Millions of Myanmar’s citizens will go to the polls on 8 November to cast their votes in the first relatively democratic elections in 25 years. At stake is control of the country’s bicameral legislature – the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which is currently dominated by President Thein Sein’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). As stipulated in Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, a quarter of the seats are reserved for the military. Of those remaining, most analysts predict the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by world-renowned democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, to win a decisive majority.
To the casual observer of Burmese politics, it would appear that the country is on the verge of a historic shift towards openness and democratisation. However, the positive preliminary electoral data belies sinister undercurrents of violent nationalism targeting minority communities, most notably the approximately one million Rohingya Muslims living in the northern townships of Rakhine state. A new study undertaken by Yale Law School for Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia-based human rights NGO, analyses evidence from a multitude of sources to determine whether the actions of Thein Sein’s administration, and the Burmese state more broadly, constitutes a policy of genocide as defined in the ‘1948 Genocide Convention’.
Article II of the Convention states three conditions must be met for a crime to be considered genocide:
- A group must exist;
- Attempts must be made to kill, seriously harm, control births or inflict conditions conducive to the group’s destruction;
- These measures must be undertaken with intent to destroy the group both in whole or in part.
After analysing the research and documentation collated over three years, the Yale Lawyers determine that although beyond their remit to conclude definitively that genocide is occurring, ‘strong evidence’ exists that it is.
Since securing power in February 2011, President Thein Sein has legislated a mix of liberal and repressive reforms. More than 500 political prisoners have been released, media censorship relaxed and registration opened to opposition parties. Simultaneously, the suffering of the Rohingya continues unabated. They are routinely discriminated against and subjected to severe human rights abuses including killing, forced labour, denial of citizenship, displacement, and restrictions on movement, marriage and religion.
Prior to being formally disbanded in 2013, Rakhine’s Nasaka border security force was notorious for its abuses of the Rohingya community. Despite hopes that the group’s dissolution would quell the worst of the offenses such as arbitrary detention and routine sexual violence, they have persisted. Rohingya can be arrested for infractions seemingly as innocuous as repairing a house without permission, or refusing to identify themselves on official documentation as ‘Bengali’ – inferring the individual is an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh.
The Burmese state maintains the Rohingya are not a distinct group, omitting them from a list of 135 official ethnicities compiled for a 2014 census. They are routinely denied legal status under the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, which stipulates anyone who cannot provide ‘conclusive evidence’ that their parents resided in Burma prior to independence in 1948, or has at least one parent who holds Burmese citizenship, is barred from naturalisation. In reality, Rohingya are denied documentation irrespective of evidence produced to confirm their ancestral heritage, rendering them effectively stateless.
Worryingly, despite the widespread consternation resulting from this year’s exodus of thousands of ‘boat people’, the plight of the Rohingya is seemingly deteriorating. A new documentary released by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit substantiates allegations of collusion between violent Buddhist nationalist elements and state actors to persecute Muslim minorities and incite inter-ethnic violence, most notably in Rakhine state in 2012. It claims the government played a pivotal role facilitating and perpetuating the violence that resulted in the deaths of at least 80 people and the displacement of 100,000 more.
The investigation cites evidence such as the employment of agent provocateurs and organised Buddhist agitators, armed and transported from neighbouring regions to intensify and prolong the chaos. Security forces are recorded standing-by while Muslims are beaten or killed and their homes and businesses razed. This level of complicity by the authorities gives clear indication of a systematic plan sanctioned at the highest levels of government to commit atrocities that constitute genocide under the 1948 Convention.
By fomenting nationalist sentiment via extremist Buddhist organisations such as Ma Ba Tha, the government is pursuing a Machiavellian strategy to retain power regardless of the election results. They have positioned themselves as guardians of the Buddhist majority, and employed firebrand reactionaries to promote the USDP as the saviour of the Burmese people. Both the USDP and NLD are acutely aware of how essential it is to maintain the support of the religious establishment. The estimated 500,000 monks in Myanmar represent a potent political force with the power to present a significant threat to any government perceived to be working against their interests.
According to a prominent Muslim member, the NLD intentionally blocked 12 Muslim candidates from running in the upcoming election to appease Ma Ba Tha. Aung San Suu Kyi, an ostensible champion of human rights, has been deathly silent in condemning the plight of the Rohingya. Any overt sympathy or perceived support for Muslim interests in Myanmar is politically toxic and risks stripping the NLD of their predicted majority. The USDP is attempting to fracture the polity along ethnic lines in a cynical ploy to bolster their own electoral position. It has not gone unnoticed by Western governments, who issued a joint statement expressing concern about religion being used as a tool of division and conflict during the campaign season.
It would be disingenuous to discount the significant strides Myanmar has made in recent years towards openness and liberalisation. However, it must be understood that progress is being made on the military’s terms. Even if the NLD win an outright majority in parliament, any transfer of power will be limited at best. Attempts to legislate reforms contrary to the military’s interests will be countered with staunch resistance and potentially violent opposition. It is imperative that Myanmar’s nascent reforms do not obscure the mounting evidence of state sanctioned genocide targeting its most marginalised minority.
Image courtesy of Steve Gumaer