KUALA LUMPUR: A Malaysian court has allowed a temporary stay of deportation of 1,200 Myanmar nationals scheduled to be sent back to their strife-torn homeland on Tuesday, after rights groups said the plan could endanger their lives.
The 1,200 detainees were set to leave on Tuesday afternoon in three navy ships sent by Myanmar’s military, which seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, sparking weeks of protests from pro-democracy activists.
Just before the court issued its order, the migrants were bussed in from across the country to the naval base at Lumut in western Malaysia where the Myanmar ships are docked.
Refugee groups say asylum seekers from the minority Chin, Kachin and non-Rohingya Muslim communities fleeing conflict and persecution at home are among those being deported.
Amnesty International, which with Asylum Access had asked the courts to stop the deportation, said the high court granted a stay until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, when it will hear the groups’ application for judicial review to suspend the deportation.
“It’s important to note that the stay of execution granted by the court does not mean the 1,200 are safe from being deported,” said Katrina Maliamauv, Amnesty Malaysia director.
“We urge the government to reconsider its plans to send this group of vulnerable people back to Myanmar, where human rights violations are currently dangerously high,” she said.
Amnesty has said among the deportees were three people registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and 17 minors who have at least one parent in Malaysia.
Spokespeople for Malaysia’s immigration department and foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the court order.
Malaysia has said it would not deport Rohingya Muslims or refugees registered with UNHCR. But the UN refugee agency has said there are at least six people registered with it that are also set to be deported and that there could be more. It has not been allowed access to the deportees.
Malaysia has not responded publicly to critics or Reuters queries over the deportation of the asylum seekers and those registered with UNHCR.
Concerns over deportation of unregistered asylum-seekers persist, as UNHCR has not been allowed to interview detainees for over a year to verify their status. The Southeast Asian nation is home to more than 154,000 asylum-seekers from Myanmar.
The United States and other Western missions have been trying to dissuade Malaysia from proceeding with the deportation and urged the government to allow UNHCR to interview the detainees. They also say Malaysia is legitimising the military government by cooperating with the junta.
After a dismal showing at this month’s election, the army-backed USDP faces a long road back to respectability.
Spare a thought, if you have the stomach, for Myanmar’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Ahead of the country’s general election on November 8, the party once again found itself in the unenviable position of having to craft a case against Aung San Suu Kyi, the stupendously popular leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who also happens to be the daughter of the martyred anti-colonial hero Aung San.
As if that weren’t enough, the USDP was forced to do so while bearing the taint of association with Myanmar’s military, and its half-century of rule, a dire symphony of privation, conflict, corruption, and human rights violations.
In the event, things went about as well for the USDP as one would expect. According to the official results, the NLD won 396 of the 476 seats up for election in the two houses of parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party even managed to improve on its thundering victory at the last election in 2015.
These figures represent an amazing 83.2 percent of elected seats, a rare figure. This not only ensures that the NLD will form the next government, and that the Aung San Suu Kyi will remain in power as state counselor for a second five-year term; it has also cast doubts over the future of the USDP, which dragged in a puny haul of 33 seats, just 6.9 percent of those up for election. Across the country, senior members of the party, many of them former military commanders, were clobbered, as the NLD made further headway into areas once seen as USDP strongholds.
First contrived by the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, to act as its proxy in the 2010 election, the USDP now teeters on the brink of oblivion.
As in 2015, the NLD’s strong showing, and the USDP’s disastrous one, were two sides of the same coin. As Min Zin, executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy-Myanmar, wrote in the New York Times this week, the NLD’s success “has less to do with what she stands for than what she stands against: the military’s enduring power, including in civilian affairs.”
After capitulating to the NLD juggernaut, does the USDP have a political future? So far the signs aren’t propitious. The USDP responded to its poor performance by hoisting the banner of fraud, claiming that the election was “unfair” and demanding that the election be rerun with military involvement in order to have “a free, unbiased, and disciplined vote.” This reflex allegation of fraud does not bode well for the party’s ability to change course and cultivate a broader base of support. (At the 2015 election, the USDP’s billboards bore the English-language slogan “we have been changing,” suggesting at least an awareness that it suffers from a grave image problem. But the party will need to do a lot more than craft slogans if it wishes to win back popular support.)ADVERTISEMENThttps://608ab471a7b2818390575408054e81dd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Before the election, the Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief, Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing had leveled similar claims against Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, pointing to “weakness and deficiencies” in its management of the election. Since the election, however, the military has distanced itself from the USDP’s claims of fraud – as well it might. As David Hopkins pointed out recently in an article for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, the military’s political role is already ring fenced by a constitutional provision granting it 25 percent of seats in each house of parliament – a bloc that amounts to a de facto veto on any constitutional change.
