According to the UN estimates, Government backed security forces have killed around 1,000 Rohingya people since the 25th of August 2015. As a result of which 350,000 Rohingya people have fled Myanmar and sought refuge in the neighboring country Bangladesh.
Even though the international condemnation of state violence against the Burmese minority group was not swift, the pressure has been mounting on the country’s De Facto Leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi to not only condemn the violence but also use her influence and power to put an end to it. So far she hasn’t spoken a word against the atrocities and rightly so.
Just to give you a brief background; Rohingya is a minority group of 1 million people mainly Muslims who have lived in the Rakhine State of Myanmar since the pre-colonial era. They are regarded as illegal immigrants despite having lived there for generations. They do not have the same freedom of movement as the other religious and ethnic groups and their access to education and health services is limited at best.
Even though the disputes between Rohingya and the ethnic population have existed for decades, they have gotten particularly violent over the last year or so. The recent atrocities in Myanmar began when Rohingya militants attacked border forces, killing 71 civilians and 12 members of security forces. In response, the Burmese military alongside Buddhist militia (there is such a thing) launched a literal “clearance operation”. The UN called this operation “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” but it had no effect on the Burmese military, which has not been discreet about their use of force against civilians ever since they first overthrew a civilian Government in 1962 to establish a ‘Socialist Military Government’.
To understand what is really going on in Myanmar, one must understand the Burmese Military, which controls the affairs of the state from shadows. When they first came into power in 1962, military generals introduced a political dogma called the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ that argued that to be successful, Burma needed a bigger and more engaged military and lesser foreign influence in her internal matters. In the name of this propaganda, the military Government seized private businesses, the proceeds from which were used to accommodate for a drastic expansion in the military budget and lavish lifestyles of top military officials. They also introduced currency denominations that were multiple of the number 9 because a general thought that the number was auspicious. The move wiped off savings of millions of Burmese prompting protests big and small against the military regime but the military state did not hesitate to crush them with its full force. Dozens of students were killed and none of the military officials were ever tried for their atrocities. The media was censored and barred from reporting anything negative about the military all the while so information about countless other crackdowns never made it outside the country.
The foreign policy that the military pursued was identical to their autarkic economic model. They aimed for isolation. The military did not want foreign involvement in Myanmar’s internal affairs for fear that foreign forces might support local dissidents to take up arms against the Government. Even though the military propagated the false notion that Myanmar economically could be a self-sufficient country, they relied heavily on Russia and China, which were happy to make deals with the military officials and co-operate with them on economic matters. The US and EU, on the other hand, imposed sanctions on Myanmar for significant human rights abuses and even though they were able to force manufacturers out of Myanmar, they ended up hurting the civilian population more than the despotic military regime.
Economic anxiety made political ethnic alliances and religious militias more appealing to the youth and the military realized that rebellion against their power was inevitable and, therefore, started a process to permit multiple political parties to participate in elections. They released political prisoners of whom, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is the most prominent. Economic, social and labor reforms were also on the agenda, which included establishing a National Human Rights Commission. This was a major move and one that was at the heart of what the international community had been asking for, but the rights of ethnic and religious minorities are no more safeguarded today than they were at the time of Myanmar’s independence.
Until the year 2008, Myanmar had been operating without a constitution. As a part of the reforms that the military had suggested, a Constitution was drafted and Myanmar after 60 years since her independence, had a Constitution that (in theory) guaranteed civil liberties and human rights to all people including minorities. Upon closer examination, the document allowed the military to govern from the shadows. Here are some of the excerpts from the Burmese Constitution:
Basic Principles 6(f): “... enabling the Defense Services to be able to participate in the National
political leadership role of the State.”
The Burmese military has 25% of the total number of seats in both houses of the Parliament and, therefore, controls 25% of the vote to amend the constitution or enforce any drastic changes to the current system.
Basic Principles 20(a): “The Defense Services is the sole patriotic defense force,
which is strong, competent and modern.”
Despite allowing the propagation of people’s militia (Chapter VII, 340) of which there are many in Myanmar, the military claims itself to be the only ‘patriotic force’ suggesting that other militias may have ethnic and religious loyalties that could overpower their patriotism and, thus, can only be trusted some of the time and under the command of the military. This clause has been cited repeatedly by the Burmese military to crack down on the same citizen militias that had fought alongside them in various disputes.
Basic Principles 20(e): “The Defense Services is mainly responsible for safeguarding
the non-disintegration of the Union, the non-disintegration of National solidarity
and the perpetuation of sovereignty.”
The point to note here is that the ‘main responsibilities’ of the military does not include ensuring the safety of the citizens, their rights or properties. The military’s loyalty exists toward the ‘union’, not so much toward the people.
Basic Principles 40c : “If there arises a state of emergency that could cause disintegration
of the Union, disintegration of national solidarity and loss of sovereign power
or attempts therefore by wrongful forcible means such as insurgency or violence, the
Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services has the right to take over and exercise
State sovereign power in accord with the provisions of this Constitution.”
This basically means that the military could overthrow a civilian government if it feels that one of the militia groups that it constitutionally permitted or a foreign force has become too powerful and threatens the military’s supremacy.
