Daniel P. Sullivan is the Senior Advocate for Human Rights at Refugees International focusing on Myanmar, Central America, and other areas affected by mass displacement. He holds an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and an A.B. from Harvard University.
The victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, has marked an historic political transformation in Myanmar (also known as Burma). But little has improved for the country’s most vulnerable people.
As Suu Kyi and the NLD move beyond their first six months in power, addressing Myanmar’s human rights and humanitarian challenges remain among their greatest tests.
By the Numbers
According to UN figures, nearly a million people from Myanmar are displaced either within the country or in surrounding countries. Much of this displacement is the result of long-term policies of discrimination and bellicosity by the military-dominated government. This displacement includes some 100,000 refugees across the border in Thailand and hundreds of thousands dispersed in southeastern Myanmar. But a significant portion of the displacement is the result of more recent dynamics, even as recent reforms have been instituted (or perhaps partially because of reforms). Since 2011, more than 240,000 people have been displaced by violence and conflict in Myanmar, roughly 100,000 in Kachin and Shan States in the northeast and 140,000 in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Most of the latter are Muslim Rohingya, a heavily persecuted minority.
Beyond those displaced, more than one million Rohingya have been rendered stateless due to the government’s refusal to recognize their citizenship. Though better off than the 120,000 who remain cordoned off in squalid displacement camps, they too face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to health care, education, and livelihoods, not to mention their right to marry, have children, and even self-identify. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled conditions in the country by sea in recent years, with many suffering abuse at the hands of human traffickers and hundreds dying along the way. This dynamic captured international attention in May 2015 when thousands of Rohingya, along with migrants and asylum seekers from Bangladesh, were abandoned by traffickers and trapped at sea. Today, the displacement crisis continues, though largely outside of the headlines.
Myanmar’s displacement crisis has been largely overshadowed by the NLD election victory in November 2015 and assumption of power in March 2016, which represented the first truly civilian-led government in half a century. The NLD’s resounding victory was the culmination of a decades-long struggle for a more democratic government that included the student uprising in 1988 and the monk-led “Saffron Revolution” in 2007. These protests were sparked by new economic policies and crackdowns that reflected a longer history of failed economic policies and heavy restrictions on personal freedoms suffered by most of the population. Suu Kyi was initially elected to parliament in 1990, but soon detained along with hundreds of other political prisoners. She gained international notoriety for spending the better part of two decades under house arrest.
Years of campaigning by both domestic and international activists kept the struggle in the headlines, but a real opening did not come until 2010 when the military leadership announced a transition to a civilian-led government (though effectively retaining power) and the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. The change of heart came as a result of continued pressure by the domestic democracy movement, international overtures offering an escape from sanctions and isolation, and a desire to open to the West to rebalance against China’s rising influence.
Suu Kyi was allowed to run for and win a seat in parliament in 2012. Several significant reforms occurred over the ensuing years, including the release of more than 1,000 political prisoners, lighter restrictions on media and public gatherings, and ceasefire agreements with several of the ethnic minority armed groups who had been fighting the military-led government for years. These reforms were met with the lifting of most international sanctions, increased international investment, diplomatic recognitions including the appointment of a US Ambassador, chairmanship of the regional governmental alliance (ASEAN), and visits by world leaders, including President Obama. The NLD electoral victory has largely been seen as a vindication of international policy towards Myanmar and hopes for further reforms have remained high through the first months of governance.
Not all Good News
Not all the news has been good, however. In the lead up to the elections, there was significant backsliding on much touted reforms, including new arrests of political prisoners, crackdowns on media freedoms, and unwillingness to move forward on constitutional reforms.
NLD partially worked around this by creating a “state counselor” position and appointing Suu Kyi as foreign minister. But the constitution also guarantees the military control of important ministries and 25 percent of parliamentary seats – an effective veto on any constitutional changes. Former generals continue to control most of the economy behind the scenes. Corruption remains widespread and the US State Department has listed Myanmar as among the very worst countries in its latest human trafficking report.