The 2008 Constitution also grants the Tatmadaw control of the country’s three most powerful ministries: defense, border, and home affairs.
Given this constitutional backstop, it is hard to see why the military would go to the mattresses for its proxy party, especially given its dismal performance. Indeed, it’s probable that the military devised the 2008 Constitution in the expectation that the NLD would win any future election that it chose to contest. In this sense, the system is working as intended.
Despite its poor showing, one should cautious about writing the USDP off. Backed by the military’s wealth, and enriched by its lattice of connections to the Tatmadaw’s officer corps, the party has the right ingredients to stage a comeback in 2025. As Hopkins points out, the party’s poor election performance was made to look even worse by Myanmar’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which benefits large parties like the NLD. In the 2015 election, for example, he observes that the USDP won just 8 percent of elected seats, but a relatively healthy 28 percent of the popular vote. (Equivalent figures have not yet been released for the 2020 election.) This suggests that the party has a kernel of support on which it could build.
Then there is the looming question of Aung San Suu Kyi. Now 75 years of age, it is unclear how long the NLD leader will remain in active politics, and equally unclear is how her highly personalized party would adjust to her absence. Once “The Lady” steps aside, a vacuum could open up – if the USDP and its leaders are canny enough to fill it.
Myanmar votes on Sunday, five years after Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide win. Against the backdrop of a pandemic, Rohingya crisis, and military assertion, a look at what’s at stake for Suu Kyi and her country
Myanmar will vote on November 8 in an election that is being seen as test of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership of the country over the last five years. In the last elections in 2015, the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy won a landslide victory.
The elections are for the upper and lower houses of the national Parliament, the House of Nationalities and the House of Representatives respectively, as well as to the assemblies of Myanmar’s seven states and seven regions — a total of 1,171 seats. The President is elected by the bicameral national Parliament. Chief Ministers of the states and regions are appointed by the President.
The elections will be held against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, the continuing Rohingya crisis, a nationalist Buddhist resurgence, and an assertion by a military that runs the country along with the elected civilian government in a hybrid system.
Rohingya and the vote
As many as 7 to 8 lakh Rohingya fled to Bangladesh when the Army began a crackdown on an alleged terrorist group in 2017 in Rakhine province, home to this Muslim minority group. The Army action was backed by Suu Kyi and her government. The refugees now live in what has described as the “world’s largest refugee camp” at Cox’s Bazar. Bangladesh wants Myanmar to take them back, but Myanmar, which holds that Rohingya are not “indigenous” and calls them Bengali (the word Rohingya is not officially recognised), is unwilling to do so.
In past elections, Rohingya have voted. This time, they will be almost entirely excluded from the election. Many Rohingya candidates were rejected during the filing of nominations. Last month, the Myanmar Election Commission said that for security reasons, elections would not be held in many areas of Rakhine. This means even the 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar will not be able to vote. Nor will the anti-Suu Kyi Rakhine Buddhists, who allege that political motives are behind the cancellation of the election.
NLD, Army, Buddhist assertion
This is Myanmar’s third election under the 2008 military-drafted Constitution, part of its “road map to democracy”. The NLD had boycotted the first election in 2010, when Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. The junta put up proxy candidates through the Union Solidarity and Development Party and won most of the seats. Following Suu Kyi’s release after the election, the junta, under international pressure, eased restrictions on political and civil society activity and permitted independent media. Over the next five years, investments poured in. NLD’s participation in the 2012 by-elections gave legitimacy to the junta’s reforms. The first credible elections in 2015 were swept by Suu Kyi, then a worldwide icon of democracy.
This time, the NLD carries the burden of incumbency. Suu Kyi had come in with the promise to complete the transition to democracy by reforming the Constitution rammed in by the junta, with near-irreversible write-ins cementing the Army’s role in governing the country — the military gets 25% representation in both Houses of Parliament, and in all the state/regional assemblies, through nomination; the USDP continues to act as a military proxy; the military, known as the Tatmadaw, retains portfolios such as Defence and Internal Security; and it can declare an emergency at any time and take over the running of the country.
There was tension in the civilian-military balance earlier this week after the Commander-in-chief of the Army, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, expressed dissatisfaction with the way the Election Commission was conducting the polls, and in an interview to a local media outlet, left open-ended the question of whether the Army would accept the election results. A government spokesman said the comments violated the Constitution.
