Mayhem in Myanmar?

Katie Jenkins, Features Editor, discusses discrimination, conflict and controversy in Myanmar, South Asia

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November 2015, and the promise of change flows freely through Myanmar. To international audiences, it’s a country that has never lurked far from controversy. Dominated by an oppressive military rule throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, and frequently peppered by the threat of civil war and terrorist intervention, it seems a change of name has done little to exorcise the demons of its former Burmese identity.

Yet for civilians and international critics, 2015 contains the first hopeful blooms of democratic evolution. The landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has offered one of the first opportunities for democratic sustainability. Guardian journalist Maung Zarni commemorated “Myanmar’s Mandela moment”, while Suu Kyi – speaking at the United Nations a year later – celebrated the result as a demonstration of the people’s “support, not just for a political party, but for a political culture founded on the belief in their right and their capacity to fashion the future of the country in the shape of their dreams and their aspirations”.

Myanmar remains shrouded in bloodied conflict

Yet just over a year since her triumph, Myanmar remains shrouded in bloodied conflict. While Suu Kyi has pledged to pacify the divided country, Myanmar’s Rohingya minority remain subject to “definite crimes against humanity”.

Often described as “the world’s most unwanted people”, the last five months have seen a significant increase in violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. Following an attack on police checkpoints by Rohingya militants, Burmese security forces have waged an “indiscriminate” counter-insurgency campaign, with martial vigilance escalating into gored persecution.

Figures from the UN have suggested that more than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by armed forces since October, while 70,000 have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. A UN report released last month detailed mass gang rapes, killings, beatings, disappearances, and other human rights violations committed by security forces against the Rohingya people. One mother recounted the murder of her five-year-old daughter, who was trying to protect her from being raped when a man “took out a long knife and killed her by slitting her throat”. Almost half of those interviewed said a family member had been killed, while almost half of female interviewees reported sexual violence at the hands of the military.

More than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by armed forces since October

“The army, they tell their troops, ‘you can do whatever you like.’ They can kill anybody, they can rape anybody, they can rob, they can burn,” says Tay Tay, from the Shan Women’s Action Network in Myanmar, speaking to BBC’s Our World. “It’s a political rape. You rape the woman, you rape the whole ethnicity.”

However, Burmese officials have refused to confirm the figures, and one NLD spokesperson dismissed the numbers as ‘exaggerated’. “We don’t believe they’re crimes against humanity.” Footage from Myanmar’s state TV depicts an interview with Jamalida Begum, a Rohingya civilian who saw a group of women forced into bushes by soldiers. Asked if the women were raped or not, Jamalida says she can’t say for certain, but gestures towards her vagina, exclaiming, “They were bleeding directly from here!” “Don’t say that, don’t say bleeding, just say whether you saw the rape or not,” pressures the interviewer. The exchange was later broadcast as evidence that sexual violence was not being utilised by armed forces. Meanwhile, speaking to the BBC afterwards, Jamalida reveals that although promised she would face no repercussions for the interview, she was beaten and gang raped by soldiers, and has now fled to a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

For many Rohingya people, the overarching sentiment is one of prodigious disillusionment with a figure once revered as a democratic icon. “[Suu Kyi] is doing nothing at all for us. If she was good, we wouldn’t have to suffer so much in that country. Since she’s been in power, she has been useless for us,” condemns Jamalida. “[Suu Kyi] does not care about us. At first, we thought that she is the one who can change this country, but it has been a year and we do not see any sign of it. So our hope is fading away, and we dare not hold any hope for her,” agrees Zaw Zaw, a Rohingya community leader in one of Myanmar’s Muslim ghettos. “Suu Kyi has only position and no power at all.”

Indeed, for many critics, Suu Kyi – although viewed as the de facto leader of Myanmar – is ultimately only the democratic pin-up for a regime still entrenched in military privilege. As The Guardian warned following her electoral victory: “With a constitution that safeguards its immense power and wealth, the military […] doesn’t need a crackdown to keep its regime intact.” Indeed, the 2008 Constitution has served to elevate core military interests above parliamentary and legal insight, authorising the commander-in-chief to appoint and control leading cabinet members. Proposals to amend it in June 2016 were rejected by a military-dominated Parliament.

Meanwhile, martial legislation curtailing “online defamation” has been used extensively since Suu Kyi’s rise to power. Between April 2016 and January 2017, 38 people were charged for criticising the regime; by contrast, it was only used seven times between 2013 and 2015. 23-year-old poet, Maung Saung Kha spent six months in prison after posting a satirical poem on Facebook in which he wrote: “I have a tattoo of the president’s face on my penis”. Likewise, Myo Yan Naung Thein, secretary of the NLD’s central research committee, has been detained since November after criticising the army’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslims.

“[The government] dismiss reports of rights abuses as ‘fake news’ […] yet at the same time are not allowing independent journalists full and unfettered access to the area,” says Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher, speaking to The Guardian. “Those who do report on the situation face threats and intimidation which has had a chilling effect on press freedom.”

The deafening blows of silence that look set to drown it

Although government officials have claimed that the military crackdown against Rohingya civilians has ceased over the last few weeks, ethnic tensions are still potently visceral. At the entrance to the Buddhist village, Thangutan, amongst the houses and the greenery, there poses a bright yellow sign: “No Muslims allowed to stay overnight. No Muslims allowed to rent houses. No marriages with Muslims.” Various other villages across Myanmar have followed suit, alongside numerous towns in the state of Rakhine, which, in 2012, became a violent battleground between Buddhist and Muslim neighbours. Speaking to BBC journalist, Jonah Fisher, two Buddhist locals in the town of Sittwe, assert their opposition to further Muslim integration, stressing: “It would be best for all the Muslims to be sent back to Islamic countries.”

Ethnic tensions are  potently visceral

Where Suu Kyi was once praised as “Myanmar’s Mandela”, she now stands at the forefront of its apartheid. Where she once endorsed democratic activism, she is now a model of submission.

“At the end of the day, it is the government, the civilian government, that has to answer and respond to these massive cases of torture and very inhumane crimes they have committed against their own people,” says UN official, Yanghee Lee.

Myanmar’s fling with democracy is flailing, yet it is the deafening blows of silence that look set to drown it.

What is Happening to the Rohingya People?

The Rohingyas are an ethnic Muslim group in the Rakine province of Myanmar, numbering roughly 1 million. They face persecution from Rakhine Buddhists who outnumber them roughly 2:1 and who view the Rohingya as “Bengali” or as “illegal immigrants.” An estimated 66,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since 9 October 2016.

Interviews with 204 Rohingya refugees by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found:

– 134 (65%) reported killings

– 115 (56%) reported disappearances

– 131 (64%) reported beatings

– 88 (43%) reported rapes

– 63 (31%) reported sexual violence

– 131 (64%) reported burning or other destruction of property

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