Progress on negotiations with ethnic armed groups has also been mixed. While eight groups signed a National Ceasefire Agreement just ahead of the elections, seven others who had been invited to negotiations did not, including those of the the Kachin and Wa, who have the largest militias. The United Nations and independent monitors continue to report severe human rights abuses including rape, torture, and summary executions committed with impunity by Myanmar’s army and rebels. Fighting in the Kokang region last year forced tens of thousands across the border into China. Bouts of fighting have also flared up with other groups, such as the Arakan Army. Aid restrictions also continue to put lives in danger. Of the nearly 100,000 people who remain displaced by fighting in Kachin and northern Shan States, half are in non-government controlled areas, where a UN official who recently visited warned “humanitarian access is shrinking.”
The most decidedly negative news has been the rise of an extremist, nationalist brand of Buddhism, known as the 969 movement, which expresses itself in inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and has exploded in violence, particularly against the Rohingya minority. The Rohingya have faced decades of state-led persecution, but their situation has in many ways worsened in recent years. Violence that broke out between ethnic Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine State in 2012 led to scores of deaths and the displacement of some 140,000 people. A climate of increasingly hate-filled and dehumanizing rhetoric has fed the previously mentioned flow of tens of thousands attempting dangerous escapes by sea.
The situation is such that the US Holocaust Museum’s Early Warning Project lists Myanmar as the country most likely to see a new bout of mass killing. A team from the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide visited Rakhine State and warned of a high likelihood of atrocities and even genocide, while a Yale Law human rights study last year found “strong evidence” that genocide may already be under way. The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has similarly warned that the Government of Myanmar must address discrimination against the Rohingya “…or face the risk of further violence and, potentially, more serious crimes.”
Plight of the Rohingya
The challenge in Rakhine State is mired in a complex mix of exploitation by the military-led government, decades of state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya, and widespread anti-Muslim sentiment stoked by the rise of a well-organized movement of influential ultra-nationalist monks. Rakhine State is the second poorest state in Myanmar. All of the ethnic groups within the state have been negatively affected by government policies, including Buddhist Rakhine, Muslim Rohingya, and non-Rohingya Muslims like the Kaman. But the Rohingya have been particularly singled out with policies of persecution. A great number of people across Myanmar view the darker-skinned Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, a remnant of colonial policies of bringing foreigners into the country. The military-led government and many across the country have refused to recognize the Rohingya as a people, insisting on calling them “Bengali” in reference to their perceived illegal immigrant status.
In reality, the Rohingya are a people that can trace their presence in today’s western Myanmar to at least two hundred years ago. In previous elections, Rohingya representatives and votes were cultivated by the military-led Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) party as a counter to Rakhine influence. Some Rohingya have even been tacitly recognized as citizens by being elected to Parliament. Similarly, repatriation agreements in the 1990s signaled acceptance of their citizenship claims.
Still, a perception of the Rohingya as foreigners persists and has been stoked by the 969 movement, led by a group of ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks who have traveled the country giving vitriolic speeches, dispersing hate speech in DVDs, and pushing for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses. At the head of the movement is the monk Ashin Wirathu, who has been described as the Buddhist Bin Laden, compared Muslims to vermin, and called the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar a “whore” for defending Muslim rights. Wirathu and others paint the Rohingya as a rapidly growing existential threat to Buddhist and majority Burman culture, despite the fact that the country remains nearly 90 percent Buddhist.
This dynamic is not new. In 1978, 250,000 Rohingya were driven out of the country into Bangladesh. Another 200,000 fled to Bangladesh before being largely repatriated in the 1990s. Leaked government documents have shown decades of state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya. Perhaps most damning, a 1982 Citizenship Law left the Rohingya out among the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups of Myanmar, effectively making them one of the largest stateless populations in the world. Lacking citizenship limits their ability to move freely, seek work and education, and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
What is new is the level of separation between the ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya in apartheid-like conditions. The two groups had long interacted commercially, especially in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. But today all of the Rohingya have been driven out of the city, save for a few thousand sequestered in a ghetto area called Aung Mingalar. Tens of thousands of other Rohingya who previously lived in and around the city now live in displacement camps that have been described as “open-air prisons.”
