by Vasiliki Kaidantzi, member of the International Relations & Foreign Policy Research Team
Myanmar, mostly known as Burma, is one of the most obscured states in the contemporary world as it appears in the world stage only in its moments of crisis, facing enormous and multifaceted challenges that seem to attract international community as well as several political agendas. Concerns over its autocratic military government and the plight of its population are widespread, yet there is no international consensus on how to approach the ongoing humanitarian and political crisis in the region (Steinberg I. David, 2013). Unfortunately, a third of Myanmar’s population lives in poverty as the country battles against food and economic insecurity. Nonetheless, the Rohingya crisis caught the world’s attention in 2017, when hundreds of thousands of citizens fled the country, following an unprecedented ethnic cleansing. In addition, the country was practically pursuing a fragile nationwide peace process in the midst of ongoing armed conflict among different ethnic groups, though peace talks have not been inclusive and some of these ethnic groups have not signed the peace agreement. Lamentably, the recent political changes in the country after the military coup d’état of February 2021, have been accompanied by a large influx of international response (Elin Bjarnegård, 2020).
Specifically, Burma/Myanmar appears to be the largest of the mainland Southeast Asian states. If we think of its ethnic composition, it has always been characterized by heterogeneity, as the ethnic Burmans constitute about 69% of the total population, with the rest divided among hundred smaller language groups. The majority of these minority ethnic populations include a wide range of actors with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and political beliefs, thus directly affecting the political instability of the country. Let’s not also forget that the British occupation thof Burna, which extended to the entire country by 1885, heightened existing hostilities and differences among these groups, and created new forms of rivalry, as some of them supported the state, and a few others joined the armed resistance organizations during the endless civil war (Thawnghmung Maung Ardeth, 2011).
Myanmar’s importance on a global scale, arises not only due to its political repression’s impact on human rights issues and its need in humanitarian assistance, but also due to its geographic position. Historically, the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities have long created tensions with the Burmans. The country’s neighbors along with U.S. ally, Thailand, have sought to influence it and gain access to its natural resources, such as oil, gas, gems, as well as hydroelectric potential that are coveted regionally and internationally. Consequently, it has become an important element of regional power rivalry. Furthermore, it also remains a major concern to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which particularly tries to interfere diplomatically in the internal affairs of the state and alienate China’s growing sphere of influence in Myanmar. Since 1997, it has been a member of ASEAN, and has been an embarrassment to the other member states, due to its spotless democratic reputations (Roberts Christopher, 2010). However, its regional importance has attracted both its neighbors and other international powers. As it connects to the western approaches of the most strategic natural waterway in the world, which appears to be the link between the Middle East’s and East Asia’s oil reserves, it also happens to be a trade route for shipping oil and gas directly to southwestern China through the state (Steinberg I. David, 2013).
For the above mentioned reasons, I will try to adumbrate the latest political crisis of 2010 until today, as well as the military operation that suddenly deposed the government and assumed power, after briefly describing Myanmar’s political history, in order to further understand the current political instability of the country. Later on, I will attempt to explain the genocide of the Rohingya Minority and its humanitarian emergency needs along with UN’S reaction and aid, as it is specifically connected with the last decade’s political crisis in the country. Finally, I will seek to find an answer to the possibility of the impact of the coup d’état in the Rohingya refugee crisis. Hence, is there a prospect that this political crisis could lead towards an unprecedented internal conflict in the state?
A BRIEF HISTORICAL VIEW IN MYANMAR’s POLITICAL INSTABILITY OF THE LAST TWO CENTURIES
The colonial period, even if it lasted a relatively short time, from 1885 to 1948, is characterized by its great impact in the country’s current situation. The British governed Burma as a province of India until 1937, despite their profound cultural differences and from her side, the Indian Government, through its rules and policies, provoked the minority complication, resulting in today’s ethnic disputes across the country (Steinberg I. David, 2013). The civilian government which lasted from the colonial independence in 1948 until the military coup of 1962, even though it has triggered complicated perspectives, many people braced the democratic 1947 constitution as a guide to what Myanmar will need in the future (US Department of State, 2017).
