A Lasting Democracy In Burma


This month, the world has seen and heard of violence between ethnic Rakhine and "Rohingya" in Burma’s Rakhine State, close to Bangladesh. The resulting deaths, injuries and displacements have led the Burmese government to declare a state of emergency.

The state of emergency was imposed on 10 June after a "dusk to dawn" curfew failed to contain the riots. President Thein Sein warned that the clashes could put transition to democracy at risk.

"If we put racial and religious issues at the forefront, if we put the never-ending hatred, desire for revenge and anarchic actions at the forefront, and if we continue to retaliate and terrorise and kill each other, there’s a danger that [the troubles]could multiply and move beyond Rakhine state. If this happens, the general public should be aware that the country’s stability and peace, democratisation process and development … could be severely affected and much would be lost," he said.

But Burmese activists at home and abroad blame the hardliners in the government and extremist groups for creating the riots. They say the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by three "Rohingya" men and the murder of 10 Muslim men and women by a group of Rakhine men in Rakhine State are being used as a pretext to inflame tensions.

We are gravely concerned that such communal strikes could lead to racial and religious conflict and destabilise Burma’s fragile reform process. The military-drafted constitution legally allows for the army chief to officially retake power in a national emergency.

Aung San Suu Kyi has appealed for calm amid the rioting and stated at a press conference in Rangoon in early June that rule of law is essential to put an end to all conflicts in the country. She has also reiterated her view at the press conference after addressing historic speech at the International Labour Conference in Geneva on 14 June:

"The most important lesson we need to learn is the need for the rule of law. Everybody must have access to the protection of the law, and of course they also have duties to abide by the laws of the land. So without rule of law, such communal strikes will only continue and the present situation will have to be handled with delicacy and sensitivity and we need the corporation of all people concerned to regain the peace back we want for our country," she said.

Burma’s mainstream Buddhist and Islamic associations, political parties, activist groups and revered Buddhist monks have also issued statements, calling for calm.Suu Kyi further emphasised that solid compromise solutions were the only way to see an end to hostilities in the Kachin state.

"I understand that there are negotiations between the government the KIO (Kachin Independence Organisation) with the regard to ceasefire. I just want to underline that fact that a ceasefire is not enough. In the end we have to have a political settlement, if there is to be the kind of peace that will be lasting and meaningful," she said. Thein Sein’s government has taken some positive steps towards reform, negotiating ceasefire agreements with many ethnic armed groups, but there is no political settlement yet. Government troops continue their attacks against the KIO, which has displaced at least 70,000 civilians in Kachin state alone.

There are eight major ethnic nationalities in Burma: the Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, Shan, Kayah, Karen, Mon and Burman, who are either Buddhists or Christians. These groups regard the Muslim "Rohingya" as migrants from Bangladesh rather than an ethnic nationality of Burma. Successive Burmese military regimes have ignored the rule of law over the last 50 years. They have brutally suppressed ethnic and religious minorities, restricting their freedom of movement. They have manufactured racial and religious conflicts to threaten the stability, unity and non-disintegration of the union, in order to justify military control.

While they launched offensives against ethnic armed groups, including the KIO, to force a surrender or ceasefire agreement, the Burmese military also applies "divide and rule" tactics. Firstly, they attempt to split all ethnic armed groups. Secondly, they force the groups to reach ceasefire agreement. Thirdly, they force all ceasefire groups to transform their armies into "Border Guard Force" (militia) under the command of the army. This means to ethnic armed groups will officially become local militia groups who must obey the orders of the army. As a result, the militia groups can not stand as real ethnic armies to protect local people. That is the reason why some ethnic armed groups rejected this plan and continue to fight for their rights.

Moreover, corrupt local authorities allow cross-border traffic, which causes tensions with local ethnic nationalities. The current problems in Rakhine state is a product of unrestricted emigration, according to Suu Kyi:"I think one of the greatest problems comes from the fear on both sides of the border, that is to say Bangladesh as well as Burma, that there will be illegal immigrant crossing all the time, this is due to the porous border. I think we need more responsible and incorrupt border vigilance."

"This should be resolved in accordance with rule of law because we have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them and to all those who are entitled to citizenship should be treated as full citizens deserving all the rights that must be given to them."

We share Suu Kyi’s view.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar (Burma) Tomas Ojea Quintana, warned on 14 June that the escalating violence in the Rakhine State represented a serious threat to Burma’s future.

To avoid undesirable consequences, the Burmese government urgently needs to stop the current riots in Rakkhine state and assist the victims. They need to restore rule of law and review the laws with regard to citizenship and immigration. They need to enter peace talks for a political settlement. On these issues, international assistance and pressure will play a very important role. Otherwise, Burma’s conflicts will not end.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.