Challenges to sustainable democracy in Myanmar: internal conflicts and human rights abuses

When Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide election victory in November 2015, the international community celebrated with a sense of optimism. The election of Myanmar’s first civilian-led government in decades signalled the end of authoritarian rule, and ushered in a hopeful new era of democracy. However, with the new parliament still in its infancy, there is a growing realisation of the huge challenges which face Myanmar’s leaders. They must now turn their attention to tackling a legacy of complex ethnic conflicts and human rights abuses, which have harmed the country’s population, economy and international reputation for decades.

Myanmar’s multiple, complex and on-going internal conflicts remain a significant barrier to achieving national unity, and pose a serious threat to the stability of the democratization process. Parts of the country have endured war-like conditions for over 50 years as several regions have experienced fierce fighting between an array of ethnic armed groups and the military. These conflicts have centred on issues such as the control of territory, the desire for extended political rights and greater autonomy, along with gaining access to natural resources.

Prior to last year’s elections, the military-backed government announced a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as a means to end the fighting. However, this was viewed as a largely symbolic and superficial agreement which achieved only limited success. After almost two years of negotiations, only 8 out of more than 25 active armed groups signed the accord. Whilst one of Myanmar’s oldest rebel groups, the Karen National Union (KNU) did sign, many other powerful and influential groups refused. These include the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA). In the last four years, the UN estimates that over 100,000 people have been internally displaced within the conflict-troubled regions as fighting has intensified, adding to thousands more refugees who have crossed the borders into neighbouring Laos, Thailand and China.

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Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide majority in November’s parliamentary elections (Image Source: Claude Truong-Ngoc)

Whilst the violence has largely centred on ethnic tensions, there are also significant economic factors. Lack of access to Myanmar’s natural resources in poverty-stricken regions has fuelled inequalities and increased resentment against the ruling elite. For example, in Kachin state, large companies and government officials have reaped the benefits of huge profits from the multi-billion dollar jade trade, whilst the local population remains impoverished. In the last few years fighting has worsened in Kachin and Shan states, with reports of widespread killings, disappearances, rape and forced labour; whilst the government has continued to deny access to humanitarian groups and international observers.

Over the decades, regional tensions have routinely escalated into armed clashes between rebel groups and the military, culminating in a long-standing lack of trust between local populations and the government. This will make any future negotiation attempts more difficult. However, in light of the recent power shift, the NLD government has an opportunity to push-forward a renewed dialogue with disenfranchised groups. In particular, it is important for the NLD to engage with ethnic political parties which lost-out in November’s election, in order to show that minority groups will play an essential part in a more inclusive democratic process going forward.

Another long-standing issue is the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority, which has suffered systematic persecution and discrimination for decades. In November’s elections, the Rohingya were denied voting rights after former military ruler Thein Sein revoked their ID cards, whilst most Muslim candidates were barred from standing for election to parliament. These strict measures highlight a concern that ethnic and religious minorities are deliberately being denied a voice in shaping Myanmar’s future, never mind representation in high office. These exclusionary measures followed years of violence after military operations began in 2012 in Rakhine state – home to an estimated 1 million Rohingya Muslims. More than 150,000 Rohingyas have fled the country over the last four years, whilst approximately 143,000 others are confined to refugee camps along the border with Thailand.

The latest wave of violence has occurred alongside a worrying rise in religious intolerance, Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiments which have appeared to be on the increase in recent years. This marks a further deterioration in the situation of the Rohingya, who have been formally deprived of citizenship since 1982, and continue to face severe restrictions on freedom of movement and access to healthcare, whilst experiencing limited education and employment opportunities. Whilst total figures are impossible to verify, there have been numerous reports of arbitrary arrests, torture and killings at the hands of the security forces.

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An estimated 150,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since 2012, where they have faced decades of discrimination and denial of full citizenship rights (Image Source: FCO)

A recent report by UK-based human rights group Amnesty International highlights numerous other areas of concern. Firstly, Myanmar still has thousands of political prisoners, after the military authorities have routinely arrested and imprisoned activists for peacefully exercising their rights. In March 2015, police violently dispersed a large student protest in the town of Letpadan, in the Bago region, resulting in more than 100 students being charged with criminal offences. In addition to the threat of imprisonment, activists also claim to have experienced continual harassment and intimidation from the security forces.

Secondly, freedom of expression has been under attack, with the previous government enacting a range of laws aimed at stifling dissent and preventing criticism. Many of the laws are vaguely-worded and open to interpretation, and have often been used to apprehend those intending to protest, through criminalizing activities such as ‘unlawful assembly’ and ‘incitement’. Human rights groups and journalists have also been subject to continual surveillance, intimidation and harassment by the authorities.

Thirdly, the report concludes that members of the security forces continue to violate human rights, with almost total impunity for their actions. Official investigations into abuses or corruption are extremely rare and have lacked basic levels of transparency; whilst victims continue to be denied the right to justice, truth and reparations. As a result of the continuing instability there are now around 230,000 internally displaced people in Myanmar, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). In addition, hundreds of thousands of refugees now reside outside of the country, reluctant to return in light of continuing militarization, persistent impunity, and the lack of economic prospects.

Despite the on-going conflicts and human rights abuses, it is clear that Myanmar has made huge strides in recent years – largely due to the efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, in addition to a gradual willingness from the military to introduce reforms. Yet it must be recognized that the country’s problems are decades-old and will not be resolved quickly or easily, despite growing international pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi to take a tougher stance against human rights abuses. However, the new era of democracy does offer a renewed chance for engagement and dialogue between all parties, which could increase the chances of peace and reconciliation in a fractured society. The social and economic benefits of a lasting-peace would be huge, allowing the country to make significant progress in terms of development and economic growth. However, from a political perspective the rewards may be even greater: resolving Myanmar’s complex internal conflicts and ending decades of human rights abuses, could be the key to ensuring that a lasting, sustainable and inclusive democracy takes hold.

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