Burma: Steps to Democracy, Civil Unrest or Genocide?

Burma, or Myanmar, has received great interest in recent years from international leaders across the world. Hundreds of political prisoners- having spent years campaigning for a free democracy- have been released, most famously Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy in November 2010. Further steps away from the vilified dictatorship to a free market democracy, appealing to foreign investors for capital and expertise, easing media censorship, passing labour laws allowing unions to be established have demonstrated a more reformist quasi civilian government taking office in March 2011, with Thein Sein as President.

Unlike other ‘revolutionary’ movements, for example the recent Arab Spring and the toppling of leaders like Ben Ali, Gaddafi and Mubarak, Burma’s revolution towards democracy and freedom has apparently occurred with no bloodshed and in a relatively peaceful manner. President Thein Sein told the U.N. General Assembly that sweeping changes in Burma have created:

 "a new political culture of patience and dialogue. The political progress in our country is enhancing its political legitimacy. This, in turn, facilitates the creation of basic political stability, thereby paving the way for economic and social transformation necessary for (a) better living standard of the people".

The countries that once shunned Burma, having held sanctions against her are now poised to exploit her untapped resources as she opens to the free market.  After Burma’s persuasion of the Obama Administration easing the trade embargos in July of this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later told Thein Sein that the United States would take further steps to ease the U.S. ban on imports from Burma.  Furthermore, the EU easing sanctions has already led to BP and Shell both discovering their next pot of gold. Combined these fruitful trade relations would help Burma’s government draw investment and create jobs for the country's 60 million people, and no doubt this new found US- Burmese friendship will be cemented with Clinton joining Obama on his visit to Burma later this month- announced just days after his re-election for Presidency.

Everyone’s a winner, right?

Wrong.

Stunting Reform

In reality, whilst the world revels in Burma’s newly available treasure chest of opportunities, the Rohingya community remains at the periphery of Burmese society, much like the human rights abuses against them by the Burmese authorities remains at the periphery of international affairs and concern.

In 1959 Prime Minister U Ba Sue stated that the Rohingya are a race like other races in Burma and as such have equal rights, and the Rohingya vote in the 1960 Elections. However, we see a definite shift of the treatment of Rohingya, with the takeover of the military junta under General Ne Win continuing to brutalise the country for more than 50 years, violently cracking down on student and monk led protests and cleansing the country to enforce a homogenous nation; in particular their treatment of ethnic minorities and the Rohingya community.

The Rohingya living in Arakan or what is now known as Rakhine state, are seen to be illegal Bengali immigrants despite their heritage dating back to the 8th Century. Appearing darker in skin colour, speaking Rohingyan and practicing Islam, they failed to fit the homogenous ideology of the Buddhist military junta.

The origins of the injustice the Rohingya face becoming rooted into Burma’s infrastructure, legal and governmental systems as in 1978 General Ne Win launched Operation Naga Min (Operation Dragon King) to purge Burma of illegal foreigners. This then became the first state organised operation to systematically expel the Rohingya. Waves of terror swept through Arakan; summary executions, rape and brutality targeted at the Rohingya caused 250,000 of them to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The racism faced by the Rohingya is entrenched into the fabric of Burmese society and cemented legally by the 1982 Citizenship Law, refusing them citizenship and recognition as amongst the other 135 recognised Burmese ethnic minority groups, rendering close to a million of them stateless. ''This is one way the government tortures us. They don't want the Rohingya population to increase. They say.. This is not your country. You don't have the right to reproduce here'' explains a Rohingya.

By 1982 The Burmese Junta have now successfully: 

  • denied Rohingya from citizenship
  • subjected them to extortion and undue taxation
  • confiscated Rohingya owned land
  • forced eviction
  • restricted their right to movement
  • restricted their right to education as any other Burmese citizen
  • restricted their right to marry and even procreate
  • restricted the Rohingya right to practice their religion freely, being banned from Friday congregational prayers and celebrating major festivals and being given only pigs to sacrifice for their Qurbani festival and
  • use Rohingya for slave labour, predominantly working on the land they used to once own and having to clean the Buddhist temples.

In 1991 Pyi Thaya Operation (Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation) is launched by the state leading to widespread abuse, forced labour, harassment, rape, arbitrary land seizure, destruction of property and executions of Rohingya in North Arakan. The NaSaKa is also established as the border security/military force in North Arakan, as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya flee to neighbouring countries; it is the NaSaKa that then become the main perpetrators of the human rights abuses against the Rohingya.

Fast forward to 2012, the junta’s 1982 Citizenship Law is still intact and in force, the Rohingya are still not recognised citizens, facing persecution on a daily basis, and are being purged from their homeland.

Is Burma still viewed to have achieved a democracy, free from the repressive elements of the former military junta?

Unfortunate Ethnic Unrest?

The end of May, beginning of June 2012 saw the first of many inevitable incidents of violence break out in Burma between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Arakan after the rape of a Buddhist woman. Chris Lewa of The Arakan Project critically analysed the situation deeming that such unrest amongst two groups was inevitable given the institutionalised racism against the Rohingya at the hands of the state. The state had marginalised the Rohingya community to such an extent that socially as well as legally they weren’t even seen as citizens, with it being said that cattle and dogs were given more respect than them. Within a matter of days, on June 10th Thein Sein called a state of emergency, forcing the UN and international NGO staff to be pulled from Arakan and thus no international observers to the atrocities that were to occur.

