The Situation in Myanmar, Put Simply

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By Senior Campaign Agent Guinevere Poncia

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is sandwiched between Thailand, China, Laos, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. It is home to a multitude of ethnic groups, including a Muslim minority, the Rohingya, in the North-Western Rakhine state. Recently, evidence has come to light of a systematic ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military. UN human rights expert Yanghee Lee recently reported that information “indicates the government may be trying to expel the Rohingya population from the country altogether”.

By and large, the Rohingya are considered by the government in Myanmar to be illegal immigrants who migrated to the state following Burmese independence from British colonial rule in 1948. This is also a common view amongst Myanmar nationals. Consequently, the Rohingya cannot claim citizenship, or travel freely. Recently, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh following persecution. Military presence in the Rakhine is part of Myanmar’s crackdown on insurgent groups, but the Rohingya claim that the military is targeting them indiscriminately. Refugees have recounted horrific experience of gang rape, torture, and infanticide (detailed in this UN report) The UN is particularly concerned about ‘re-victimisation’ of refugees into forced labour or trafficking.

Myanmar’s History and Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar is a Buddhist-majority nation. Until recently, it has been a notoriously secretive, isolationist state, under oppressive military rule from 1962. The most recent military junta seized power in 1988, and condemned Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the pro-democracy movement, to house arrest soon after. The regime is now infamous for its human rights abuses.

2015 saw the first openly contended election in Myanmar for a quarter of a decade, hence, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in the elections, and she became State Counsellor (akin to the role of Prime Minister, due to being barred from the presidency), many had high hopes.

Since then, Aung San Suu Kyi’s inaction concerning atrocities in the Rohingya state has garnered intense international criticism, especially from the UN. Aung San Suu Kyi faces a particular problem, in that the military is autonomous, and unlikely beholden to any external influence. Moreover, domestic pressure is also lacking, with public opinion being broadly in support of the military’s action. So far, Suu Kyi has been unwilling to comment on the situation, avoiding interviews with all but a few foreign journalists. In April 2017, she stated in a rare interview that “ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening”. She also recently clashed with the UN’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, over Suu Kyi’s rejection of an international probe into the military’s action.

What is happening now?

Recent displacement of the Rohingya dates back to at least 2012. In 2013, there were nationwide anti-Muslim riots. Yanghee Lee is calling for the UN to begin a Commission of Inquiry into the current episodes of violence, as well as those in 2012 and 2014. However, due to continuing restrictions, foreign journalists are unable to verify the conditions in the Rakhine. In addition, many European nations, despite backing the probe proffered by Mogherini, are unwilling to back the calls for such an in-depth investigation, due to fears of shattering recent and future progress in Myanmar towards becoming a more democratic state. Many still place faith in Aung San Suu Kyi to take action.

In May 2017, a new round of peace talks in the capital Naypyidaw began, aiming to quell regional violence. Scepticism hangs over the talks, and notably, the issues in the Rakhine state will not be under discussion.

Clearly, any action that can be taken by the international community must take into account the delicate balance that currently exists in Myanmar between its democratic and military facets, which, given its recent inception, could easily be destabilised. However, one must ask, that with evidence of atrocities against the Rohingya, for how much longer can large-scale human suffering play second fiddle to politics?

Further reading:

Aung San Suu Kyi denies ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, The Guardian
The trouble with Aung San Suu Kyi, Al Jazeera
Myanmar wants ethnic cleansing of Rohingya – UN official, BBC
Myanmar may be seeking to expel all Rohingya, says UN, The Guardian
Myanmar: Displaced Rohingya at risk of ‘re-victimization’ warns UN refugee agency, UN News Centre
Who will help Myanmar’s Rohingya?, BBC
Myanmar’s Suu Kyi opens fresh round of peace talks, Al Jazeera

Image @UN Geneva/Violaine Martin, Flickr

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