NEW YORK – A mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims escaping violence in the western state of Rakhine by fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh is once again rocking Myanmar, a country that has embarked on a genuine path to national reconciliation and democratization after half a century of military rule.
The recent exodus was triggered by the attacks on local police outposts on Aug. 25 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group that the government has denounced as a “terrorist group.” The ensuing military crackdown by the government security forces not only resulted in the death of some 400 ARSA militants and civilians but also forced nearly 400,000 Rohingya, including many women and children, to seek shelter in camps across the border in Bangladesh, where conditions are known to be extremely harsh.
As the tragedy unfolds, the Myanmar government headed by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has come under growing criticism for the military’s “brutal and disproportionate” campaigns conducted in violation of human rights. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, head of the United Nations human rights office, said recently that the ongoing situation “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The Rohingya issue is one of the most complex and formidable issues facing Myanmar, where Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and her National League for Democracy (NLD) formed the first civilian government in more than 50 years after winning a landslide victory in the November 2015 general elections.
During the military rule, Myanmar regarded the Rohingya as “emigrants” from the Bengali region and denied them citizenship under its 1982 citizenship law, which excluded the ethnic group from among its 135 ethnic nationalities that compose the multiethnic state. Some 1 million Rohingya, who are predominantly Muslims and live in the coastal state of Rakhine, have thus remained stateless without citizenship and government protection, often becoming subject to persecution in a country where close to 90 percent of the population is Buddhist.
Cognizant of the urgent need to address the Rohingya issue, the new government under Suu Kyi’s leadership asked former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to chair a national advisory commission in September 2016.
The advisory commission submitted to the government its interim report in March and its final report on Aug. 23 with a set of comprehensive recommendations on ways to help secure peace and stability in Rakhine. The recommendations called for a review of the 1982 citizenship law, granting freedom of movement for the Rohingya, provision of more human rights and rule of law training for police and security personnel, and the strengthening of bilateral cooperation with Bangladesh. While he admitted that the commission’s recommendations touched on “certain sensitive issues,” Annan said that “if they are left to fester, the future of Rakhine state — and indeed Myanmar as a whole — will be jeopardized.” The government said that it would implement the recommendations “within the shortest time frame possible.”
Unfortunately, the latest violence in Rakhine erupted shortly after the submission of the final report, the timing of which was suspected to have been planned by certain opposing forces to discredit the work of the advisory commission and to embarrass the government. The ARSA had carried out a similar attack on local border police outposts in October 2016, just a month after the commission was established. Nor was Myanmar’s military in favor of the establishment of the advisory commission, as both the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and military representatives in parliament had voiced their opposition to the commission.
One should not forget that despite its landslide triumph in the 2015 elections, the NLD-led government has been in place for only 18 months and that Myanmar has a long way to go before genuine democracy can take root in its society.
Obviously, one or two general elections will not achieve national reconciliation and democratization in a country ruled by a military junta for half a century. The military still wields considerable influence in society since under the country’s 2008 constitution, it is guaranteed 25 percent of the parliamentary seats and allowed to control the country’s three key ministries — internal affairs, defense and border security. Suu Kyi acts as the de facto national leader under the title of state counselor, not president, because the 2008 constitution drafted by the junta bars any individuals whose spouses or children are foreign nationals, such as her, from qualifying for the post of president.
Suu Kyi has worked with the military to maintain national unity, which is indispensable if the new government is to address the daunting tasks facing the young and fragile democracy. In addition to the Rohingya crisis, the challenges facing the new government include creation of a democratic society where human rights and rule of law are respected, advancement of socio-economic infrastructure, and an early signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement with all armed ethnic nationality groups. Furthermore, the NLD’s capacity for policy formulation and implementation needs to be strengthened because many of its lawmakers elected in 2015 were novice politicians. And more than anything, the 2008 constitution needs to be revised to transform the military into a professional army responsible only for national defense and steering clear of politics.
Suu Kyi’s role and leadership remains critical for Myanmar’s democratization process, as no one knows the value of democracy better than her, having spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during the military rule. As the exodus of Rohingya refugees poses an unprecedented challenge for Myanmar, now is the time for the international community to renew its steadfast support for her so that she can continue carrying the torch of the nation’s national reconciliation and democratization process. For its part, the Myanmar government should present the road map for implementing the advisory commission’s recommendation as soon as possible, while accepting every offer of humanitarian assistance to alleviate the immediate suffering of the Rohingya people.
A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is a commentator based in New York. He is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many articles on U.N. and Asian issues.