Unfortunately, in 1962, General Ne Win lead a coup, abolished the constitution and established a xenophobic military government with socialist economic priorities, which had devastating effects on the country’s economy and business sector (Steinberg I. David, 2013). From 1990 until 2010, the ruling junta continued its autocratic policy and repression of the democratic opposition, while simultaneously signing a series of cease-fire agreements with insurgent groups and releasing many political prisoners. Throughout this battle, the United Nations used Special Envoys Tan Sri Razali Ismail and Ibrahim Gambari as quiet interlocutors, who would aid in a gradual progress between the junta and the democratic party (Security Council Report, 2020).
POLITICAL CRISIS: 2010 – 2021 (COUP D’ETAT)
Following the 2010 general elections, the military junta finally freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and a series of political reforms underwent from 2011 onwards (Øverland Indra, Stokke Kristian, Vakulchuk Roman, 2018). Despite the fact that the elected government, the USDP party, was largely composed of corrupted former and current members of the armed forces of Myanmar (Yusuf Abdullah, 2020), it quickly adopted several political and economic reforms in support of basic civil rights, electoral democracy and economic growth. From here side, Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party, re-entered the democratic arena and in 2015, in the first free and fair elections that took place in the country, she won in a landslide against the military-supported party USDP and signaled the beginning of new hope for the country’s transition to democracy. By 2016, she announced the creation of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State by Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the UN (Yusuf Abdullah, 2020), and gradually the western states and International NGOs started strengthening their engagement with Myanmar (Øverland Indra, Stokke Kristian, Vakulchuk Roman, 2018). Unfortunately, in 2017, after the so-called ethnic cleansing operation by the Myanmar Military against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine State, Aung San Suu Kyi along with her NLD Party, were called to defend themselves against genocide charges on the International Course of Justice (ICJ) on the same year (Rieffel Lex, 2019).
In response to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya community, the western as wells as the Asian investments reduced dramatically, while commitments of foreign aid from the West and major multilateral agencies have stalled and tourism has dropped, thus hampering the economic process of the country and making it almost impossible to move towards a peaceful and prosperous future (Rieffel Lex, 2019). For Aung San Suu Kyi and her leading party, they have been drawn into the democratic system without being able to deliver safety, non-discrimination, and protection of vulnerable or disadvantaged and minority citizens (Yusuf Abdullah, 2020). The second democratic elections that held in November 2020 have also presented NLD Party and its leader the winners of the battle, however the military and some political parties claimed that the vote was fraudulent, thus sparking an unprecedented electoral dispute over the legitimacy of the results. From its side, the UN envoy underlined the victory at the polls and it called for the suspension of violence against journalists to ensure the protection of civilians and human rights (UN News, 2021).
Unfortunately, in February 2021, the military seized control and declared a one year long state of emergency, while it banned the state media TV and radios, local phone lines and internet and blocked access to Facebook (Giles Christopher, 2021). The armed forces supported the opposition, who were demanding a rerun of the votes (Cuddy Alice, 2021). In addition, power has been handed over to the commander- in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, a corrupted political personality, who successfully maintained the power of Myanmar’s military during the country’s transition towards democracy in 2011 and used his wealth in order to easily seize power from the democratic party (Regan Helen, 2021). During the coup d’état, the military arrested the 75-year-old Suu Kyi as well as a number of politicians form her party and thousands of citizens across the state started protesting on the streets against the military regime (Cuddy Alice, 2021).
The majority of the international community along with world leaders condemned the military takeover, such as UK, EU, Australia and US President Biden threatened Myanmar with serious sanctions, while neighbor countries including Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, kept a neutral position, towards the “internal matters” of the country (Times Now Digital, 2021). From its side, UN Security Council decided to collectively draft a statement, condemning the military’s actions and calling for the immediate release of all those detained, but the draft was never issued, due to China’s and Russia’s refusal to international intervention on a country’s internal situation, as well as because of their interests in the area and their strong ties with the country (Euronews, 2021).
