The Rohingya crisis and Myanmar's dark road to democracy

The Rohingya crisis and Myanmar's dark road to democracy
In-depth: Excluded from voting and long denied citizenship, Rohingya Muslims face a precarious future in post-election Myanmar.
6 min read
20 November, 2020
Supporters of the NLD party hold up portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi. [Getty]
Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is set to form a civilian government for the second time in a row following the end of Myanmar's 50-year military rule.

The NLD won by a huge margin of 396 parliamentary seats in the 8 November election against the military-aligned main opposition party the Union Solidarity of Development Party (USDP), securing a second five-year term.

Held in the shadow of the Rohingya crisis, this year's elections have been viewed as a gauge of domestic support for the NLD and Suu Kyi, who enjoys widespread popularity among the ethnic Bamar majority, especially after defending Myanmar against allegations of genocide at The Hague last year.

But with 2.6 million ethnic minority voters, including Rohingya Muslims, excluded from participating, groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have called the elections "fundamentally flawed". The mass exclusion of minorities is also a dangerous harbinger for the future of Myanmar's democracy. 

Last month, HRW decried Myanmar's Union Election Commission for cancelling voting in as many as 60 townships without consulting political parties or local organisations. Citing security concerns, the commission announced cancellations in Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan States, and the Bago Region.

Some 2.6 million ethnic minority voters, including Rohingya Muslims, were excluded from participating in Myanmar's election

Among them were Buddhists in Rakhine state, who participated in the 2015 election, and more than one million Rohingya Muslims, who have long been denied voting rights and citizenship.

"This is part of the continuation of the genocide. The formation of a civilian government in Suu Kyi's second term will not bring much good news for the Rohingya," the UK-based Burmese Rohingya Organisation told The New Arab. "The Rohingya repatriation process is unlikely to succeed unless the international community puts more pressure on it politically and economically." 

Read more: An infamous fall from grace: Aung San Suu
Kyi and the Rohingya

Some 750,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh following a military crackdown in 2017 - operations that Myanmar is currently facing genocide charges for at the UN's top court.

More than one million people currently reside in the makeshift refugee camps in Bangladesh's south, where cramped conditions and water shortages are endangering lives. 

Inside Myanmar, nearly 130,000 Rohingya Muslims live in what Amnesty International describes as "apartheid" conditions in camps around Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State.

"Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have won a second term. Can a leopard change its spots? My prediction, she will defend genocide, delay repatriation, keep NVCs (National Verification Cards), and wage wars. Maximum pressure is needed to change this authoritarian regime. Her honeymoon period is long over," Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition Organisation, told The New Arab.  

The international community has imposed various sanctions on Myanmar's army for the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, but no political party participating in Myanmar's elections has condemned the military's actions. 

The international community has failed the Rohingya yet again, supporting an apartheid election where the Rohingya were banned from voting

Amid an environment of anti-Muslim rhetoric, the main opposition USDP leader, Than Htay, said in a recent interview that Myanmar had nothing to be sorry for. "I cannot accept useless people in our country," Than Htay told AFP of the stateless Rohingya. 

The USDP, which had swept to victory in what many considered fraudulent elections in 2010, consistently criticised the NLD during the election campaign, accusing them of welcoming Rohingya Muslims

Shwe Maung, a Rohingya activist and former member of parliament, said that during the recent elections all opposition parties, including the USDP, the People's Pioneer Party (PPP), and the Union Betterment Party (UBP) used anti-Rohingya rhetoric and the disenfranchisement of the minority community to win votes. Indeed, the NLD's hardline policy of denying the Rohingya genocide is seen by many as a reason for its landslide victory.

Some international commentators say this year's election was even less free than the first democratic experiment in 2010. "One of the most shocking things about this election is that even though it has been run by the National League for Democracy (NLD), it is even less free and fair than the previous election run by a military-backed government," Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, told The New Arab.  

Read more: Satellite images reveal mass destruction of Rohingya villages

"The international community has failed the Rohingya yet again, supporting an apartheid election where the Rohingya were banned from voting," he added. "The first step needed for Rohingya to return is citizenship. It is encouraging to see that the British and Canadian governments referred to citizenship in their statements on the election. Normally the international community stays silent on the issue of Rohingya citizenship, but without it, the Rohingya cannot return."

Since 2015, when the previous government invalidated temporary ID cards, also called 'white cards', the NLD has never revisited the issue of citizenship for the Rohingya minority. The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, recommended in a 2017 report that the government review the military government's 1982 citizenship law, which links citizenship to membership of a prescribed "national race" and fuels widespread discrimination against various ethnic minority groups. 

"Such a review has not taken place, leading to the continued disenfranchisement of the Rohingya during the 2020 election. By not even undertaking a review, the government has rejected the recommendation," Laetitia van den Assum, a diplomatic expert and former member of the commission, told The New Arab. "That is deeply worrying, as many observers and foreign governments have pointed out." 

Political disenfranchisement is not unrelated to the crime of genocide. The exclusion of the Rohingya is a red flag that the genocide is not over in Myanmar

"What is really needed in Myanmar is an honest national debate about what it means to be a 21st-century citizen of Myanmar," she added. "The present politics of identity and ethnicity have stifled such a debate. They are holding the country back. Myanmar emerged from WWII not as a nation but as a state divided. Its nation-building process is not near completion. It has a long way to go."

Mohammad Faridul Alam, an Associate Professor at the University of Chittagong, says this is the second consecutive election in which the voting rights of more than 1.5 million Rohingya were suppressed. With the military still a powerful actor in the country, the path to democracy in Myanmar is far from certain.  

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"After the election of 2015, although Suu Kyi's party, the NLD, got a majority of seats in the parliament, they served the purpose of the military junta in the name of 'so-called democracy'. The outcome of these elections is also the same," Alam said.  

"Suu Kyi understands that in the given situation in Myanmar, the demand for democracy cannot be achieved as the military has deep roots with the support of some strong actors in international politics. As a result, she emerged as an appeaser". 

With Rohingya Muslims unable to vote in Myanmar's elections and refugees unable to return, the future is still full of uncertainty and fear for the persecuted minority group.  

"The moment Myanmar decided to disenfranchise the Rohingya due to their race and religion, the election was fundamentally flawed," Matthew Smith, co-founder of Fortify Rights, told The New Arab.  

"Political disenfranchisement is not unrelated to the crime of genocide. The exclusion of the Rohingya is a red flag that the genocide is not over in Myanmar."

Tanbirul Miraj Ripon is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Asian politics, conflict, international relations and terrorism

Follow him on Twitter: @Miraj_Ripon