Undoubtedly violence has occurred from all parties to some extent. However, it is definitively clear that this has long moved from the confines of civil unrest into something more sinister- a systematic operation of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya at the hands of the violent Rakhine; inspired, instigated and institutionalised by the Burmese authorities.

Restless Beings, an international human rights organisation, received floods of reports of the Army, NaSaKa as well as Rakhines and some Buddhist monks perpetrating horrific crimes against the ethnic minority. Of the verified reports, it emerged that Buddhist temples were used to store a vast arsenal of weaponry, with Rohingya men being rounded up by the hundreds and taken away in trucks to never return, rape of young girls and women and their homes being set on fire and later whole villages razed to the ground.

President Thein Sein had asked the UNHCR to take the Rohingya refugees or to settle them in other third countries. “The resettlement programs organised by UNHCR are for refugees who are fleeing a country to another.. Obviously, it’s not related to this situation,” said UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres. Thein Sein’s statement and his idea of the Rohingya solution quite clearly indicates that he sees no future for the Rohingya living freely in Burma, but more in apartheid.

By the end of the Summer’s violence, official figures put those displaced at 100,000, though it is reported to in fact be much higher, thousands were living in squalid temporary to permanent shelters, with little or no aid, unable to seek refuge anywhere.

The original elements of civil unrest have provided a perfect breeding ground to resume the atrocities akin to Operation Dragon King (1978) and Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation (1991). The human rights abuses against the Rohingya are fully engrained in Burmese history and now modern day state policy.

Economic Gains at the Cost of Human Life

Having spoken to our sources in Burma, one of which a Rakhine Buddhist, there are supported claims that this is not just another ‘civil/ethnic unrest’. It is in fact the vehicle of the Burmese government’s desire to confiscate land for economic purposes:

‘’The main culprit is the government, who plot the sectarian violence to destabilise the Rakhine state... Both Rakhine and Muslim there are already deprived of human rights and the Government takes all natural resources from Rakhine state..’’

The Shwe Pipeline stretching from Shan state bordering China to Arakan state is exemplary of foreign investment mostly from China, South Korea and India, benefitting foreign governments and investors whilst exploiting and depriving the Burmese living in affected areas and the local industry. Upon it’s completion, the project will transport oil and gas from the Bay of Bengal in Arakan state to China’s Yunnan province. Forced labour and land confiscation, with increased military presence in the building of this pipeline is apparent, noted by many activist groups and notably the Ta’ang Students and Youth Organisation (TSYO):

 “Even though the international community believes that the government has implemented political reforms, it doesn’t mean those reforms have reached ethnic areas, especially not where there is increased militarization along the Shwe Pipeline, increased fighting between the Burmese Army and ethnic armed groups, and negative consequences for the people living in these areas,” said Mai Amm Ngeal, a member of TSYO.

Just today (11th November) reports have come through of an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.8 to have hit the northern Mandalay region, just north of Mandalay City and near Shwebo township but also felt in China and Thailand. The quake was said to occur at the intersection of two regional fault lines; the Shan Fault and the Sagaing Fault. The full extent of it is still unknown, but the quake has caused an unfinished bridge to collapse in the Irrawady River, with several workers missing and at least 10 people trapped in a gold mine in the Singgu area.

Before this summer’s violence, the Rohingya suffered arbitrary land confiscation not only because they were Rohingya but also because high ranking military officers serving in the region purely for their personal profit desired to take their land for such future investment. 

The razing of whole villages incidentally serves not only as a means of invoking terror, killing entire Rohingya communities and destroying any proof of their heritage and legitimacy as residents, but also clears the path for economic projects like the Shwe pipeline to go ahead free from opposition. This begins to provide some explanation to why the violence and razing of villages spread to even Ramree Island- a normally peaceful and serene island in the southern part of Arakan, home to 7,000 Rohingya and the ethnically recognised and also Muslim Kaman minority.

Another Modern Day Genocide

The term genocide was coined in 1943 by the Jewish-Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, after witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust, later campaigning for genocide to be recognised as a crime under international law. As a result the UN Convention on Genocide in December 1948 was adopted, coming into full effect in January 1951, of which Article Two defines genocide to be as "any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such".

The Rohingya are being targeted much like the case of the extremists of the Rwandan Hutu ethnic majority group planning to destroy the Tutsis minority, under the cover of war, under the cover of a facade, that no one is questioning.

The UN Human Rights Council estimates that some 200,000 people participated in the perpetration of the Rwandan genocide, resulting in entire families being killed at one time, women raped and tortured; 800,000 men, women and children perishing, roughly three quarters of the Tutsi population.