THE ROHINGYA EMERGENCY & REFUGEE CRISIS
During the last 8 years, the Rohingya Crisis has become an emergency phenomenon for world policy and international organizations. A refugee situation in the beginning and an ethnic genocide later on, have practically revealed the incapability of the democratic party to protect its citizens and their human rights and provide them at least with their basic needs (Md. Islam Shariful, 2019).
The Rohingya appears to be an ethnic Muslim Minority, whose origins have deep historical roots in Myanmar and mostly in the Rakhine state. Before 2017, the majority of the estimated one million Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, accounted for nearly a third of the population. Their problems initiated from the fact that they differ from the country’s dominant Budhist groups, ethnically, linguistically and religiously, thus they are treated as illegal and unwelcomed foreigners, they used to be called as “Bengalis” and they are not allowed to use the term Rohingya, so as to deny their ethnic heritage and their collective identity, despite the fact that their presence in the country can be traced back to 15th century (Albert Eleanor and Maizland Lindsay, 2020).
Since the state’s independence in 1948, successive governments in Burma have refuted the Rohingya’s historical claims and denied the group recognition as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups. Even worse, the Rohingyas were denied citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law, and until today they are banned from freedom of movement, access to social services, such as education, health care and productive employment (Laoutides Costas and Ware Anthony, 2019). Except for the fact that they were disenfranchised from the 2015 elections, a controversial legislation collectively known as the “Race and Religious Protection Laws” was also adopted by Parliament and signed by President Sein even after the elections took place, which practically institutionalized discrimination against them (Gert Rosenthal, 2019).
Additionally, the tensions with Rakhine Buddhists over the years, created a hostile environment for Rohingyas, often fueled by hate speech and intimidation, as well as numerous episodes of violence, which led to destructions of their villages, numerous dead and wounded as wells internal and external displacement of more than 200.000 people, in neighbor countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand (Gert Rosenthal, 2019).
The worst was yet to come. Beginning in 2017, a mass exodus of totally 1.000.000 Rohingya citizens arrived in Bangladesh after Myanmar’s military forces and Buddhist mobs, attacked them, by burning their villages, killing and raping civilians (Albert Eleanor and Maizland Lindsay, 2020). At least 24.000 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of five, were killed according to medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). From their side, the states’ security forces claimed that they were carrying out a campaign to reinstate stability in the country’s western region (BBC News, 2021).
On 2018, in a Security Council meeting on Myanmar, the United Nations identified it as the textbook case of Rohingya’s Genocide (Md. Islam Shariful, 2019). Even though the UN General Assembly has approved several resolutions strongly condemning rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims, including arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, and death, and calling Myanmar state to take urgent measures to combat incitement of hatred against minorities (A/RES/72/248, 2018), it failed to agree on a common statement with International Court of Justice that would put under pressure the Myanmar government for a successful prevention of a future genocide. Unfortunately, Myanmar’s ally China, as well as Vietnam, which is part of the regional Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) along with Myanmar, objected and the meeting was concluded (Lederer M. Edith, 2020).
Concluding, we have established the fact that for the last 70 years Myanmar has been governed by constant military juntas, destabilizing the state and boosting political crisis, characterized externally as one between democracy and totalitarianism, between the military and civilian leadership. The validity of elections, a referendum as well as a new constitution that would promise a roadmap towards a flourishing democracy, that respects and protects its citizens and their human rights, was brutally disrupted once again by the military coup a few weeks ago, during a period of crisis, owing to the coronavirus pandemic. This new political crisis is intricately connected with the Rohingya Emergency, as it can easily menace all the efforts that they have been made towards the ethnic discrimination of Rohingyas and their protection from the state. Unfortunately, international organizations are concerned about the impact on the humanitarian situation and relief operations in the country, as military coups could easily block the external aid and start new atrocities against the citizens (Norwegian Refugee Council, 2021). Even the minorities started expressing their own fears towards the military junta, and the possibility of being displaced again in neighboring countries (Islam Arafatul, 2021).The authoritarian governors can easily lose control as protests continue on the streets, thus entering into a possible civil war that would further deteriorate the whole situation. International community along with ASEAN Nations and China are the key factors for ensuring the humanitarian access and protection of all vulnerable groups, as well as the establishment of a democratic constitution in the country, through political and diplomatic peace-talk operations. For some, democracy in its essence is considered as self-evident, yet for others, its attainment hides challenging pathways and countless efforts that may not lead anywhere without collective work.