Widespread violence and displacement began in 2012, sparked by the rape of a Rakhine woman by Rohingya men. While the violence has often been described as intercommunal, it was enabled by state-led persecution and the refusal of state security forces to intervene, with some reports of the state’s active participation in the violence. The government’s accountability measures have also been inordinately skewed. Despite the fact that the United Nations estimates 95 percent of those displaced by violence have been Rohingya, few Rakhine have been charged for the violence, while hundreds of Rohingya have been detained.
International aid access has also been restricted with dire consequences. In 2014, the government expelled Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the primary source of health care for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya. Within the first two weeks of their expulsion, an estimated 150 died from the lack of medical care. While MSF has since been allowed to return, it is at a much reduced level and otherwise preventable deaths continue to take place.
Today, under the new government, some 120,000 people remain in displacement camps. In her visit to the camps in June, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee reported “poor” and overcrowded conditions concluding that “the situation on the ground has yet to significantly change.”
Broader Anti-Muslim Dynamics
The violence against Rohingya has occurred in a broader environment of anti-Muslim sentiment. Kaman Muslims, recognized as citizens, have suffered attacks and displacement in Rakhine State as well. In central Myanmar, an attack on non-Rohingya Muslims in the village of Meiktila in 2013 left some 40 people dead – many of them children – and several mosques and Muslim-owned shops destroyed. Riots in Mandalay in 2014 similarly targeted Muslims. In recent months, a Muslim prayer hall was destroyed in central Myanmar and a mosque was burnt to the ground in the north, with little accountability.
The blatant racism of Wirathu and the 969 movement continues, but has also been joined by a more sophisticated anti-Muslim movement. The Buddhist-monk-led Ma Ba Tha or Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, formed in 2014, has proven a formidable force in domestic politics. They have drafted and successfully pressured officials to pass so-called Race and Religion Protection laws that largely target Muslims, restricting freedoms to convert religions, marry people of other religions, and have children in areas deemed by authorities to need population control measures.
But it is not just the ultra-nationalists contributing to anti-Muslim dynamics. The military-led USDP party stripped the rights of sitting Rohingya members of Parliament to run for reelection. The NLD did not put forward a single Muslim candidate in the elections. And, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who voted in the last election were disenfranchised, as new policies invalidated their temporary identification cards and demanded near impossible standards as proof of citizenship.
Prospects for Change
The first six months of the new NLD-led government have seen strong indications of both potential progress and regression regarding Myanmar’s displacement challenges.
The more positive potential lies with refugees in Thailand and those displaced within Kachin and northern Shan States. The root cause of this displacement has been fighting between ethnic armed groups and Myanmar’s army. Suu Kyi and the NLD have identified a peace process with Myanmar’s ethnic minorities as a top priority. She is pushing for a 21st century Panglong Conference, a new version of the meeting convened by her father General Aung San with key ethnic groups in 1947. That original meeting led to a signed, but never implemented, agreement setting the basis for a federal system with significant autonomy for ethnic groups. The NLD enjoyed widespread support among ethnic minority groups in the elections. That goodwill appears to be translating into a willingness of holdout ethnic groups like the Kachin and Wa to participate.
The outlook for the Rohingya and the smaller number of non-Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists displaced in western Myanmar is decidedly more troubling. Despite great optimism among Rohingya that their situation might improve with the new government, initial indications have been less hopeful. Shortly after the NLD took the helm of the new government, a spokesman indicated that the party would take the same line as the previous military-dominated government in refusing to recognize the Rohingya as anything other than illegal “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh. Suu Kyi, in her new role as state counselor and foreign minister, has since asked foreign governments and the United Nations to desist from using the name “Rohingya.” Unfortunately, the European Union (EU), in a statement, expressed its willingness to comply.
The government has relaunched a citizen verification process in Rakhine State, but the Rohingya are viewing it with great skepticism. Earlier documents supposedly verifying their claims to citizenship have been revoked. The head of the State Counselor’s office recently suggested a doubling down on the 1982 Citizenship Law, suggesting that anyone identifying as Rohingya would be barred from citizenship.
