rohingyas in a displacement camp in April 2013 (Photo: Brendan Brady/IRIN)
The government’s inability to resolve the displacement crisis has much to do with the hostility of Rakhine nationalists toward the Rohingya. They consider Rohingya to be interlopers from Bangladesh despite the fact that some of them have ancestors who lived in the area centuries ago. Other Rohingya families have been there for generations, having migrated around the region both before and after the British drew an arbitrary border across it when they conquered part of what was then known as Burma in 1824.

Decades of discriminatory policies by Myanmar’s former military rulers, who took power in a 1962 coup, gradually stripped the Rohingya of citizenship. It’s an issue that the current administration and the previous semi-civilian, reformist government that took over from the junta in 2011 have struggled to resolve. Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration recently appointed former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to head a commission that will spend a year examining the situation before submitting recommendations. Some ethnic Rakhines protested Annan when he visited the state capital this week.
Abu Tahay, who founded a banned Rohingya political organisation called the Union National Development Party, welcomed the creation of the commission, though he noted that its three Muslim representatives were not Rohingya but hailed from communities in central Myanmar instead.

He said the government has failed in its obligation to help displaced Rohingya return home, while even those who remain in their villages are subject to stringent movement restrictions and of lack access to healthcare, employment, and education.

“People are losing their futures,” he said.

Ongoing fighting

Resolving displacement in northern Myanmar will prove equally difficult – especially as fighting is ongoing between the military and three ethnic armed groups: the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Arakan Army.

Myanmar’s military refused to let representatives from those groups attend last week’s meeting in the capital. The meeting was dubbed the “21st Century Panglong Conference”, invoking the 1947 Panglong Agreement between major ethnic organisations and Aung San, the independence hero and father of Aung San Suu Kyi who was assassinated shortly thereafter. Some took the military’s hardline stance as a sign that it was not genuinely interested in talking peace.

A camp in Khutkai, Shan state, for people displaced by conflict, seen in September 2015 (Photo: Htoo Tay Zar/IRIN)
“The international community and central government say an inclusive peace process is beginning in Myanmar, but there is still fighting every day in Ta’ang areas,” said Mai Lyruk, an activist with the Ta’ang Student and Youth Union.

“I get no special hope from the 21st Century Panglong Conference, because it’s a very small step for peace negotiations and doesn't include all ethnic armed organisations,” he said by phone from Shan State, where most ethnic Ta’ang live.

Another peace conference is scheduled in six months. If the second half of the year is anything like the last, the number of IDPs in camps can be expected to swell as fighting in the north continues. 

Some 12,000 ethnic Ta’ang and Shan villagers fled their homes in Shan state in the first half of 2016, while 240 civilians were newly displaced in Kachin state during the same period, the OCHA report said.

(TOP PHOTO: Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi sits in the front row at a peace conference that began 31 August 2016 in Naypyitaw. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is on the far left, and President Htin Kyaw sits to her right. CREDIT: Paul Frieze)

Ethnic delegates attend the 21st Century Panglong Conference, which began on Wednesday in Naypyidaw. (Photo: Pyay Kyaw / The Irrawaddy)

By Sai Latt
September 3, 2016

A few days before the start of this week’s 21st Century Panglong peace conference, the State Counselor’s Office announced the formation of an advisory commission on Arakan state, to be chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. In late May this year, President U Htin Kyaw formed the Central Committee for the Implementation of Peace and Development in Arakan State. It has 27 members, all of whom are government officials, and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the chair.

The creation of these bodies, and the holding of the Panglong conference, indicates that peace is high on the government’s agenda.

For some time now, two of the most important elements in the current political landscape have been seen as distinct problems: the peace process involving the government and ethnic armed groups, and the violent and racist ultra-nationalist campaign against the Rohingya, and Muslims in general, by the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its Burmese language acronym Ma Ba Tha. Very few people working on the peace process take the nationalist campaign seriously, and vice versa.

Yet there are clear connections between the two, in terms of how the nationalist movement can undermine the peace process. For a start, lessons can be learned by looking at how Ma Ba Tha’s populist campaign against Rohingyas/Muslims turned democratic forces from “state enemies” into “public enemies,” and from the “people’s friends” to the “nation’s traitors.”

