Guest Blog Written by Annie Krauss
Over two months have passed since the historic elections of November 2015 took place in Myanmar. The National League of Democracy (NLD) swept the first “free and fair” elections in 25 years, winning almost 80 percent of the elected seats. In 1990 the NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won the elections by a similar margin but the military regime annulled the results and refused to yield power. Suu Kyi was put under house arrest for fifteen years following the 1990 election. This time she is at the forefront of a huge transition to democracy and openness. The NLD victory is a symbol of a brighter future for Myanmar, but will it usher in a better life for the Burmese? What lies ahead for the Rohingya?
The extremely repressive authoritarian government, ruled by the military, violently suppressed dissent since it took power in 1962. The corruption and impunity in the government, as well as the exclusion of minority groups and widespread human rights violations, fostered a pervasive sense of unrest and desperation. As government leaders lived lavishly, the Burmese suffered. The authoritarian regime ensured that the majority of the country remained impoverished, cut off from resources like quality healthcare, education and economic opportunities. For decades since the country’s independence from Great Britain, a civil war involving over a dozen armed, ethnically-tied rebel groups has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The policies of Burma’s military dictatorship, which gave rise to the armed rebel groups, also worsened ethnic tensions by promoting nationalist ideologies and by persecuting and scapegoating minorities.
The human rights situation in the country has come under scrutiny over the last few years. The violence and persecution against the Rohingya has been particularly alarming. In the last year especially, this issue has become more visible to onlookers worldwide as the media, human rights experts, international organizations and legal scholars have drawn attention to the atrocities committed against the minority group. Many are calling these atrocities genocide. With Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review (a mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council where the human rights situation is reviewed for U.N. member states) coinciding with the elections meant that the actions of Myanmar’s government were in the spotlight. Investigations into the state’s involvement in ethnic cleansing revealed that the state was not only involved or complicit in the targeting of the Rohingya, but was actually orchestrating much of the violence and implementing policies to deliberately harm the well-being of the Rohingya people.
Just weeks before the election, the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London released a report citing evidence that the Rohingya face “mass annihilation” by the government of Myanmar and that genocide has been going on for three decades. A paper released in October by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School found similar evidence of genocide against the Rohingya population. Several other human rights organizations have released reports supporting these findings. Hundreds of pages of government documents and investigation revealed state-led plans to incite violence against the Rohingya, anti-Rohingya rhetoric, policies specifically targeting Rohingya, and government knowledge of the abuses against the Rohingya. The High Commissioner on Human Rights, the country team in Myanmar, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar and several others as a part of the UPR process expressed concerns regarding the treatment of the Rohingya, the domestic laws enabling discrimination against them and the conditions they face.
As these allegations against the government were revealed to be supported by fact, the country was gearing up for the elections. The elections were monumental but not without failures as well. Due on large part to the Citizenship Law of 1982, several ethnic groups, including the Rohingya, are unable to attain citizenship and thus are excluded from the election process. 1 million of the 4 million disenfranchised Burmese were Rohingya. They were not allowed to run in the election either; all Muslim candidates were barred from running due to a decision by the NLD party leadership under pressure from Buddhist hardliners. In addition the military will retain a number of seats in parliament and control of the ministries of defense, home affairs and border affairs.
However, there are reasons to be optimistic. Suu Kyi and the NLD have made strides towards Myanmar becoming a more open country. Since the elections, Myanmar has opened the Yangon Stock exchange and completed its first census in decades. The United States has committed to easing limitations on Myanmar. Moreover, outgoing President Thein Sein and the former ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), have made statements saying the election results will be honored. To ensure a smooth transfer of power, members of the outgoing military government and the National League for Democracy (NLD) have formed a joint eight-member transition committee.
To discuss the transition, Suu Kyi sat down to talk with Than Shwe, the man who kept her under house arrest for 15 years, and President Thein Sein, a former military commander, and armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing. Suu Kyi has said that her party will not pursue prosecutions for past crimes but rather the new government will focus on establishing peace. Although there is certainly an argument to be made against allowing military impunity, these commitments reflect a valuable attitude on the part of the NLD. An emphasis on dialogue rather than retribution, at least to some extent, will be necessary for a successful transition towards a civilian government. Aung San Suu Kyi said the country’s peace process will be the first priority of her new government that will take power in February.
Suu Kyi and the NLD taking power represents a mixed bag for the Rohingya. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Suu Kyi has yet to speak out against the persecution of the Rohingya since the election process began. What’s more, her party decided to bar Muslims from the elections. Although this was perhaps a strategy to secure victory for the NLD that would be remedied in the future, the NLD has yet to address the disenfranchisement. The decision not to pursue retribution against those who committed crimes in the past, like those against the Rohingya, is clearly disheartening. However, in recent history, some of the most successful transitions and periods of de-escalation have been accompanied by a similar policy of reconciliation, moderation and dialogue. Hopefully, as the new government takes power next month the commitments made by both sides will be honored and the process of peace can begin.
For investigation details and actual government documents displaying genocidal intent: http://www.aljazeera.com/investigations/genocideagenda.html
Warzone Initiatives’ Rohingya Briefing Report: http://www.warzone.cc/rohingya-briefing-report/