Steinberg I. David (2013), Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, New York.
Thawnghmung Maung Ardeth (2011), Beyond Armed Resistance: Ethnonational Politics in Burma (Myanmar), East-West Center, Hawaii.
Roberts Christopher (2010), ASEAN’s Myanmar Crisis, Challenges to the pursuit of a Security Community, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.
US Department of State, Diplomacy in Action (last updated January 2017), Burma. Accessed on February 8th 2021. Available here
Gert Rosenthal (May 2019), A BRIEF AND INDEPENDENT INQUIRY INTO THE INVOLVEMENT OF THE UNITED NATIONS IN MYANMAR FROM 2010 TO 2018, UN Report. Accessed on February 12th 2021. Available here
Security Council Report (last updated October 2020), Chronology of Events: Myanmar. Accessed on February 9th 2021. Available here
UN News (February 2021), The UN Special Envoy on Myanmar appealed on Tuesday for the Security Council to unite in support of democracy in the country in the wake of the recent power grab by the military and the declaration of a one-year state of emergency. Accessed on February 10th 2021. Available here
Academic Papers & Articles
Albert Eleanor and Maizland Lindsay (last updated January 2020), The Rohingya Crisis, Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed on February 8th 2021. Available here
Bjarnegård Elin (March 2020), Introduction: Development Challenges in Myanmar: Political Development and Politics of Development Intertwined, European Journal of Development Research. Accessed on February 8th 2021. Available here.
Md. Islam Shariful (2019), Understanding the Rohingya Crisis and the Failure of Human Rights Norm in Myanmar: Possible Policy Responses, Jadavpur Journal of International Relations. Accessed on February 8th 2021. Available here
Norwegian Refugee Council (February 2021), Myanmar’s political crisis could spell humanitarian disaster if aid groups are restricted. Accessed on February 12th 2021. Available here
Øverland Indra, Stokke Kristian, Vakulchuk Roman (February 2018), Myanmar: A Political Economy Analysis. Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. Accessed on February 8th 2021. Available here
Laoutides Costas and Ware Anthony (January 2019), BOOK REVIEW ROUNDTABLE: Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya’ Conflict, Asia Policy, Volume 14, No1, 177-122. Accessed on February 8th 2021. Available here
BBC News (January 2021), Myanmar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis. Accessed on February 11th 2021. Available here
Cuddy Alice (last updated February 2021), Myanmar coup: What is happening and why?, BBC. Accessed on February 10th 2021. Available here
Euronews, (February 2021), UN Security Council takes no action on Myanmar Coup. Accessed on February 11th 2021. Available here
Giles Christopher (February 2021), Myanmar coup: How the military disrupted the internet, BBC. Accessed on February 10th 2021. Available here
Islam Arafatul (February 2021), Myanmar coup stokes fear among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, DW. Accessed on February 12th 2021. Available here
Lederer M. Edith (February 2020), UN takes no action on order against Myanmar on Rohingyas, AP News. Accessed on February 11th 2021. Available here
Rieffel Lex (December 2019), Peace and war in Myanmar, Brookings. Accessed on February 10th 2021. Available here
Regan Helen (last updated February 2021), Why the generals really took back power in Myanmar, CNN. Accessed on February 11th 2021. Available here
Times Now Digital (February 2021), Myanmar crisis: Suu Kyi detained, Myint Swe appointed as acting president after military coup. Accessed on February 11th 2021. Available here
Yusuf Abdullah (August 2020), Myanmar’s election, the Rohingya crisis and the road to democracy, The Conversation. Accessed on February 10th 2021. Available here
General Assembly, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on the Situation of human rights in Myanmar, United Nations, January 23rd 2018, A/RES/72/248. Available here