Myanmar: democracy delayed

Myanmar is going through a meaningful period in its history, transitioning away from a military dictatorship to a multi-partisan democratic government. Internationally, the country is known for its struggle with achieving democracy, personified by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD). This moment in time is of particular importance for the NLD. After winning the elections in November 2015 they formed a new government. These were the first fair elections in the country’s history and the first government that was not led by the military.

An aspect often overlooked by the international community is how regionally and ethnically diverse Myanmar is. There are many examples of individual regions rising up against the government of Naypyidaw. One situation currently playing out is the alleged persecution of the Rohingya people. The crisis has been marked by a general apathy and lack of action on the part of the national government.

The Rohingya people are a minority population of Muslims living on the northern side of Rakhine state, which lies in the south-western corner of the country and shares a border with Bangladesh.  Tensions and conflicts between them and the majority Buddhist population in Rakhine state have always existed. However, in June and October 2012 a series of escalating and violent conflicts led to the burning of thousands of houses and the deaths of several people, both Muslim and Buddhist. This resulted in a mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people, with many attempting to flee across the borders. Bangladesh, which shares the closest ties both ethnically and religiously with the Rohingya, rejected them and sent them back into Myanmar. The result was approximately 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims being forced into refugee camps guarded by the military with serious restrictions on their movements. Now, they have limited access to basic needs and disease and malnutrition are rampant within these camps.

three people standing in front of a makeshift hut

Displaced Rohingya people in Dar Paing camp, Sittwe, Rakhine state|Photograph EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash


Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these attacks is who participated and instigated the violence. Ordinary citizens played roles along with known members of political parties, but many of the instigators and leaders in these attacks were Buddhist monks. This highlights how far the hatred towards the Rohingya stretches within society in Myanmar. Government forces have also been accused both of general indifference towards the persecution, and in some cases direct involvement in violent acts during the events in 2012.

Since the confrontations in 2012, clashes and violence have been a regular occurrence in Rakhine state. As recently as October 2016, violent clashes between alleged Muslim groups and security forces left 30 dead including nine police officers. As is the case with most of these attacks, both the Rohingya people and other Burmese blame each other, insisting that the other side instigated the violence. No further action was taken, making the achievement of a peaceful resolution ever more difficult.

This crisis has been a serious hindrance to Myanmar’s progress towards democracy.  Already there have been questions over whether or not the new government is committed to the preservation of human rights.  Humanitarian and ethical implications aside, internal stability has to be key for the new democratic government to succeed and to attract investment and development into the country. Myanmar has to bolster and better its image to the international community as an open country and welcoming nation. For the most part, the new NLD government has ignored the crisis, preferring to manage the situation rather than attempt to resolve it. This general unwillingness is likely to come out of fear of losing support from many Buddhist voters and Rakhine nationalists. This situation could in fact be an opportunity for the new government to cooperate with the international community and demonstrate to the world that Myanmar is no longer an isolated nation, but rather a serious and active player in global politics.

Buddhist monks standing with a large banner saying "No Rohingya in Rakhine's Land"

Anti-Rohingya demonstration in Sittwe, Rakhine state in November 2014 | Photograph Greg Constantine


On September 5 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi participated in a UN panel on the crisis alongside former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. This was met with resistance and fierce opposition within Rakhine state with those protesting citing a lack of knowledge by foreigners of the history and culture of the area. Suu Kyi has come under fire in the past for not speaking out enough about the humanitarian crisis. She states that she has spoken openly about it in the past only, “nobody takes any account of that because that is not what they want to hear. They want me to make, you know, incendiary remarks, which I am not going to do.”  Suu Kyi then travelled to the US where the government agreed to lift its sanctions imposed on Myanmar, indicating that the topic of the Rohingya was not a hindrance in the US decision and was likely not even brought up. The US government is certainly not putting any pressure on the Myanmar government to take meaningful action.

As Myanmar continues down its path of democratisation and steps up to become a major player on the international stage, Suu Kyi and her new NLD government must show the world that they are organised and effective, meaning that resolving this crisis needs to be at the forefront of their agenda.

Read more about the unfolding situation in Rakhine state

Al Jazeera – Myanmar’s Rohingya brace for more attacks in Rakhine

Radio Free Asia – U.N. Envoy Urges Myanmar Government to Launch Probe of Maungdaw Violence

Thumbnail image: Girl in rain in Tandoli village, Sittwe, Rakhine state | Photograph Steve Gumaer

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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