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Myanmar’s long walk to democracy becomes even longer

The deafening silence from the international community on the incidents of last week displays a worrying underpinning weakness in its understanding of the Myanmar context.

Rohingya from Myanmar protest in Kuala Lumpur. Demotix/Khairil Safwan. All rights reserved. The incidents of last week in Myanmar, when several international agencies including the United Nations were forced by Rakhine Buddhist mobs to leave the northern Rakhine State for security reasons, though unexpected, were perhaps no surprise in the charged environment in the lead up to the census.

Observers inside and outside Myanmar for the last few months had been questioning the viability of holding a census in an atmosphere that has not fundamentally changed position since Myanmar undertook its transition to democracy from an authoritarian state.  The question that was being asked amongst many, ‘Is Myanmar ready for the census?’   The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and international donors who are supporting the census were warned that the census would trigger violence and increase ethnic tensions. The reality on the ground with the incidents happening this past week is that sadly the warnings have proved true and Myanmar is still not ready for such an exercise.

One of the underlying issues is the citizenship status of the ethnic Rohingyas, based in the Arakan state, which Myanmar as a nation has not yet fundamentally addressed and worryingly is failing to address.  There is a complicity of the entire Myanmar nation from the President down to the grass roots in terms of how the Rohingyas are perceived, accepted and treated.  In the eyes of the majority Myanmar community, calls for the extermination of the race of the Rohingyas are not uncommon and are countenanced.  Hence, any attempt to legitimately recognise the Rohingya as a community would have been met with fierce resistance.   

Although the census in fact has not allowed for the classification of the Rohingyas as an ethnicity, it was largely expected that Rohingyas would self identify as Rohingya thereby bringing a form of legitimacy to the community.  It has now transpired that the Myanmar government has not only reneged on its undertakings to allow this self identification to take place, but that it has also broken an agreement on allowing Rohingya enumerators to be included among those who conduct the census.  In addition to this, there are accusations of state officials asking for bribes from Rohingyas wishing to take part in the census.

The deafening silence from the international community on the incidents of last week displays a worrying underpinning weakness in its understanding of the Myanmar context and a system that doesn’t give enough time for grassroots trust-building to take place. 

In addition to this, the mere fact that the census is going ahead despite everything, shows at best an incompetence on the part of the international donor community or worse, complicity with the intentions of the government, who, wanting to pursue a heavy-handed treatment of the Rohingya, have discarded the traditional notions of equality and universal human rights and replaced them with a demagogic brand of democracy contaminated by xenophobia.  In a week when the UN Human Rights Council was in session, what was notable by its absence was the lack of any coverage at this session about the incidents happening in parallel in Myanmar.

This fear of "the other" within the society in Myanmar is the ‘Elephant in the Room’ for the international community, who have in the past been adept at black-and-white depictions of Myanmar’s history as a struggle between military and ‘democratic’ civilian forces.  It is also an issue that donors have been reluctant to chastise the government on.

The Opposition National League for Democracy has been equally inactive on the matter  - a stance again consistent with the attitudes that many Buddhist Myanma have towards the Rohingya Muslims. The ground on top of which the human rights pedestal was erected for Aung San Suu Kyi, is slowly eroding as her silence attempts to navigate between the morally unassailable but politically unpalatable high ground (since defending the Rohingya is likely to entail the loss of a large number of votes), or a more populist stand that yields to widespread bigotry.

Whilst there have been mute condemnations, the international community including such bodies as ASEAN should pressurise for the violence to stop.  Humanitarian agencies need to be allowed back into Sittwe and North Rakhine State and given unfettered access to provide much needed humanitarian support to both the Rohingya and Arakanese populations.  The prevention of humanitarian access goes against international law and cannot be allowed to continue.

This then needs to be followed quickly by the suspension of the census, not because it is not needed but because it won’t offer the any opportunity for a true reflection of Myanmar society. The international community in particular who are offering technical and financial support to the Government of Burma risk bearing a degree of responsibility not only for the negative outcomes of the census but for the violence that has and will take place and for the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in the wake of last week’s violence.

Rather than the census, much more effort first needs to be placed at the grass roots to ensure trust building and better relationships within and between different ethnic communities. 

A democratic system is not just about elections, but is about citizenship and understanding the basic notions of rights.  Much more effort and investment needs to be undertaken to ensure that these mechanisms and institutions are set right at the grass roots level well before embarking on a top-down electoral process that is devoid of any understanding of basic norms of human rights and dignity.  If this doesn’t happen, in the run up to the elections next year, there is a danger of repeat violence taking place. Myanmar and its people need to fundamentally understand the roles, rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a multicultural democratic country.  This takes time, effort and investment and cannot and will not be solved with a mere census or elections.  Programmes at all levels of society need to be quickly developed to sensitise people to this.

If Myanmar is truly to join the global community, the floor must be opened to debate the issues of the Rohingya and other ethnicities. There must be a frank acknowledgement that a malaise exists among the very Myanma that for decades have felt the pain of antipathy and isolation.

Taking a sensitive but head-on approach to the problem, rather than the pussyfooting demonstrated by even powerful figures in the pro-democracy movement, would be the much- needed first step by the international community.  If there is failure to move on these, the 2015 elections will become a superficial showpiece and Myanmar’s long walk towards democracy and freedom ultimately becomes longer.

About the author

Amjad Mohamed-Saleem is a political analyst working on issues of South & South East Asia, mainly Sri Lanka and Myanmar; humanitarian and peace-building issues with a specific interest in the role of faith in conflict transformation.  He is also currently a part time doctoral student at the University of Exeter, UK and works for The Cordoba Foundation, UK.