Suu Kyi’s party made efforts to push back the military through 2019 but these were stonewalled by the military representatives in Parliament. She is herself a victim of the Constitution – by virtue of having married a foreign national, she is barred from becoming President. She is now known as the State Counsellor, but is accepted by her party as a higher authority than the President. Alongside, her attempts at a peace agreement with over a score armed ethnic groups ranged against the state, have yielded no outcome yet. The last meeting of the Union Peace Conference — 21st Century Panglong (a reference to the Panglong agreement of 1947) — was held in August. The NLD believes a federal arrangement will remain elusive as long as the Army is powerful.
But Suu Kyi has not pushed the military as her Pakistani counterparts have done in the past. She once described generals in the Tatmadaw as “quite sweet”, and defended the Army in person last year at the International Court of Justice at The Hague against allegations of rape, arson and mass killing in Rakhine.
A resurgent Buddhist nationalism, both inspired by and inspiring similar sentiments in Sri Lanka, has also been apparent over the last five years. On November 2, a firebrand monk known for communal and racist speeches surrendered to the police who were seeking to arrest him for over a year for statements he made asking the military to overthrow Suu Kyi’s government, and called her objectionable names. In 2015, he had asked people to vote for the military-backed USDP against Suu Kyi.
Yet Suu Kyi remains as popular as she was five years ago and is expected to lead her party to victory again. Her defiance of international censure over the Rohingya exodus, and the calls to take back her Nobel Peace Prize, seem to have only bolstered her status as a national icon among the majority Buddhist Bamar.
Where India meets China
It has also pushed Suu Kyi into the waiting arms of China, which has been involved in a slew of infrastructure projects in Myanmar, and has wooed her and the NLD since 2015, separately from its continuing tight relations with the military.
Beijing laid out the red carpet for Suu Kyi when she visited in 2016. In January 2020, President Xi Jinping was a high value guest at Naypidaw, with Myanmar Air Force fighter jets escorting Xi’s plane as it landed in the capital.
In an op-ed in Myanmar’s state-run newspaper, Xi wrote that China would support Myanmar in “safeguarding its legitimate rights and interests and national dignity”. Much like how it was Sri Lanka’s only ally during the country’s post-war dog days, China is now Myanmar’s main ally in a world whose ardour for Suu Kyi has long cooled.
During the visit, no new infrasructure projects were signed but the two sides reaffirmed support for speeding up the “China-Myanmar Economic Corridor”, which includes a high-speed railway between industrial zones within the country with connections to the Chinese border, and an ambitious $1.3-billion deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu in central Rakhine, which will provide Beijing a gateway to the Indian Ocean, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
Any push against China in Myanmar now comes from the restive regions where the big infra projects threaten to displace people, as in 2011 in Kachin, where a year after Suu Kyi’s release, protests forced the cancellation of a Chinese 6,000 MW Myistone hydel dam.
“After the election, the trajectory of China-Myanmar relations will not change much no matter what the election result is. China will always be a trusted partner of Myanmar and is set to play a constructive role in Myanmar’s development and peace process,” a columnist wrote in Global Times, a Chinese state-run media outlet.
New Delhi has kept cordial relations with both Suu Kyi and the Myanmar Army. While Buddhism provides a cultural bond, and the Modi government has made common cause with the Myanmar government on the Rohingya issue, India does not have the deep pockets for Chinese-style infrastructure projects. India is working on two key infrastructure projects in Myanmar —a trilateral highway between India-Myanmar and Thailand, and the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit project that aims to connect mainland India to the landlocked Northeastern states through Myanmar. A port at Sittwe and an inland waterway are part of this project.
China’s interests will be better served by the Suu Kyi-led status quo than a return to military-dominated rule
BANGKOK – As Myanmar enters an election season, the economy, Covid-19 and issues of war and peace are expected to dominate the campaign trail discourse.
But for the international community, speculation centers on which direction foreign policy will likely take after the poll: toward an even stronger and closer relationship with China or a shift towards a more independent posture.
Much has changed since the leaders in Beijing favored Myanmar’s authoritarian military regime and were deeply suspicious of then opposition leader and one-time pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Now, Chinese government representatives have made no secret in recent private discussions that they would prefer to see Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) win and are wary of the generals, who they find it increasingly difficult to influence and control.
The military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party lost badly to the NLD at the 2015 election and it’s not clear it will fare much better at this November’s poll.
While Myanmar’s military sees it as their duty to defend the nation’s sovereignty and seek to lessen national dependence on China, Suu Kyi turned to Beijing for economic and other assistance after her previous allies and admirers in the West distanced themselves from her over the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Beginning in August 2017 and still ongoing, thousands of Rohingyas have been killed while hundreds of thousands have fled across the border into Bangladesh due to a Myanmar military crackdown.