Democratic forces: from ‘state enemies’ to ‘public enemies’

One of the prime victims of the nationalist movement is the cohort of democratic forces (however problematic and racist some may have been) that have dissented from the junta since 1988. These forces include the (once) exiled media, the international community, human rights activists and monks, as well as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her loyal dissident groups.

Past regimes consistently accused them of trying to break up the Union. State propaganda called overseas and once-exiled media—including the BBC, VOA, RFA, DVB, The Irrawaddy and Mizzima—“killer media, liars and troublemakers.” State media described the international community as neocolonialists who were manipulating opposition groups in order to control the country. Human rights groups were accused of destabilizing Burma, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi described as a threat to sovereignty and culture.

But twenty-five years of such state propaganda did not work. People always supported the anti-junta forces and saw them as saviors. People looked up to them as agents of change and as friends of the people.

However, after the Arakan State riots broke out in 2012, people started believing nationalist rhetoric—that all these forces were betraying the nation by supporting the Rohingya. As the Rohingya issue was increasingly framed as a threat to sovereignty, people started seeing the democratic forces too as threatening sovereignty, religion and culture.

For instance, various media organizations were accused of taking money from the international Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in exchange for producing pro-Rohingya news. Some cartoonists portrayed them as dogs fed by the Rohingya. The Democratic Voice of Burma, whose radio and TV output people have relied on for decades, was called the Democratic Voice of Bengali. Human rights activists were accused of exchanging sovereignty, and race-and-religion, for dangerous foreign ideas. Articles were written condemning “human rights” as infringing sovereignty. Public protests against international and local nongovernmental organizations were organized. Senior UN official Tomás Ojea Quintana’s convoy was attacked. UN envoy Yanghee Lee was called a “whore.” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was criticized and insulted in ways previously unimaginable.

Within a few months, groups and individuals long known for challenging the regime were being framed as the “people’s enemies.” Members of the public started saying things about these groups that those in power had been unable to get them to say for more than two decades. Ironically, this was achieved not by the traditional state propaganda machine, but by a “people’s movement” led by monks.

This points to the need to see the anti-Rohingya/Muslim campaign as something rather more than just a distraction from the “real issues,” as some describe it. In fact, the campaign became a populist political instrument whose direct opposition to Rohingya/Muslims eventually, and ironically, weakened public support, trust and confidence in the democratic forces that had been trying to weaken the oppressors.

This raises questions around whether the Rohingya/Muslims are indeed the ultimate targets of the nationalist campaign. It may be asked if, (i) the nationalist campaign has been strategically orchestrated in unknown bunkers; (ii) those in power have just turned the violence of an unfolding nationalist campaign to their own advantage; or (iii) the outcomes have been uncalculated and merely the result of coincidence.

Whether the outcomes were orchestrated or coincidental, it is certain that the forces of democratization have been discredited and transformed into “public enemies” in sudden and shocking ways.

Moving targets

The obvious target being one thing and the result something else is not an isolated phenomenon; it is part of a pattern. Take the way many more people, for a time, came to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a threat to sovereignty, and to race-and-religion. The previous military junta spent 25 years painting her as a threat to the nation—for marrying the late Dr. Michael Aris, a British historian of Himalayan cultures—but the people did not buy that propaganda. Yet, in late 2014 and 2015, the number of people opposing her, at least on social media, seemed to rise rapidly. How did this happen?

The racist ultra-nationalist narratives are often all about women in danger, mostly in terms of sexual violence and marital strife, caused by lu myo char, bar thar char (people of a different race and religion), i.e. foreigners.

When the Arakan State riots broke out in 2012, the initial narrative had to do with “Bengali” men raping an Arakanese Buddhist woman. The narrative around victimhood shifted gradually to become about “kalar” (a derogatory term for Muslims and those of South Asian descent) assaulting Burmese women—then about “lu myo char, bar thar char” forcing Burmese women to marry them, converting them (and their children) to Islam by force, and torturing and killing them if they refused.

