Human Rights Abuses and Myanmar’s Rohingya

Aung San Suu Kyi is popularly known as a democratic opposition leader within Myanmar. Facing the military junta that placed her under house arrest in 1989, her demands for a democratic transition and human rights placed her as an outspoken activist within Myanmar’s heavily censored community. Consequently, when the military-led government decided to proceed with governmental reforms and gradual democratization in 2010, Aung rose to power, occupying a new position, the 1st State Counsellor of Myanmar, in 2016. Despite her rhetoric of “peace as a main priority,” the ascension of Aung to the position of State Counsellor has been marked by an organized crackdown on the Rohingya minority in 2016.

The current origins of the violence against the Rohingya peoples stem from longstanding ethnic tension between the Buddhist Rakhine peoples and the Muslim Rohingya peoples in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. As the Rohingya are closely related to the Bengali peoples, they were defined as “migrants” and were historically ostracized as secondary citizens. Fueled by fears of a growing Rohingyan “majority,” sectarian clashes between Muslims and Buddhist have regularly occurred within Rakhine State. Despite the historical trend of sectarian clashes, the 2016 persecution of the Rohingya differs due to the large organized government involvement in the matter. Often cited as a reaction to attacks by Rohingyan militants on border posts, it resulted in widespread crackdowns on Rohingya in Rakhine State, whereby blatant human rights violations occurred.

Despite the violent crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine State, the current Burmese government, led by Aung, has remained silent on the matter. Although programs have been set up by the Burmese government to allow for partial investigations into human rights abuses, these attempts have largely been half-hearted, with Aung defending the military’s actions by demanding at a news conference in October 2016 that the press “show [her] a country without human rights issues.”

Consequently, the continued actions of the Burmese military in applying greater pressure on the Rohingya in addition to the government’s blind eye towards human rights violations in Rakhine State presents two points pertaining to the current state of affairs in Myanmar.

Firstly, it supports a perpetuation of the continued power of the Burmese military in governmental affairs. Although the development of greater elections in Myanmar has decreased the power of the military in Burma, the military still wields great power, owing to its historical legacy in influencing Myanmar’s governance and 110 guaranteed spots in the parliament, which makes up one-quarter of the legislature.[5] Consequently, Aung still needs to wrestle with the power of the military, whom would look favourably upon these crackdowns. Despite this, Aung is not completely devoid of responsibility, since her own personal clout within Myanmar and privileged governmental position would allow for her to attain a position of great insight and influence that could at the least potentially build towards a remediation of the situation in Rakhine State. Despite such possibilities, Aung has failed to develop even a symbolic response to the situation, and thus her silence can only be seen as a partial sense of compliance and perhaps illicit support for such operations.

Secondly, Aung’s actions point towards a continuation of Myanmar’s longstanding policy on an intolerant unified Buddhist identity. Since the 1970s, the exemplification of a sole Buddhist identity was pushed forward as the backbone of the Burmese state by the military junta. Similar to the Rohingya, a trend of oppression and “pacification” was enacted towards other groups, such as the Karen, Chin, and Shan. Consequently, the mythos of a Burmese identity has long rested on a relative and intolerant sense of Buddhist nationalism. The addition of Islamaphobia came to focus in 2010, when certain extremist Buddhist organizations such as the “969” group emerged, promoting an extreme view of Buddhist nationalism geared towards facing an “Islamic” threat. Although Buddhist nationalists have long had a stronghold in Myanmar, the relatively recent rise of such Islamophobic group’s likely point towards a certain duality existing between a new consciousness concerning the Burmese identity coupled with an increased sense of openness in the post-reform Myanmar. As the military no longer needs to maintain a heavy hand in keeping power, the rise of 969 as well as other groups are no longer seen as possible threats to their base of power and thus are free to espouse their ideological tenets.

So what does this mean for Aung San Suu Kyi? Although rhetorically preaching peace, her silence on the state of affairs in Rakhine state supports her role as a realpolitik stateswomen, who is subject to the current powers and influences within Myanmar. Her silence and defense of the military nonetheless illustrate her submittal or tacit support for the prominent Buddhist and military ideologies that prevail within the nation. Although her longstanding role as a prominent human rights and democracy activist is unquestionable, her ascension to becoming the de-facto leader of Myanmar has most likely changed her outlook and revealed the delicate power bargaining needed for her to maintain control over the nation. Although seated on a comfortable majority in the democratic legislature, the continued persistence of the military, as well as the belief and support in Buddhist nationalism, are two key supports to the stability of the nation, and thus has likely forced Aung’s hand in turning a blind eye towards the plight of the Rohingya.

By Timothy Law

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.