Once seen as a champion of human rights, Suu Kyi refused to condemn the carnage the UN and others have termed as possible “genocide.” As such, Suu Kyi turned dramatically and almost overnight from darling to pariah of the West.
The third force in Myanmar’s topsy-turvy foreign relations is Japan, which sees the dangers of the region’s shifting geopolitics and thus has not joined the West’s condemnations.
From August 21 to 24, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi paid visits to Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to strengthen Tokyo’s presence in the four Southeast Asian countries. That his tour took place amid the pandemic underscores the importance of his mission: to counter China’s rising regional clout.
In Myanmar, Motegi met Suu Kyi as well as Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Motegi promised Suu Kyi technical assistance to contain the spread of Covid-19. They also agreed to better facilitate travel for businesspeople and students between the two countries.
In discussions with Min Aung Hlaing, Motegi pledged support for Myanmar’s peace process. A statement issued by Japan’s Foreign Ministry also stated rather curiously and without elaborating that Motegi and Min Aung Hlaing “exchanged views” on regional affairs, “including the South China Sea issue and concurred on deepening cooperation between the two countries.”
It remains to be seen whether Motegi’s promises to Suu Kyi will be enough to make a dent in Beijing’s already strong influence over Myanmar. That’s plain to see in the so-called China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a bilateral scheme that involves the construction of high-speed railways, highways and upgraded waterways along Myanmar’s rivers.
The project is seen as a crucial link in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which arguably will take on more importance in neighboring Southeast Asia as tensions rise with the US in a new Cold War.
Myanmar’s link and outlet to the Indian Ocean will provide an alternative route for China’s trade with the Middle Eat, Africa and Europe, which currently travels via vulnerable sea lanes through the contested South China Sea and congested Malacca Strait.
During a historic visit to Myanmar in January, Xi secured no less than 33 memoranda of understanding, including 13 relating to infrastructure projects, in talks with Suu Kyi and other mostly civilian officials.
Those included a multi-billion dollar plan to establish a special economic zone and industrial park near Kyaukphyu, where a deep-sea port is already being developed with Chinese investment.
Min Aung Hlaing, on the other hand, stunned many observers when he said during a visit to Moscow in June in an interview with a Russian news network that “terrorist groups” exist in Myanmar “because of the strong forces that support them.”
Although the military leader did not name any group or foreign force in particular, it was clear that he was referring to the insurgent Arakan Army (AA) in the country’s western Rakhine state which is known to be equipped with Chinese-made weapons.
In November, the Myanmar military seized a huge cache of Chinese weapons, including brand-new rocket launchers and a surface-to-air missile, from another rebel army in northern Shan state.
China’s carrot and stick policy towards Myanmar consists of loans, grants and support for anti-Covid-19 campaigns on one hand while providing some of the country’s many ethnic armies access to China’s huge, informal arms market, which is grey rather than black.
Despite the Covid-19 crisis and numerous talks between government officials, military leaders and representatives of the country’s many ethnic armed organizations, Myanmar’s civil war is raging in several border areas and it has become increasingly clear that it is being heavily influenced by China.
Initiated by former president, ex-general Thein Sein shortly after he assumed office in March 2011 and continued under the present Suu Kyi administration, the peace process has attracted rich support from the West as well as Japan.
But a national ceasefire agreement (NCA) comprises only a handful of groups, some without arms or territory under their control. The most recent peace meeting was held this month and ended with nothing more than an agreement to hold further talks about talks.
The fact remains that groups representing more than 80% of all ethnic combatants have not signed the NCA and are unlikely to do so. Those groups, seven in all, are united under the umbrella of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC). All are known to be close to China.
The most powerful of them, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), is equipped with Chinese-made assault rifles, machine-guns, mortars, surface-to-air missiles and even light armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles.
AA is a close ally and has via other FPNCC members received weapons from the UWSA. So, too, has the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the far north of the country and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, an ethnic Palaung group that operates over large swathes of territory in northern Shan state.
The West and Japan may be involved in the peace process, and Motegi may have pledged increased support for efforts to bring decades of civil war to an end. But Chinese security officials have in recent meetings with FPNCC members told them not to have any dealings with peacemakers and other officials from the West or Japan.
It is thus clear that China has no intention of giving up its big stick and that recent developments have exposed just how irrelevant other outside actors have become to the peace process.
While the West is caught in the quagmire of the Rohingya crisis and Japan is doing its utmost to maintain and develop ties with Myanmar, China still rules the roost. And that largely explains why China backs a continuation of the democratic status quo, with Suu Kyi and her NLD still in power after November’s election.
(Bangkok) – The Myanmar Union Election Commission should amend rules governing political parties’ access to state-owned radio and television stations to ensure that all parties can present their positions without undue interference, Human Rights Watch said today.