Using made-up stories, the narrative warned that Burmese people should not engage socially with Muslims, and that inter-marriage was dangerous. The spinning went further. Nationalists distributed Facebook photos of Burmese ladies overseas dating black men, and then images of Burmese girls in sexy clothing partying with white people. They were relaying a message that such Burmese women were disrespecting Burmese culture and therefore posed a danger to race-and-religion. Eventually, the message morphed into the idea that it was wrong for Burmese women to have sexual and marital relations with foreigners. Prior to the 2015 general election, the prime target of this idea became Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Had the campaign been launched directly against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the first instance, people would have immediately understood it as the usual propaganda. But when the idea that Burmese women marrying foreigners is wrong was constructed in the context of the Rohingya, who were already painted and often taken as outcasts, more and more people internalized the notion. As the idea traveled through different contexts under the guise of disciplining young women and protecting culture and religion, it became more accepted. In 2015, when the issue was overheating, it was used directly against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. By that time, the overtly sexist and racist content of the messaging was unlike anything that had been seen before. This was a powerful psy-war achievement, until people realized it was propaganda against her.

To recap, whether it was orchestrated or a mere coincidence, the outcome was obvious: a narrative of condemning rape in 2012 became one of anti-Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015.

Nationalists against reconciliation

Just as the racist nationalist movement has been seen in the two examples above to have successfully undermined the forces of democratization, it could work similarly against the forces of national reconciliation in unexpected and unforeseen ways. This may sound speculative, but the matters already discussed show signs of what could happen, and how.

National reconciliation requires equality between the Burman majority and ethnic minorities, in terms of political decision-making, defense, economic rights and cultural rights. Predominant or significant populations of many ethnic groups are Christian. But the nationalist campaigns, speeches and writings work against equality among all groups. The nationalists’ calls for Buddhist Burman supremacy in the political hierarchy reinforces what minority groups see as chauvinism—a root cause of ethnic conflict.

Recently, anti-Christian articles and cartoons have been seen in print publications and posted on social media, including on Ma Ba Tha’s official Facebook page. Signboards have been put up in various towns saying that lu myo char, bar thar char are not allowed to live in the locality, or to buy and sell at the local markets. A signboard in Shwe Naung in Shan State identified Muslims, Christians and Hindus as those who are so barred.

The discourse around lu myo char (different race/ethnicity) reinforces discrimination based on ethnicity.

Even poetry is not immune. A poem by Shin Myo Chit about marriage and the expression of Burmese pride is titled “Avoid lu myo char.” A poem by Maha Bawdi Myein Sayadaw warns readers not to sell land to lu myo char so as to preserve sovereignty. While these poems do not specifically define who lu myo char are, the call for “pure Burmese” blood, and even “pure Buddhist” blood, indicate that they proscribe everyone who is not Buddhist and/or Burmese.

Moving towards the political arena, a senior monk wrote an article titled “Traitors of the Country,” published on the Ma Ba Tha (Central) Online Media and Thargitwe Journal Facebook pages, which said that everyone has the responsibility to protect sovereignty, culture and race-and-religion. He stated that those being influenced and supported by foreign countries were traitors—so were politicians defending bar thar char (non-Buddhists) with outside support.

Many poems, articles and short stories conflate the protection of Buddhism and Burman culture with the perpetuation of sovereignty. This is at odds with calls from ethnic groups for federalism, in which all members are equal partners.

In addition, discourses around “lu myo char,” “bar thar char,” “land,” and “protecting sovereignty” run the risk of becoming powerful propaganda tools for those in power to criminalize ethnic armed groups’ struggle for equality and national reconciliation. For ethnic groups can be seen as lu myo char, bar thar char or both. Their struggle for equality, self-determination and federalism, which is in part a struggle for what they see as their ancestral land, could be distorted as an attempt by lu myo char, bar thar char to control “our forefather’s” land, break up the Union and threaten the nation’s sovereignty.

The point is that, if any unforeseen circumstance were to trigger a mass movement against the forces of national reconciliation in the name of protecting sovereignty and race-and-religion, the movement’s aims would be all too achievable—because the narratives around national traitors and lu myo char, bar thar char threatening sovereignty and race-and-religion are all already in place.

