Facing challenges on many fronts, the first priority for Myanmar’s new government is to curb the country’s systemic violence
While seemingly dissimilar in every respect, Myanmar and the Middle East have arrived at an eerily similar ‘historical moment’ in their political trajectories. Both find themselves confronted by a range of domestic issues defined by pluralising societies and unravelling ideational control, and a pressing need to renegotiate the prevailing social contract.
As the historical cycle of the sovereign nation-state is coming to an end in parts of the Middle East, the contingent character of the equation upon which it was advanced becomes visible once again. Historically determined by geographical and temporal conditions rather than ethnic and religious lines, this equation has now been exposed to erosion and changes of time. As the cycle nears its end, violent conflicts over those previously ignored ethnic and religious lines are the norm again.
While this violent paradigm in the Middle East grows seemingly out of control, Myanmar’s newly elected president Htin Kyaw and National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi face the gruelling task to [re]build a sovereign nation-state plagued by long-lasting ethnic and religious divides, violent conflicts, and structurally deficient and often corrupt institutions. Reminiscent of the Middle East, international actors are also influencing the process to protect their geopolitical interests.
With a new government and parliament backed by a strong mandate, Myanmar has the opportunity to develop a comprehensive legislative reform program that complies with international human rights norms to protect the rights of the whole population. But, to address these objectives, the new leadership must first face its greatest challenge: the endemic violence at all levels of society.
Partly a legacy of five decades of authoritarian rule, violence in Myanmar involves religious and ethnic conflicts, internally displaced people, incitement and discrimination, land grabs, forced evictions, and child abuse. Human rights violations are systemic and legitimised through a vast number of complex laws enacted by previous rulers.
Religious violence is not just a legacy. It is deeply entrenched at all levels of Myanmar’s society and, so far, there has been no attempt by any party to structurally address the serious human rights concerns it causes.
Hundreds of protesters joined by some Buddhist monks demonstrated outside the US Embassy in Yangon last month (28 April) over its use of the term ‘Rohingya’ in an embassy statement of concern following the drowning of dozens of people after their boat capsized off the coast of Rakhine state.
The protest outlines community polarisation against Muslims fuelled by hate speech and calls by radical Buddhist groups, such as the Ma Ba Tha, for extreme measures in the name of protecting race and religion. Attacks and threats are mainly directed at Muslim communities but also often target anyone offering a different perspective and speaking for non-discrimination. Local orders in northern Rakhine State require Rohingya to obtain permission to marry and seek to limit couples to two children. Consequently, additional children may not be included in the family household list and remain unregistered, with detrimental consequences for the child. These local orders, which received bipartisan support before the November 2015 election, are the results of Ma Ba Tha’s local and national campaigns against Muslims.
Despite calls from the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, requesting the government to uphold the right to health of the entire population in Rakhine and ensure equal access and medical treatment to all in public health facilities, reports are mounting of cases of preventable death due to lack of access to emergency medical treatment for Muslim patients.
The rapporteur’s attempt to secure long-lasting solutions to displacement in accordance with international standards, including voluntary returns to places of origin and protection from continuous segregation of communities, has failed. The reality suggests that protection could not, and very likely would not, be guaranteed. The strong anti-Muslim feeling in the predominantly Buddhist (Theravada) country is unlikely to change and neither is the top-down rejection of the Rohingya’s existence. In this highly polarised and discriminatory context, the Rohingya community is unlikely to receive the help it so desperately needs, leading to more departures by sea and more tragedies.
A nationwide ceasefire agreement was signed between the government and eight armed groups on 15 October 2015, following the signing of a number of bilateral ceasefire agreements with fourteen ethnic armed groups since 2011. However, violent confrontations continue in parts of Myanmar, including Kachin and Shan States, as well as Chin, Rakhine and Karen States— and civilians bear the burden of the ongoing fighting.
Forced evictions, land-grabbing and land confiscations for development projects, mining and other natural resource extraction are increasing poverty, displacement and destroying livelihoods
More than 96,000 people remain displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states as a result of the conflict. Two thousand people remain displaced in southern Shan state, living in camps lacking adequate drinking water and sanitation. The latest conflict, between two ethnic groups, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Restoration Council of Shan State in Shan State, which erupted in November 2015 and intensified last February, has already caused over 3,000 new displacements. Reports of a village being destroyed and more displacements are still emerging.
Land issues present another critical challenge for the new government. An estimated 70 per cent of Myanmar’s population live in rural areas dependent on agriculture and related activities. Forced evictions, land-grabbing and land confiscations for development projects, mining and other natural resource extraction are increasing poverty, displacement and destroying livelihoods.
A recent surge in foreign investment has made this situation worse. There is usually little or no consultation with affected populations, limited or no compensation provided, and limited access to effective legal remedies. In an attempt to protect their rights, people are increasingly resorting to public protests against land confiscations.
Some of those exercising their right to peaceful assembly, including farmers and land-rights activists, face intimidation, threats and criminal prosecution under the complex web of laws still in place. Arrests are frequent, a situation made worse by the lack of effective rule of law and a corrupt judicial system.
The Land Confiscation Investigation Commission reported to the Union Parliament on 25 January 2016 that many land disputes remain unresolved and that government bodies did not comply with relevant laws, procedures and recommendations from the commission. The new National Land Use Policy, adopted in January 2016 following extensive consultation with all stakeholders to help protect the rights of farmers and rural communities, could be the first step towards an overarching land law, and increase the confidence of the private sector looking to invest.
Another significant challenge facing the new leadership is a need to overhaul the judicial system to prevent the reform process being obstructed. A December 2015 report of the Judicial and Legal Affairs Complaints and Grievances Investigation Committee stated that the judiciary remains one of the country’s most corrupt institutions, confirming the existence of a chain of bribery involving judges taking instructions from their superiors.
While the new government is struggling to address an already overly complex environment, important geostrategic plays are underway. China’s interest in developing a US$3 billion oil refinery in the Dawei region in conjunction with the Dawei Special Economic Zone would be the biggest foreign investment in Myanmar.
The controversial project, which involves a partnership with the Myanmar military-linked Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, was approved on the last day of the previous government. The project would give China a leadership position in this enormous development, which could become the biggest of the kind in Southeast Asia. As the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar, China is eager to secure its access to the strategically important Bay of Bengal, which is pivotal to its transportation strategy along the line of its ‘One Belt, One Road’ plan. This is about strategic positioning and cementing regional influence.
Meanwhile, tourists are queuing to visit the ‘last frontier’, and business developments in urban areas are booming. One concern is that the economic growth Myanmar will no doubt experience may not benefit the whole population. Evidence in Cambodia and the Philippines, for example, has shown that economic growth does not necessarily help eradicate social inequality and poverty. Inequality and poverty are catalysts to conflict, a paradigm Myanmar’s new leadership must recognise sooner than later.
Exploitation, inequality and discrimination reveal the universal rights that violence denies. These three paradigms are central to the critical juncture Myanmar faces. The new government’s ability to ascertain the political ambiguity of the figures of violence and, symmetrically, the ambiguity of politics when it is confronted with violence will determine the success or failure of the transitional process from five decades of autocratic rule to democracy.
Although there are present issues at stake, domestic and international actors face an imperative: to rethink the causes and effects of violence in Myanmar. Strategies, not rhetoric, are needed to help the new government move forward.