On July 23, 2020, the Union Election Commission announced that political parties would be permitted to deliver electoral speeches and explain party policies on state-owned television and radio stations during the two-month period leading up to the national election scheduled for November 8. However, all political broadcasts must be pre-approved by the election commission under overly broad and vague restrictions on what political parties can say, in violation of international standards for protection of freedom of speech.
“The UEC’s regulations hamstring the political opposition by effectively prohibiting any criticism of the government, existing laws, and the military,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Doing so strikes at the heart of political speech and campaigning, and seriously undermines the fairness of the electoral process.”
Under international standards, a transparent and independent body, separate from the election commission, should be established to regulate broadcasting content during elections. Campaign messages for broadcast should not be subject to prior approval and there should not be undue limitation on topics allowed to be covered in the campaign.
Under the rules announced by the UEC, a political party must apply to the election commission for permission to present a campaign broadcast and submit a script for the proposed broadcast for review. The UEC can either permit the broadcast or require revisions to ensure that the script does not violate vague and broadly worded restrictions on content.
The rules prohibit any content that “can disturb the security, rule of law and the peace and stability of the county,” or “disrespects” the existing laws of the country, or “defames” or “tarnishes the image” of the country, or defames the Tatmadaw, or can “harm dignity and morality.” The rules also prohibit any content that could “incite” members of the civil service “not to perform their duty or to oppose the government.”
The cumulative effect of the restrictions clearly violates international human rights law by precluding almost all criticism of the government, the Tatmadaw, or current abusive laws, Human Rights Watch said. Voters have a right to receive and obtain information that will enable them to decide how to exercise their vote. It is critical for all parties to have fair access to state-owned broadcast media in Myanmar, so they can present their programs to the voters.
While the decision to allocate time to opposition political parties is a positive step, any limits on the right to disseminate electoral statements should conform to international standards, including that public figures should be required to tolerate a higher degree of criticism and scrutiny than ordinary citizens. Limits on voters’ access to information can have a chilling effect on debate around issues of public importance during campaigns and elections, Human Rights Watch said.
Using Myanmar’s numerous defamation laws, the government and military have treated almost any criticism of their record as defamatory. For example, three Kachin human rights defenders were sentenced to six months in prison in December 2018, for “defaming” the military during protests in Myitkyina calling for the rescue of civilians trapped by renewed fighting in Kachin State.
Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which covers defamation online, has been repeatedly used to prosecute those who criticize the government or the military. The military charged the Burmese language editor of The Irrawaddy,Ye Ni, with defamation under that law in April 2019 for reporting about military attacks in the town of Mrauk-U in Rakhine state, though the charges were later dropped. The restriction on content that “defames” the country or the Tatmadaw thus places severe restrictions on what political parties can say about the current National League for Democracy-led government or the military.
The restriction on content that could cause members of the civil service “not to perform their duties” is also problematic given the history of similar restrictions in Myanmar. Penal code article 505(a), barring speech that may cause members of the military to “disregard or fail” in their duties, has been repeatedly used against critics of the military.
On August 29, 2019, a court sentenced the prominent filmmaker, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, to one year in prison with hard labor under that provision for criticizing the military on Facebook. Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi suffers from liver cancer and was visibly unwell during his trial.
The military also used the law against members of the Peacock Generation, a traditional theater group, for a satirical performance deemed critical of the military. A court sentenced five members of the troupe to a year in prison for violating section 505(a) in October 2019. A different court imposed an additional one-year sentence under the same law in November 2019, and three members of the troupe face charges of defaming the military under section 66(d) for streaming the performance online.
The prohibition on content that “disrespects” existing laws could be used to prohibit political parties from criticizing abusive laws and discussing their plans to change those laws, Human Rights Watch said. The prohibition on content that can “tarnish the image of the country” could be applied to prohibit almost any criticism of the government or the military, including commentary on military abuses in Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin states.
Each of these restrictions violates international standards on freedom of speech, Human Rights Watch said. They also undermine the fairness of the electoral process by preventing opposition parties from presenting their policies in full where those policies involve criticism of the government, the military, or the country’s many abusive laws.
“The Union Election Commission should revise the broadcast rules to ensure that voters are able to hear opposition parties on state-owned media speaking freely about their policies and platforms,” Lakhdhir said. “Robust political debate lies at the heart of the electoral process, and Myanmar voters are entitled to hear all political views, including those critical of the government in power and its policies.”
mericans won’t be the only voters going to the polls in November. Myanmar’s third national election since transitioning from half a century of military rule is slated for Nov. 8.