Many people already hold such notions, at least in some form. If ultra-nationalists were to embark on a mass campaign against ethnic groups, neither historical context nor facts would matter much. For the campaigns discussed earlier, which succeeded in discrediting the democratic forces, were all based on lies, deception and hatred—perpetuated in this case not by the traditional state propaganda machine, but by monks who are supposed to never lie, deceive or hate. They could do so by invoking the uncontested power of the Sangha and their special status in society.

The fact that nationalists are deploying ideas around sovereignty is concerning, because protecting sovereignty is a very distinctive military discourse that has been invoked to crush ethnic minority groups. As recently as June 21, Burma’s armed forces chief stated during a meeting with members of the Tatmadaw in Shan State that national defense was about more than just military activity, but also about protecting race-and-religion.

A threat to peace

In short, whether a coincidence or not, the nationalist movement’s key narratives of protecting race-and-religion continue to contribute to blocking recognition of diversity and equality as necessary conditions for national reconciliation.

Looking at the ways in which the forces of democratization became public enemies, receiving the brunt of public outcry as a by-product of the racist nationalist campaign against Rohingya/Muslims, who can guarantee that the same campaign won’t provide a platform to be used against the forces of national reconciliation, at the very least as an unintended consequence?

It is to be hoped that people in the government and the peace movement have a vision and a strategy for such an outcome, before it strikes at the heart of peace and national reconciliation.

(This is a shorter version of a research paper in Burmese titled “Beyond Muslims: Ma Ba Tha’s Impacts on Democratization and National Reconciliation” to be published in the Myanmar Quarterly Journal in September).

Dr. Sai Latt received his Ph.D. in Human Geography from Simon Fraser University in Canada. He is a Research Associate of the York Center for Asian Research at York University in Toronto. His research covers violence, securitization and displacement.

(Photo: Eddy Milfort)

By Trevor Wilson
APPS Policy Forum
July 19, 2016

Can the new government deliver?

Expectations on Myanmar’s new government are sky high, but is it up to tackling the significant challenges the country faces? Trevor Wilson outlines the areas for optimism and those where pessimism prevails.

After Myanmar’s 2015 elections, the international credit rating agency, Moody’s, initially issued a very positive response to the results, describing the National League for Democracy’s (NLD’s) landslide victory as “credit positive”.

This judgment is consistent with the generally favourable response to the election outcome, which seemed to confirm the overall popularity of the NLD and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But is it more complicated than this? What is really known about the NLD’s likely policies and attitudes to defining and shaping the country, and what is known about their experience and likely competence in handling the complexity and pressures of governing?

After the NLD’s crushing election victory, some risk assessment agencies may be inclined to give the NLD the benefit of the doubt (although they might not necessarily admit this publicly). However, it will probably become apparent quite quickly if the NLD is not living up to the very high expectations that their victory created.

Clear-headed judgments about the NLD’s capacity to govern, and trust in effective national policies, are needed with less hyperbole about the advent of ‘democracy’ in Myanmar. How will Myanmar’s new government demonstrate that it really possesses the institutions and systems to manage the country’s major national issues over the next five years?

A reasonable question to ask is: what outcomes are expected with Myanmar’s major problems under a new government, and how will the NLD’s standing be affected in the next few years? In broad terms, the two major matters of (related) unfinished business in Myanmar are the process of national reconciliation and the consolidation of peace (in socio-economic terms as well as in political terms).

These are both issues in which the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular are keenly interested, and on which there may not be a great deal of difference between the overall approach of the previous Thein Sein government and that of an NLD government, although significant differences in style and the handling of contentious issues may emerge.

There are grounds for slight optimism, in terms of reconciliation, between the NLD and the Army. The current Commander in Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, certainly seems disposed to seek reconciliation with Suu Kyi, although it remains to be seen whether an enduring arrangement between them can be consummated. Ongoing relations between the military and the NLD are likely to call for deft and delicate management of the various issues, possibly leading to some natural wavering in the relationship at times. What might happen to this relationship when Aung San Suu Kyi departs the political scene is far from clear.

No doubt all concerned would hope to leave a legacy of stability and pragmatic collaboration between the army and “progressive forces” for the sake of national cohesion, knowing that the country still has much “catching up” to do. Continued emphasis on increased transparency in policies and politics would assist Myanmar achieve this goal.