The constitution gave Burmese better future prospects in theory and was, therefore, overwhelmingly approved in a national referendum in 2008. The date for multiple party elections was set for 2010 but Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, National League for Democracy (NLD) criticized the 2008 referendum and alleged cheating and fraud all across the country. They dropped out of the 2010 national elections despite having won crushingly in the 1990 elections, though they were never allowed to form a Government. They did so in hopes that other political parties would follow suit, resulting in a mass boycott of national elections and eventually pressuring the military Government in either holding another referendum or proposing a more civilian-friendly Constitution. Contrary to NLD’s hopes, the elections were not postponed and 40 parties were approved to contest. Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a military backed political party, won 259 out of 330 seats. The EU and US called the elections fraudulent but Russia and China expressed satisfaction that Myanmar had held elections.
NLD was now the main opposition party and had great favorability and support from the civilian population because, thus far, no one had seen the embodiment of the pipe dreams that the military had promised when they asked Burmese people to support their Constitution. USDP mainly just sucked up to their military masters and denied the people much needed social and judicial reforms.
In the 2012 by-elections, NLD contested and won 43 of the 44 seats. USDP having been victorious in the 2010 elections were upset at losing by-elections 2 years later and filed complaints of voter intimidation and poll irregularities. NLD did not contest the results but also filed complaints about mishandling of ballots. This was the time when some of the sanctions on Myanmar and its military leaders were lifted.
(Photograph by Flickr / Kjetil Elsebutangen, UD, Olso Forum - 18 June 2012.)
3 years later, in 2015, general elections were held for the first time since 1990. And just like in 1990, NLD won overwhelmingly with majorities in both houses of the Parliament. However, Aung San Suu Kyi was constitutionally barred from assuming the Presidency since the Burmese Constitution does not allow people, whose children and spouses are foreign nationals, to do so (Aung San Suu Kyi has two children who are British nationals), but she remained the De Facto leader of Myanmar.
Coming back to the current wave of violence in Myanmar. The Myanmar military is responsible for the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas, who they call rebels and terrorists. Although there are factions in Rohingya people that have carried out terrorist attacks in Myanmar, the military is using that as an excuse to burn down dozens of villages and force entire Rohingya populations out of Myanmar and into Bangladesh. Over the years, Bangladesh has also been accused of supporting separationist forces in the Rakhine State but would only accept Rohingyas if it got hold of the land they own in Rakhine State, which the military and ethnic majorities are strongly opposed to.
Although the military falls under the control of the Civilian Government, the “clearance operation” is being led independently of it with the help of local ethnic and religious militias who treat and view Rohingyas as stateless people illegally occupying Myanmar land. The military knows that nothing would push Aung San Suu Kyi’s buttons like leading a crusade against a minority group while she is the De Facto leader. As soon as she condemns the violence in Rohingya or takes an action to put an end to it, the USDP (with the military support) will run to the Burmese people, who are still recovering from the death of 71 civilians and 12 members of security forces, and tell them how Aung San Suu Kyi hates Myanmar and does not share their patriotism or concern for the country and its people. That she is a slave to her Western masters and want the UN to impose sanctions on Myanmar that will once again hurt the Burmese people just like it did when the military tried to reduce foreign influence in the country’s internal matters. This would delegitimize NLD’s influence and nullify all that it has accomplished so far.
Myanmar has dozens of militias who the military could rile up against the sitting Government at a drop of a hat and for all we know, could seize power in a matter of days. Not to mention, elections are the current hot topic in Myanmar and to speak against what the majority of the Burmese people believe, will hurt NLD’s political agenda and what Aung San Suu Kyi plans to accomplish.
The media has failed to convey to the world that the majority of the Myanmar population support the military action against Rohingya and are active participants in the ethnic genocide. And if Aung San Suu Kyi were to condemn the Burmese military and militant monks, she would be cornering herself in the minority, which could do significant damage to her party’s campaign for reelection.
On top of it, the Rakhine’s local assembly is Governed by a Buddhist nationalist party (ANP) who, like the majority of the Burmese Buddhists, think that they will become a minority in their own country and the only way to preserve their identity is to force Rohingya out of their land.
Condemnations from the Security Council, United Nations, and individual states do not help Aung San Suu Kyi who we all know would put an end to the violence if she could. She needs to show restraint, foresight, and forethought and the international community ought to realize that. Instead of showing exasperation at Aung San Suu Kyi, we could set up temporary refugee shelters in Bangladesh and once the people are out, Aung San Suu Kyi could begin a dialogue with the military.
The media has been overly critical of Aung San Suu Kyi; there is only so much she could do, as the disputes that led to violence have existed for centuries and cannot be resolved in just a few days, weeks or months.
There is nothing she could say or do that would protect the Rohingya population. The international media has questioned her silence more than condemned the actual perpetrators of the massacre, which in turn has only helped the military’s strategy to have NLD take an unpopular stance so close to the elections. Moreover, it seems probable that the United States will levy new sanctions against Myanmar for the violence and if the sanctions succeeded Aung San Suu Kyi’s condemnation and criticism of the crusade against Rohingya, the Burmese people would have no hesitancy in holding their De Facto in contempt.
Therefore, it might help Aung San Suu Kyi if the sanctions were announced as soon as possible so she could then make the case for ending the violence against Rohingya people to save Myanmar from an economic collapse. She needs to make Burmese people the centerpiece of her political statements regarding the current wave of violence so as to not alienate herself from the majority.
No doubt this is a complex situation but UN’s first priority should be to set up temporary refugee camps in Bangladesh, get Rohingya people out of there and begin rehabilitation process once matters with the Burmese military have been resolved.🔷