Already, several questions loom over this test of the country’s democratic trajectory. How will the government ensure ethnic civilians displaced by armed conflict can vote? How will Facebook protect voters from disinformation? How will the government manage campaigns and polling in the age of COVID-19?
These are tough challenges. But there is another critical question, easy to resolve, that will also determine whether the exercise is free and fair: Will the government ensure the right to vote for Rohingya?
The Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority, mostly Muslim, indigenous to western Myanmar; and today, far more live outside the country than inside. The reason for this is summed up in a word: genocide.
In October 2016 and August 2017, the Myanmar military responded to nascent Rohingya militancy with full-scale attacks on civilians, forcing more than 800,000 to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. They have no hope of safely returning to Myanmar anytime soon, and this creates new but surmountable logistical challenges for the 2020 elections.
Rohingya-led refugee groups have already said they want the government to facilitate voting from the camps in Bangladesh. One of these organizations, called the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), has urged Myanmar to set up voter registration and polling in collaboration with the Bangladesh authorities. Many other Rohingya have since reiterated the request.
Some in Myanmar dismiss this option out-of-hand, calling it unfeasible. But this is a cop-out.
In 2004, some 850,000 Afghan refugees voted in their country’s first presidential election from camps in Pakistan and Iran and through absentee ballots. In that case, concerned governments and international humanitarian organizations did their part to ensure refugees could exercise their right to vote. Myanmar and its bilateral partners could do the same.
There are also an estimated 600,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar, and many there are also anxiously awaiting news about the election. The three Rohingya-led political parties in the country—the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), the National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD), and the National Democracy and Peace Party (NDPP)—are all registered and intending to field candidates.
But Myanmar has denied Rohingya the right to vote since the 2015 elections that brought Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to power. Despite Myanmar’s wholesale exclusion of Rohingya, the international community made the profound mistake of lauding those elections. President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon all congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi on the outcome. Hillary Clinton even claimed partial credit for nudging Myanmar onto the reform path during her tenure as Secretary of State, recognizing the election was “imperfect” but calling it “an affirmation of the indispensable role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of peace and progress.”
Few stopped to consider the repercussions the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya could have. Some analysts suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi would have to build a constructive working relationship with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in order for her government to be effective. None imagined she’d do so in the commission of genocide against Rohingya, but that’s precisely what happened.
In December last year, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi went so far as to represent Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, defending the military from allegations of genocide in a historic, ongoing lawsuit brought by The Gambia.
By wholly denying any intent to destroy Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi won military favor, and by taking aim at Rohingya on the global stage she strategically scored perverse ethno-nationalist points ahead of the elections.
Now, the cycle is poised to continue. Government insiders, diplomats and even representatives of international non-governmental organizations are saying that if all Rohingya were in Myanmar, they would still not meet the requirements of the election law because they lack citizenship. This is a politically convenient excuse.
Not only did Rohingya vote in past elections—during which they were still unjustly denied full citizenship rights—but since the 1990s, Myanmar authorities have kept detailed records of Rohingya through “household lists.” The government has other sources of data on Rohingya as well, including former identity cards and other evidence it could use to determine Rohingya voter eligibility.
Officials may suggest that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and those in Myanmar will have the right to vote only if they accept National Verification Cards (NVCs). However, these cards are discriminatory, effectively requiring Rohingya to identify as outsiders, thereby foregoing any chance to restore full citizenship under the current law. Any demand that Rohingya accept NVCs in exchange for the right to vote would be unacceptably coercive.
As November approaches, Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh are hoping that access to the polls might help them secure a better future.
“Rohingya need a voice in parliament,” Abdul Rasheed, an expected candidate with DHRP in Sittwe Township, tells me from Yangon. This will be his second attempt to seek office.
“This is not only about voting and democracy, it’s also about dignity and protection,” he says.
The international community, including the U.N. and other organizations, must now do everything in their power to ensure the Rohingya have the right to vote.
Governments around the world overlooked Rohingya disenfranchisement in 2015, and that was at least one paver on the road to genocide. They must not make the same mistake twice.
If the polls move forward despite the pandemic, it will be a landmark development for Myanmar.
Later this year, Myanmar is scheduled to hold its third general election in six decades in a landmark development for the country’s democratic transition. While details remain unclear amid the global coronavirus pandemic, as of now the Southeast Asian state is set to hold its expected polls as the ruling party faces manifold challenges that could pose significant risks for the future trajectory of reform and freedom.
While Myanmar had been under the rule of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, for a half-century, an opening in the 2010s saw subsequent political inroads made that turned the country into a rare story of hope for democracy and freedom in Southeast Asia. The changes culminated in the assumption of power by the long-time opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, following a landslide win in free national elections held in November 2015.