The situation in northern Rakhine State took a turn for the worse in October 2016 with attacks on border security posts, reportedly by Rohingya, and a subsequent security crackdown by Myanmar authorities. This new dynamic is still playing out, but within the first weeks has led to dozens of deaths, displacement of at least 10,000 Rohingya and 3,000 Rakhine, and blocked food aid to tens of thousands.
Room for Hope?
The most hopeful signs lie in the continued attention and pressure from the international community. While the EU stance is troubling, others have continued to stand up for the Rohingya. Even after the US Embassy in Myanmar faced protests for using the word “Rohingya” in a statement of condolences for the deaths of some 20 Rohingya who drowned in April 2016, the US Ambassador said he would continue to use the term. Days later, when US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Myanmar, he recognized sensitivities, but stated, “we all understand, as a matter of fact, that there is a group here in Myanmar that calls itself Rohingya.”
Suu Kyi herself used the term Rohingya for the first time publicly at a joint press conference with Secretary Kerry and recognized the importance of identity, even as she warned about the use of “emotive words” and asked the international community to give her time. Though she continues to ask that the term Rohingya not be used, she is also asking that the term “Bengali,” favored by the previous military government, be avoided.
There is also hope in the fact that the new government has set up a Central Committee for the Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State, headed by Suu Kyi. Though the committee conspicuously lacks any Rohingya representation, it is more balanced than previous attempts dominated by local Rakhine extremists. If it is true to its mandate to “bring peace, stability and development to all people in Rakhine State,” it cannot help but address the situation of the Rohingya.
There are also some indications that the new government and Buddhist leaders in Myanmar are willing to stand up against the broader anti-Muslim movement. The country’s highest Buddhist authority, the Ma Ha Na, stated that Ma Ba Tha is not a recognized Buddhist group, and Myanmar’s Religious Affairs Minister warned that Ma Ba Tha leaders could face legal consequences for endorsing hate speech. While Ma Ba Tha influence remains strong and the discriminatory laws it pushed through remain on the books, this is a significant change from the previous government’s silent acquiescence toward, if not implicit support for, the group.
Also on the more positive side, the spring of 2016 did not see a repeat of the exodus of Rohingya at sea seen the year before. Much of this can be attributed to the shutting down of trafficking routes and greater awareness of the dangers of the journey brought on by last year’s crisis. But at least some of it can be attributed to the hopeful “wait and see” outlook shared by many Rohingya about the new government. But as the days progress and progress remains stagnant, that mindset may very well change.
Passing the test?
To be sure, the new government faces a host of competing priorities, from constitutional reform to delivering promised growth, even as the military continues to wield inordinate economic and political influence. But these issues are not mutually exclusive with human rights and humanitarian concerns. As the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar stated in her most recent report, tackling key human rights challenges, including in Rakhine
State, will be “essential in order to make meaningful and real progress towards democratic transition, national reconciliation, sustainable development and peace in Myanmar” and “should be at the top of the country’s agenda over the coming weeks and months.”
The plight of the Rohingya must be a top priority of the new government. It is also the most easily addressed, at least in the short-term. The long-term solutions needed – revision of the 1982 Citizenship Law to allow all Rohingya a path to citizenship, return of the more than 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya to their communities, and investigations and accountability for severe human rights abuses – are unlikely to see immediate progress. But short-term remedies, including increased freedom of movement, unfettered international humanitarian access, and opening an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (as promised by the previous president in his 11 Commitments to President Obama), can and must be pursued.
At present, the political will to take these steps is lacking. Domestic support is stifled by the organized stoking of fear and hatred, making it difficult and often dangerous for local voices to take a strong stance. As long as this dynamic continues it will be all the more important for the humanitarian test to be prioritized on the international stage. Suu Kyi and the NLD will need to show leadership in countering these dangerous forces and the international community must support and, where necessary, pressure the new government to do so.
The message must be clear: the ultimate test for Myanmar’s new government is not its ability to pursue its own interests, but how it treats its most vulnerable.