Again, much like in Rwanda, the ‘G’ word was shunned when Restless Beings used it to describe the atrocities in Arakan and were criticised for doing so. Weeks later mass graves of 200 bodies were discovered and thousands of Rohingya were escorted to semi- permanent shelters ordered by Thein Sein- failing his bid asking the UN take them, to create an ethnic separation of the Rohingya from the majority of the Burmese Rakhine- an apartheid. 

Just a fortnight ago sources sent news of killings in Minbya, the only remaining Rohingya village- Lombaichar, which had 850 Rohingya homes which were encircled by a 7,000 strong Rakhine force, some remaining 2,000 Rohingya expected to be killed.

The violence beginning to be perpetrated against the ethnically recognised Kaman minority- who like the Rohingya are Muslim, point to long standing arguments that the state sponsored terror against these communities are of a racist and Islamophobic nature.

Tun Khin, President of Burma Rohingya Organisation UK said:‘'The time to talk about Human Rights violations is long gone, the violations have been happening since 1962. We are heading to the last phases. What we are seeing is ethnic cleansing - where the state, though support of Rakhine nationals are encouraging mobs to burn villages and kill Rohingya if they resist in being taken to the camps - these camps are squalid at best with little or no food supplies.  Aside that more than 200,000 remain stranded in their own homes, unable to leave for fear of their life.'’

Although the Rwandans were fully responsible for the genocide almost 10 years ago, so too was the rest of the world.

Their silence made them complicit. Just as our silence for the Rohingya in Burma leads us to be complicit, right now.

There are undeniably crimes against humanity being committed and continuing to be committed against the Rohingya and other minorities. As such a commission of inquiry has been called for by over 17 countries, even United Nations Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana after his last visit this summer, agrees with the necessity of such a commission. The Burmese government needs to be held accountable too, just as in Darfur, when the government was accused of being complacent in its handling of human rights violations, and the Security Council passed Resolution 1564 establishing the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, despite the government downplaying the abuses. Equally, if Burma really is in a transition to democracy then it too should conduct its own inquiry to establish the true extent, nature and main culprits of the violence and should seek to endeavour to address the root problems that have led to this situation.

Change needs to come from within Burma. Its governmental structure must reflect that which it professes to be. For that, the 1982 Citizen Law- a principal remnant of the military junta’s merciless repression must be repealed, for it is from within Parliament that ‘rule of law’- as Aung San Suu Kyi has so often called for in her otherwise silent stance on the issue- can be established. For so long as this black law remains intact, so too will the resounding element of the Military Junta and democracy in Burma where freedom for all certainly can never be realised. Ultimately the most notable aspect of a democracy is not so much their treatment of the majority, but in fact their treatment of their voiceless minority groups. And this is an aspect that does not fall short of the rest of the ‘free’ world. 

Comments

Foreda Begum

great read :) encapsulates all angles of the repercussion of Burma's so called 'democracy'. ALSO it will be really interesting to see how much attention the unfortunate earthquake will receive from the main stream media and international leaders - when all the while the daily oppression (or genocide) of the Rohingya, a catastrophe which mother nature had no input whatsoever and solely created by the military junta is still for the most part unknown to many. :(

11 November 2012 delete
Zeenat Islam

A really detailed yet comprehensive account which raises some interesting points. The issue with legal definitions such as 'genocide' is that they are inherently political. They are born out of specific context on the back of a particular set of circumstances; the Genocide Convention being in response to the atrocities of WW2. Whilst the law in this case sought to respond to a particular issue, there has been reluctance for it to be applied in other circumstances. Much of this has to do with the intricacies of drafting this kind of legislation. The definition of genocide has faced criticism due to its narrow scope and requirement to prove elements which are really difficult to do so such as 'dolus specialis' -special intent. I guess the point that I'm trying to make is that there will always be a selective application of the use of this term due to the special stigma it has attached to it; of being particularly horrendous 'the crime of all crimes.' The fact that the atrocities that took place in Bosnia are not technically regarded as a genocide beyond what happened in Srebrenica is indicative of this point. Laws are drafted by people. Therefore act to serve particular interests at particular times. The issue with legal definitions is the same issue with legalisation in general- who writes the definitions? Who says what they apply to? We can call what is happening to the Rohingya a genocide, apartheid, crimes against humanity - but apparently until someone tells us it actually is that according to the law- it's just a bit of civil unrest that a bit of media silence can handle.

11 November 2012 delete
Hassan Hirsi

The mere attempt to displace the Rohingya people in order to strategically facilitate migration to neighbouring countries (Bangladesh) constitutes ethnic cleansing. The tactical measures and rhetoric for refusing the Rohingya people the right to citizenship creates conditions of political impunity from the Burmese "democracy"; human rights rests upon the pillars of citizenship as these rights are seen as an interdependent relationship between citizen claims and state responsibility. However, the atrocities of western Myanmar constitutes in fact crimes against humanity. Great read Nadia! Apart from the contextual nature of your article, you've really given the conflict an ethical dimension which is vital for appreciating severe conflicts from afar.

12 November 2012 delete
Zeenat Islam

Agreed that is satisfies the crimes against humanity category. But definitions aside, in the face of thousands dying/forced expulsion/persecution- this is a massive injustice that needs to be addressed immediately.

12 November 2012 delete