However, on the question of a possible reconciliation between Myanmar’s Buddhists and Myanmar’s Muslims, especially the Rohingya, there are less grounds for optimism, and here it may be international expectations that are rather unrealistic. Conflict has existed in Myanmar over Muslim migration from Bangladesh dating back to historical times, and many Rohingya were never granted Myanmar citizenship, although considerable numbers were.

Previous Myanmar governments deferred any resolution of this problem, on which it proved impossible to achieve a reasonable national consensus. Under military rule, successive regimes resorted to an interim ‘solution’ based on segregation of the two communities.

It is unclear whether the incoming NLD government can easily reverse previous arrangements under which a measure of co-existence had been possible; yet the current ad hoc situation is probably unsustainable. Nor is it clear whether finding such a solution to the Rohingya problem is a high priority for the NLD.

On the general matter of achieving lasting peace and appropriate socio-economic development, it is hard to be optimistic, given the sorry history of highly centralised modern Burma, and the struggle to secure the ‘nationwide’ cease-fire agreement pushed so determinedly under the Thein Sein government. Political reconciliation is inevitably closely connected to the issue of federalism, or decentralisation and proper recognition of regional aspirations.

On these key questions, both the Thein Sein government and the army shied away from firm decisions, alarmed by the unexpected outbreak of communal violence in 2012. And even Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD seem uncertain about taking any bold or risky decision on substantive decentralisation of power and authority, let alone a practical “federal” system of government. A symbolic step – such as the convening of a new Panglong Conference as is being proposed by Aung San Suu Kyi – might help, but it is by no means clear that worthwhile concrete solutions would emerge, given the long legacy of distrust and suspicion that persists. Sensing this, regional communities seem doubtful that an NLD government would really allow Bamar/Burman interests to be subsumed by ethic interests in regional areas.

One other key question is how Myanmar’s new government will get on in the international realm. On foreign policy, generally, it could be argued that bi-partisanship has dominated Myanmar’s international relations with the important exception of sanctions, which Myanmar’s military dominated regimes opposed but the NLD broadly supported. The lifting of most sanctions after Myanmar’s April 2012 by-elections, meant that this point of differentiation between the major parties has disappeared. Myanmar’s broadly ‘non-aligned’ foreign policy is now supported by all concerned, as is Myanmar’s active participation in ASEAN, and its pursuit of constructive relations simultaneously with China, the United States, and India. Recent years have seen both major parties devote some priority to the smooth conduct of Myanmar’s relations with the major powers in its sphere – China, the United States, and India.

A new NLD government will not bring any particular advantages – or disadvantages – in foreign policy, despite the superficial impression that the NLD enjoyed superior relations with Washington and its allies. If anything, China will be inherently suspicious of an NLD government, even when those suspicions are not really justified or soundly based on substantive problems.

Considering all of the above it is no surprise that one firm specialising in country risk assessment, BMI (Business Monitor International) Research, recently published its updated “Risk Reward Index” assessment after the new Myanmar government took office in March 2016, ranking Myanmar 38.9 out of 100, up from its previous raking of 34 out of 1000. This might seem like a harsh assessment, but it is probably about where Myanmar should be ranked, given that most regional countries have been exposed to investor expectations for a much longer time than Myanmar. The key then might be to ensure the new Myanmar government takes such assessments seriously.

Overall, a key task for the new Myanmar government will be to generate wider confidence in its ability to govern well. This will involve demonstrating to the widest possible audience its capacity to run the country reasonably effectively, with no major confrontations or disruptions, minimising petty internal differences and conflicts, and avoiding serious mistakes or mishaps.

These are no small challenges for a new and relatively inexperienced government. As Foreign Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi can play a vital role in sustaining international confidence in Myanmar. However, the international media, international credit agencies, international financial institutions, foreign investors and international donors could be rather unforgiving if they decide that Myanmar has squandered its chances and lost the ‘trust’ of the international community. This may be why, in Myanmar, appeals to national unity and national cohesion are not only important, they are real. This is also why the international community needs to listen to those who know Myanmar well, and not just those who perceive Myanmar primarily through their own agenda.

This article is a collaboration between Policy Forum and New Mandala, the premier website for analysis on Southeast Asia’s politics and society.

Rohingya Exodus