Nearly five years on, while Suu Kyi and the NLD have undertaken reforms in some areas, they have not lived up to the high expectations that existed when they took office. Politically, at home, Suu Kyi’s relationship with ethnic groups has worsened over the years as hopes for national reconciliation and decentralization have dimmed, and her ties with the military – which continues to exercise significant independent influence – remain strained. Abroad, though Myanmar has reinforced its foreign alignments, the balance of those alignments continues to be hampered by the legacy of the Rohingya crisis, which soured ties with some Western countries including the United States and reinforced Myanmar’s continued dependence on China.
Security-wise, the country’s ongoing ethnic conflicts, which have plagued it since independence in 1948, earning the title of the world’s longest-running civil war, have shown few signs of abating. Despite initial hopes for peace and talk of a temporary ceasefire amid COVID-19, a series of structural challenges – including lingering civil-military tensions, fierce divisions among its various ethnic groups, and the influence of insurgent groups, including the new Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – suggest that there is little chance of things truly changing for the better until the dust settles after 2020 polls.
Economically, while the NLD has made some efforts to encourage businesses, this has largely been an area of missed opportunity. Major issues remain in areas such as jobs, infrastructure, and foreign investment, in part exacerbated by the aforementioned stalled efforts at national reconciliation. Though Myanmar itself has thus far not been majorly affected by COVID-19 relative to the rest of Southeast Asia, the virus has nonetheless further dimmed economic prospects in the near term, with the NLD as of now set to enter into the 2020 elections with the lowest growth rates since the country’s opening began.
The confluence of these political, security, and economic challenges reinforce the reality that the NLD will enter into 2020 elections amid a much more somber atmosphere than the hope displayed in the historic 2015 polls that brought it to power. The NLD is facing waning support in certain ethnic and urban areas of the country. More broadly, even though the elections could help consolidate the country’s fragile electoral democracy, these underlying challenges have also heightened anxieties about polls themselves, including whether or not they will be held on time, will proceed in a free and fair manner, and will be held peacefully in the country, especially in conflict-ridden areas.
To be sure, despite these challenges, it is far from doom and gloom for the NLD heading into polls expected later this year. While the ruling party has had a rocky road during its term in office and has at times admitted as much, for now, the fact is that the 2020 elections still remain the NLD’s to lose, with Suu Kyi herself continuing to retain significant popularity in most of Myanmar and little appetite for the military to return to power. It is also important to keep in mind that the focus on COVID-19 can cut both ways: It can exacerbate the NLD’s governance challenges, but it can also reinforce the case for continuity and political stability and take the focus away from the party’s own problems, thereby cementing its expected return to power.
Even so, the realization of an expected NLD election win, albeit one smaller than the landslide that the party had recorded back in 2015, will not change the sobering reality of the NLD’s tough road ahead and the prospects for Myanmar’s democracy and reform moving forward. While a second term for the NLD would keep the prospects for reform intact, the dizzying array of issues it will have to deal with – from constitutional reform to managing ethnic conflict – remains daunting. And as the years progress, other variables, including discontent among smaller ethnic parties, maneuvering by elements within the military to maintain or even increase their political influence, and the NLD’s succession dynamics beyond Suu Kyi herself, mean that the ruling party’s continued ability to govern Myanmar may be far from assured.
This is not to say that Myanmar’s upcoming polls are unimportant: indeed, if and when they are held and whatever their limits, competitive elections will be a landmark development in helping consolidate fragile electoral democracy in the Southeast Asian state. But a broader, future-oriented perspective must be kept in mind even as the focus is on the dynamics and then the results of Myanmar’s upcoming elections in the coming months. Otherwise, the window of hope for change in the country that we saw open in the early 2010s could soon begin closing and the country’s trajectory could take a turn for the worse.
The sweeping victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015 heralded an era of democratic reforms and an end to military dictatorship. The Nobel Peace Prize got bestowed upon her in 1991 while she was still under house arrest and probably not even aware of the news. Overnight, she became an international icon —fought the Myanmar military governance (i.e.theTatmadaw) — forging the path ahead for liberalization and democratization. However, in the light of the recent Rohingya crisis, Myanmar has come under immense criticism from different quarters of the international community. The public shaming of Aung San Suu Kyi has been doing the rounds in social media, news dailies and leading websites whereby she has been highly condemned for keeping quiet on the atrocities meted out to millions of Rohingya refugees in the Rakhine state who are now seeking shelter in neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and India. Her long kept silence was finally broken when she claimed that Myanmar has never been soft on human rights offenders, thereby ‘without offering a hint of solace or consolation’.
A Planned Attack?
