The Pall of Silence Around Myanmar’s Fictitious Democracy

Ethnic Rohingya refugees from among two boatloads of asylum-seekers rescued by Indonesian fishermen in February last year. Myanmar's democratic trappings mask the true nature of the enduring military regime. (AFP Photo/Chaideer Mahyuddin)

On March 27 this year, Myanmar Times editor-in-chief Ross Dunkley sent out an unsettling e-mail to his editors and staff. Citing “a considerable amount of pressure from different quarters” and “a number of forces from the president’s office downwards,” Dunkley instructed journalists to unequivocally avoid any reporting on matters regarding the “Rohinga [ sic ], Bengalis, Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine.”

The editor of one of Myanmar’s largest English-language newspapers was referring to an ongoing sectarian conflict in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists that several human rights organizations have called a genocide in process. Riots and clashes in 2012 that left almost a hundred people dead and a hundred thousand displaced brought light to a long-simmering conflict just as Myanmar emerged from decades of isolation in the wake of democratic changes in 2011.

In a year when Myanmar holds the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and wishes to improve its reputation as a country on its way to democracy and prosperity, the fact that such violations are allowed to happen is an embarrassment to the scores of international leaders who have praised its progressive policies.

The Rohingya are a mainly Sunni Muslim ethnic group that primarily reside in Rakhine, an area they have inhabited for centuries. According to the Myanmar government’s narrative, the roughly one-million-strong group are illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh.

They are ostracized by the local Buddhist Rakhine ethnic majority in their state, and by the dominant Buddhist Bamar ethnic majority in the country as a whole. Stateless and impoverished, rejected by their own government and by that of neighboring Bangladesh, many of them attempt to flee to other nations by boat, resulting in numerous deadly capsizes and a deteriorating refugee crisis.

Whereas much of the initial violence was perpetrated by both sides, the conflict has become increasingly one-sided as an acquiescent military and police have aided and abetted crimes committed by local Buddhists against the Rohingya.

Reports of a Rohingya mujahideen force trained in Afghanistan and carrying out attacks in India in preparation for an insurgency in Myanmar are largely unsubstantiated. Nonetheless, future campaigns by the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) a little-known Rohingya militant group, and other nascent groups funded by sympathizers across the Muslim world could become a reality if the scale of oppression persists.

The radical 969 movement, led by the Buddhist monk Wirathu, has called for the expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar and has orchestrated anti-Muslim riots that killed scores of people and burned entire villages in 2013. The expulsion of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) early this year worsened an already grave humanitarian disaster.

All of this is occurring in a country that is still paralyzed by decades of low-level warfare between armies representing each of the country’s myriad ethnic groups and the central government, which has always maintained strong centralized control of this nation with bewildering linguistic and cultural diversity.

Dunkley’s alarming order is a symptom of the repression that has not abated since the supposed reforms of 2011. While the US government opens a commercial service office to aid American companies in investing in Myanmar, journalists are being jailed, miners abducted, medical workers expelled, and poor civilians forcefully evicted from their land.

When Myanmar was a pariah state, Western nations were quick to denounce the military junta’s human rights abuses, such as its restriction of aid in the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Now, as much of the same abuses have continued — censorship, the use of child soldiers, and the oppression of ethnic minorities — the same nations are silent.

All it took for Myanmar to be embraced by the global community was to release some political prisoners, among them the famed democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and implement limited democratic reforms that led to free and fair by-elections in 2012. With access to a lucrative new market, it has become inconvenient for foreign leaders to denounce the now supposedly civilian junta.

Beneath this veneer of democracy, however, power rests in the same hands. The generals who oversaw the slaughter of pro-democracy protesters in the 1980s are still in power today; many just have hung up their army uniform to don a suit. Even those politicians celebrated as pioneers of freedom abroad, such as Suu Kyi, have been appallingly silent as the Burmese government and Buddhist mobs have escalated their campaign of violence against the Rohingya minority. Suu Kyi is seemingly more interested in pushing for a constitutional reform that would allow her to run for president in 2015 — a praiseworthy effort, but hardly the most pressing issue facing Myanmar today.

The establishment of democratic elections and the legalization of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy were steps in the right direction, and came with an increase in press freedom. Furthermore, disaster preparedness has greatly improved in the wake of destructive cyclones. On matters pertaining to the freedoms of speech and assembly, Myanmar President Thein Sein has made great strides in reform.

But these laudable steps are not enough. As evidenced by the censoring of the Myanmar Times, President Sein has shown that when it comes to defending the army’s core interests, he is willing to suspend the limited freedoms he has afforded to his people.

Khin Ohmar was a student activist during the pro-democracy uprising in 1988 who subsequently fled over the Myanmar-Thai border. “Three years after President Thein Sein’s government took power, the chance to chair Asean is an opportunity for the Burmese [Myanmar] government to show their commitment to democracy,” she says.

“Contrary to the perception, which was applauded in great deal by the Asean and the West that the press has gained greater freedom since the reform, the country has regressed with more media restrictions imposed on journalists, and arrests of journalists such as the Unity Journal reporter Zaw Pe and Ma Khine even during the Asean summit,” says Ohmar, who is now the coordinator of Burma Partnership, a pro-democracy and human rights network. “This is a worrying sign of backsliding in the reform process.”

