When President Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Myanmar in November 2012, optimism abounded. In November 2010, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi had been released after some twenty years of house arrest. The military junta that ruled for decades had stepped down and been replaced by a quasi-civilian government in March 2011 that was engaging with the political opposition and easing media restrictions. The government was working with various ethnic groups to bring about a nation-wide ceasefire that would put an end to the intermittent civil war that has haunted the country since its 1948 independence - President Thein Sein’s January 2012 ceasefire agreement with ethnic Karen rebels was a particularly important development. It was looking pretty good, all things considered.
But not all the signs were positive and, as many noted in the context of Obama’s recent visit to Myanmar for the 2014 ASEAN summit, the country appears to be backsliding in a number of areas. One longstanding concern is the status and situation of the nation’s 1.1 million strong Muslim minority in Rakhine State, known as the Rohingya – although the government of Myanmar refuses to acknowledge a Rohingya ethnicity. In fact, in June and again in October of 2012, sectarian violence – largely between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims – killed over two hundred people, destroyed more than 10,000 homes and buildings, and produced some 140,000 internally displaced Muslims – almost all of whom were moved into camps where they remain today. Some observers criticized the government for not only failing to prevent the conflict but for facilitating and even participating in the violence. President Thein Sein’s proposed resettlement plan that would relocate the Rohingya to another country certainly did nothing to alleviate concerns regarding the fledgling democracy’s attitude towards a religious minority.
The Rohingya are among the most persecuted minorities in the world, according to the UN. In 1978, 200,000 fled to Bangladesh after being attacked by the military. A restrictive 1982 Citizenship Law declared them to be non-nationals and foreign residents, on the basis that they had only recently (largely in the 20th century) moved into the country from Bangladesh (a claim that ignores Rohingya settlements in Myanmar since the 15th century). This severely limits their political rights and allowed for the Rohingya’s exclusion from this year’s census – Myanmar’s first in decades. More recently, legislation has been introduced in Parliament that would prohibit Rohingya from participating in the 2015 election and ban interfaith marriage.
Earlier this year the government put forward a path to citizenship for the group, called the Rakhine State Action Plan. This “plan” is enormously problematic in a number of ways: for one thing, it requires the Rohingya to identify themselves as Bengali – a term many reject because it implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh. Furthermore, those who agree to fundamentally change their proclaimed ethnic and national identity would qualify for naturalized citizenship, which carries fewer rights than full citizenship, can be revoked, and leaves the “no-longer-Rohingya” vulnerable to deportation. Those Rohingya who refuse the Bengali classification would be placed in camps before being deported. The government asked the UN’s refugee agency to assist in the resettlement. Unsurprisingly, the latter declined..
While the human rights concerns are the most obvious and pressing problem in this situation, it is important to appreciate that this is not a problem confined to Myanmar, and that the specific rights of the Rohingya in Rakhine state are not the only issue. Violence has broken out before in Myanmar – 2012 was one of the largest conflagrations, but there have been other incidents since then (and more are likely in the future, unless all the Rohingya flee). The squalid conditions in which many Rohingya live in camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh are a breeding ground for numerous diseases (especially since the government forced out Médecins Sans Frontières earlier this year). Furthermore, while an estimated 100,000 Rohingya have fled the country since 2012, the Rakhine State Action Plan and other recently promulgated policies have spurred a major exodus – over the course of three weeks in October, some 15,000 Rohingya sailed from Rakhine State to Thailand, hoping to eventually reach Malaysia. In Thailand, smugglers and human traffickers often hold these “boat people” in jungle camps near the Malaysian border until relatives pay to secure their release. The Thai state is also struggling to handle those refugees that it intercepts.
Of course, the plight of the Rohingya is not the only challenge in Myanmar today. On November 20th, ethnic minority groups – specifically the Kachin Independence Army – said that peace talks with the government were in danger after 23 rebel cadets were killed by the military. A breakdown in talks and an escalation of violence would not bode particularly well for stability in the region – or for the Rohingya, for that matter. In addition, one should not discount the possibility that the government is shooting itself in the foot with its Rohingya policy. Who’s to say that other ethnic minority groups aren’t looking at the example of the Rohingya and digging in their heels? There can be little incentive to lay down arms and accept domination from the center when a primary example of domination from the center is the Rohingya experience. None of these groups are particularly keen on being chased out of the country.
Myanmar is certainly more democratic than it was, but democracy is nowhere near as entrenched as the Obama administration had hoped. This is not cause for despair, but for circumspection.
The glass may still be half-full. But that crack in the base is going to be a problem.