The brimming cynicism levelled against Aung San Suu Kyi has been growing far and wide to the extent of stripping her off the Nobel Peace Prize which may not be possible, in reality. However, her alma mater, the University of Oxford, has decided to withdraw an honorary title awarded to her in 1997, in the aftermath of the Rohingya crisis. Criticisms have also come in the form of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human rights expressing their disapproval over the crisis as ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. Another Nobel Laureate Mr. Desmond Tutu reportedly wrote to Daw San Suu Kyi saying that “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
However, given this background of backlashes and censures, the global community cannot simply keep on harping at it. In fact, it also cannot negate the counternarrative offered by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of an “iceberg of misinformation” where she has invited the international media to talk to the surviving Rohingya inhabitants and crosscheck the ground realities in the Rakhine region. Interestingly, as quoted in one of the reports by RSIS, there has been one prominent story which came out in the Myanmar social media. It was said that on August 25 2017 the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had already planned an attack on the military posts in order to provoke the Tatmadaw military to give way to a disturbing scenario. This was ironically a day before the release of the Report by Advisory Commission of Rakhine State. If one goes by this narrative, it can be deduced that such an attack was particularly targeted to damage the public image of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and in turn, ruin her efforts towards building a peaceful and fair future for the Rakhine State. According to Ms. Kang Siew Kheng, a leading researcher at RSIS, who has aptly remarked that “for sure, no deemed past wrongs in history can justify present-day violence, but no present-day policy can bring about reconciliation until the old animosities have been addressed.”
Rakhine State of Affairs
The state of Rakhine has all along witnessed a colonial divide and rule strategy which has been reinforced by generations of politics complicated by extreme poverty and economic deprivation of its ethnic inhabitants. It is important to understand here that the victory achieved by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015 occurred amida wave of nationalism accompanied by growing sense of doubt and suspicion, especially in the case of the Rohingya minorities. The victory of democracy, paradoxically, gave a free rein to some entrenched sentiments that were previously put under harsh control of the military. Significantly, the NLD did not fair that well as it largely did in the other parts of the country. Experts believe that the electoral base of Suu Kyi regarded the Rohingyas “as a late political construct” who were mainly temporary migrant labourers residing in permeable borders. They are now being used to legitimise old claims of autonomy and independence.
The Road Ahead
The future of Rohingya Muslims is undoubtedly at stake and it is essential to understand here that this crisis is not merely an internal conflict concerning Myanmar. It certainly has a larger picture which is attached to the global scenario. At present, even though Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to address the needs of the ethnic minorities, she needs all the help she can, from inside and outside Myanmar. It is time for the neighbouring countries, such as India and China and also the regional bloc ASEAN to intervene positively and engage in a coordinate course of action to bring out a longlasting solution. Isolating Myanmar or imposing economic sanctions on it is certainly not going to reap any results. As it is, the country, over the years, has been slowly struggling to achieve a definitive level of economic and political reforms. The insipid stance taken by the ASEAN on the Rakhine situation following an ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York was not only predictable but disappointing. The Rohingya crisis has the potential to transform itself into a global catastrophe leading to greater instability if not addressed urgently.
At the end, it would be interesting to observe Daw Aung San Suu Kyi put her skills of statecraft to test while she enforces some sort of national reconciliation amid the multitude of challenges that surround her now.
Courtesy- Swati Prabhu is a research scholar & an ardent contributor to National Dailies.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the editorial team of Myanmar Matters
The European Union (EU) has congratulated Myanmar for successfully conducting democratic by-elections held on April 1, 2017. As per a statement issued by EU, they said that these by-elections are another important step towards strengthening democracy in Myanmar. It further added that according to all observers the votes were cast in a transparent and well-run process. Along with the Government of Myanmar, EU also congratulated the Union Election Commission [UEC] on successfully completing these elections and said that they will continue to support UEC in the future as well. EU has been one of the strongest supporters and sponsors of Myanmar’s democratic transition. It is also involved in the ongoing peace process and is also providing a lot of investment in order to help with the development of Myanmar.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party National League for Democracy (NLD) has won nearly half of the seats contested in by-elections in Myanmar. This is the first vote since March 2016 elections which NLD won by 360 of the 652 MPs at the Assembly of the Union. This time the party but has bagged 9 out of 19 seats in the national and regional parliaments. The losses suffered by NLD were in more remote areas, including in ethnic minority regions. NLD enjoys a large majority in the Parliament so the outcome of the by-elections will not affect the balance of power within the parliament, where the, However, these elections do offer a chance to gauge the popularity of the administration in a country like Myanmar where nationwide public polls are not an available option. Worst defeat suffered by the party has been in the southern state of Mon, where it lost a lower house seat to its main opposition party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).