Insurgency, ethnic cleansing and democracy in Myanmar

Myanmar’s transition from military to civilian government demonstrates that building even a severely curtailed representative democracy with respect for minority rights is a hard task.

In 2012, the US government began to drop its sanctions against the country once called Burma, which had been renamed Myanmar by the Generals who were its sole rulers for almost half a century. The country of 50 million, which borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, only had two real friends of convenience left in the world at the time, North Korea and China.

A victory for incremental democracy was proclaimed after the election of former General Thein Sein and the Union Solidarity and Development Party in 2010, though the main opposition boycotted the vote, the election was widely criticized and it was clear that the new government was very close to military leaders.

Practically coinciding with the first sanctions lifted by the Obama Administration and other countries a couple of years later, “a vote in Myanmar’s parliament failed to remove the army’s veto over constitutional change,” making it clear who was really in charge while the resource rich country opened up to foreign capital

Myanmar is portrayed in some outlets as a rare success for policies aimed at isolating countries that don’t conform to international norms; although this requires ignoring the often rank hypocrisy with which these nations are chosen.. Nonetheless, it does seem that the desire to participate in global markets played a role in the military, locally called the Tatmadaw, loosening its grip on the reins of power. 

The election of the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi in November of 2015, is cited as an example of the country’s democratization. Unfortunately, there have been many letdowns over their first year in power as they have faced what Time recently called, “a fundamentally undemocratic system that looks unlikely to change”. 
The importance of Suu Kyi as a catalyst for reform can’t be overestimated, she’s the daughter of a murdered president, Aung Sang, who led the country out of colonialism after World War 2 and she is loved both at home and internationally. She offers a remarkable example of how one person can become a powerful symbol of the struggles of an entire nation.

However, her inexperience at governing, along with a necessary caution regarding the Tatmadaw, has led to questions about her ability to bring about the changes the country’s civil society so desperately needs after decades of military rule.

Suu Kyi did not become the country’s president, in part due to a constitutional bar denying the office to those with foreign born children, a rule that seems to have been put in place to keep her from taking power.

Countering this, her longtime friend Htin Kyaw took the presidency. The country’s parliament, the Hluttaw, which is controlled by the NLD then created a new role, State Councillor, the equivalent of Prime Minister, in some ways more powerful than the presidency, and awarded it to Suu Kyi. She is also the country’s foreign minister.

Even without the problems created by the ethnic divisions we will discuss further on, Myanmar’s road to normalcy will be an arduous one. Growth rates of over 8% are bringing foreign investment to the country, but this can be a double-edged sword, with a few big winners and a great many losers.

Since the country has opened up to the world, its pattern of development has been similar to that of the rest of Asia over the last few decades in a much shorter period of time.

As explained by Devjyot Ghoshal in Quartz, “Myanmar’s burgeoning cities are choking with cars and motorcycles, and many homes have electricity connections and proper sanitation facilities. In the hinterland, where 70% of Myanmar’s population lives, life is very different: 29% of households use bullock carts, 92% of kitchens use firewood or charcoal for cooking, and only 15% of homes have access to electricity.”

A history of conflict

Impeding progress on dealing with widespread inequality between rural and urban citizens are multiple insurgencies, most of them coming from the more than 130 minority groups in the country. The Tatmadaw must take the majority of the blame for these hostilities as they are accused of myriad crimes against these groups over decades. 

In a recent example, last year the BBC reported that the army, “has been taking boys from ethnic minorities to use as porters,” a form of slavery that hasn’t prompted much international outcry.  

In the past, the military was able to avoid glaring defeats in the field by negotiating ceasefires with some groups while taking the fight to others. In 2015, the Sein government and the Tatmadaw negotiated a peace treaty, inviting representatives from 15 armed groups to talks in the capital, Yangon ( formerly Rangoon)

Multiple commentators have made the argument that the effort was more of a public relations exercise than a practical success, pointing out the fact that the eight groups who signed on to the final agreement were those with little military skill or who had suffered major setbacks in recent years like the Karen National Union.

Powerful groups able to take and hold territory like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army, barely participated and didn’t sign the agreement.

The array of groups and alliances among the rebels can be dizzying. Within the last week, northeastern Myanmar has seen repeated, coordinated incursions by well organized insurgents including ethnic Chinese rebels under the banner of the MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army), alongside Plaung, Rakhine and Kachin fighters.

This Northern Alliance- Burma (NAB) has only been official since November of 2016 but already “its geographical reach, operational coordination, and a striking readiness to attack urban centers are all unprecedented.”

Unlike in many similar cases throughout the world, in Myanmar there’s a starting point for talks between the government and the country’s numerous indigenous peoples. This is the 1947 Panglong Agreement negotiated by leaders of Shan, Kachin and Chin minorities and the Bamar majority under Suu Kyi’s father, which.promised regional autonomy for these populations.
Many rebel commanders hope that Suu Kyi will be able to keep her promise to end these hostilities and usher in a new era of peaceful coexistence. According to General Hsay Htin of the SSA-North group, “She will try, but she will have a hard time because her main obstacle is the army.”

Perhaps even more important early test for the NLD is the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh. Unfortunately, this is a test that the government seems to be failing.

A pressing test

Although they aren’t believed to be indigenous to the area, there have been Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state on the country’s western coast since the 9th century, before the first Burmese Empire was established in 1055.

The argument made by both the Tatmadaw and the current NLD government led by Aung San Suu Kyi is that the Rohingya are Bengalis, most of whom came to the area during that country’s war of independence in 1971. They also insist that all of the state’s Muslims should be referred to by that name.

There is much bitter irony in the situation the Rohingya face, not the least of which is the fact that the country’s former colonial master, Britain, tended to favor them as collaborators over other groups including the Rakhine (previously called Arakan), who are the majority population in the state.

As explained by Asma Masood in the Foreign Policy Journal, “The Rakhine people have perceived the Rohingya as competitors for land since colonial times. Rakhine peasants who had fled British annexation returned to find their lands were occupied by Rohingya rice farmers on a long term lease basis, rented out by colonizers.”

Rohingya soldiers and other officials were also accused of crimes against the Rakhine and other groups while serving under the British. When the country achieved independence in 1948, the Rakhine gained the upper hand, although they remain poverty stricken, and the conflict between the two peoples has simmered ever since.

Although the fight between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya has always been as much about economics as anything else, sectarian tensions really came to the fore during widespread riots in 2012. Both groups burned homes and forced people from their homes. Due to their smaller numbers the Rohingya got the worst of it, with at least 65,000 fleeing across the border to Bangladesh and an estimated 130,000 out of a population of a little more than a million internally displaced in camps they still inhabit today. 
An intervention by the Tatmadaw in the state shortly thereafter lasted until this past February, and led to accusations of war crimes, mainly targeting the Rohingya. As reported by the New York Times in January, “the military entered villages in northern Rakhine State shooting at random, set houses on fire with rocket launchers, and systematically raped girls and women.” 
If they are ever to achieve basic human rights, those who call themselves Rohingya must also be recognized as such and given the full citizenship that has been denied them since the early 1980s. In this Suu Kyi herself has been heavily criticized for denying the them this identity and downplaying the crisis.

While she will probably always remain simply “The Lady” to her followers in the country, her lack of sympathy for the plight of the Rohingya and Muslims in general has tarnished her reputation in the rest of the world. 

Myanmar’s transition from military to civilian government demonstrates that while its relatively easy to integrate into the neoliberal world economy, building even a severely curtailed representative democracy with respect for minority rights is a much harder task. There are many much older democracies in the world that haven’t quite achieved this yet themselves.


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