With the advent of democracy, the army must pursue what will garner the support of its citizens. Policies seen as pro-Buddhist, such as the aggressive persecution of minority religious and ethnic groups, bolster the army’s base in a country that is still deeply suspicious of its motives after years of military rule.

Parliament is now considering a bill proposed by nationalist Buddhist monks that would force citizens to ask permission from a Religious Conversion Registration office to convert to a different religion. The bill, which received 1.3 million signatures in support last year, includes a provision that would put convicted “proselytizers” in prison for a year. It is now under public review as the government seeks to gauge public support for an initiative that will largely target religious minorities.

In 2014, President Sein has retained and strengthened a swath of laws that give the government the power to restrict freedom of assembly and censor the press due to the local media’s commendable reporting on uncomfortable topics such as the Kachin and the Rohingya.

As the coordinator of the Task Force on Asean in Burma, Ohmar adds that “this is the first time the [Myanmar] media had the advantage of covering issues related to Asean, but rather than give them the opportunity in covering the event, they were blocked by their own government.”

According to Ohmar, “this evidently shows the government’s lack of commitment to democracy, and the block at the Summit is a missed opportunity for Burma’s media to have a better understanding of Asean affairs and build their reporting skills in the Asean context.”

The Rohingya, quarantined in refugee shelters akin to internment camps with little food and no medical aid, are not the only group facing persecution in Myanmar today. The mainly Christian Kachin in the northeast, along with the Karen, Chin, Wa, Shan, and many others, have fought an enduring low-intensity conflict against the government from their rural strongholds in remote areas that have seen little government control in Myanmar’s post-independence history.

The Panglong Agreement, signed by the then Burmese government and representatives of the various ethnic groups in 1947, called for the establishment of a federal Union of Burma. Following the assassination of General Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father and the founder of the nation, who had brokered the deal, his successors built the brutal and economically misguided military regime that endures to this day.

Myanmar’s army, named the Tatmadaw, continues to use child soldiers in its war against the Kachin, according to a May 2014 UN report. Peace talks are ongoing with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in the government-controlled capital of Kachin state, Myitkyina. The KIO’s military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), is the lone group still actively at war with the junta, as the rest of the patchwork of ethnic militias signed cease-fires in order to pursue a permanent peace accord.

Thein Sein’s attempt to organize a census in 2014 for the first time in decades was an admirable idea on paper. But like anything that involves recording ethnicity and religion in Myanmar, it has exacerbated tensions in unstable areas.

The census was not conducted in the KIO’s fiefdoms, and the army’s efforts to conduct it in other rebel-held areas in Shan state led to conflict that will make the peace process more difficult. In response to threats that the Buddhist Rakhine would boycott and halt the referendum, the government decided against including Rohingya as an option for ethnicity, sparking more violence and further marginalizing the community that it still refuses to recognize.

US President Barack Obama has extended some minor sanctions forbidding American citizens and businesses from investing in ventures owned by Burmese individuals who had a hand in crushing the pro-democracy protests in the 1980s and 1990s. This move will do little to halt the torrent of investment and trade that has swept into Myanmar since the lifting of major sanctions in 2012 and 2013, and will fill the coffers of the increasingly repressive government. Along with the World Bank’s statement of “strong support to Myanmar,” this is detrimental to the rights of Myanmar’s downtrodden citizenry.

An increase in commercial fishing and the construction of resorts in Myanmar’s vast Mergui archipelago, caused by the rise in foreign tourism and investment, has endangered the traditional way of life of the Moken, a nomadic seafaring people. They are but another ethnic casualty of the junta’s self-serving economic policies.

A string of mining projects in northern Myanmar have been stalled by kidnappings and protests that the police suppressed with white phosphorus, an incendiary weapon that is prohibited for use against civilians under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Myanmar has signed but not ratified. Beleaguered locals hoped that the projects, undertaken by Chinese firms, would have been stalled after opening up to the West. Instead, a parliamentary committee chaired by Suu Kyi approved their continuation.

The mining issue is linked to the wider problem of forced evictions, where the government has seized large swaths of land from poor farmers for development projects or to extract natural resources. Land grabs leave evicted residents poor, angry and desperate, and the thousands of hectares that are stolen are often handed to foreign companies or to the generals’ cronies who use the land to further their own economic interests.

Thein Sein and his former military partners have adopted all the trappings of democracy: a political party, sporadic elections, and a semblance of freedom. Their rule is now more insidious, hiding behind their newfound international legitimacy and millions of dollars in foreign investment from friends new and old, from China to the US and the EU. On the ground, the situation has changed little where it hasn’t worsened, like for the Rohingya.

Ross Dunkley is simply following the instructions of a sophisticated dictatorial regime that has been canny enough to adapt to shifting international circumstances. His e-mail is just another damning indictment of the fact that Myanmar, in 2014, is still a backward state that deserves to be criticized for its crimes against humanity.

Sadly, democratic hopes have thus far been dashed. Expect more of the same from Myanmar.

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