Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party secured a landslide victory in Burma’s first reasonably free elections since a 1990 vote that the NLD won but the military ignored. The NLD steamrolled the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which took power in a quasi-civilian government in 2011 after 49 years of military rule. The NLD surpassed the 67 percent share of the vote needed to assure a parliamentary majority – unusually high because 25 percent of seats are reserved for unelected military officials.
Even if the NLD dominates parliament, the military will retain an influential role, including control of the all-important ministries that oversee the security of the country. Aung San Suu Kyi is barred by the constitution from becoming president, even if she leads a parliament that would elect her to that role. The constitution prevents anyone with children or a spouse holding foreign passports from being president. Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, as are her two sons.
“The Lady”, as she is known, has indicated she will make the decisions even if someone else has to be president. She has called for “national reconciliation” talks with the military. Since 2011, the generals have governed by proxy through the USDP, which is comprised mainly of former officers who retired to join the party. Although it’s not clear what exactly Aung San Suu Kyi has in mind when she calls for “reconciliation” with the military, she will need to forge a working relationship with the generals in order to address a host of issues facing the country.
Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia, and is riven by ethnic conflict and sectarian tensions. Here are the top humanitarian issues Burma’s new government will have to deal with:
About a million Rohingya live in Burma and almost all of them have had their citizenship rights gradually stripped away. The Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority of Muslims living in a Buddhist majority country. Despite having roots in Burma that go back generations, many consider them illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, including some government officials.
The perception of the Rohingya as interlopers has fueled discrimination that has become entrenched in policy. The Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions in western Rakhine State, confined to displacement camps and villages, with little access to healthcare or education.
Rohingya voted in the 2010 election – which was marred by fraud – and Rohingya candidates were elected. Almost all were disenfranchised in early 2015.
“This election can’t be described as either free or fair, because racial discrimination – the prohibition of which is a peremptory norm of international law – was at its heart. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya were deprived of the vote. What kind of democratic society can be built on the exclusion of an entire ethno-religious minority?
Suu Kyi has been urged, at least since 2012, to condemn anti-Rohingya discrimination. But it is clear by now that she has chosen populist power over human rights.
For years Rohingya have experienced extreme discrimination and persecution in Burma, augmented by the 1982 Citizenship Law which has been interpreted as a way of depriving them of their citizenship. They have been openly discriminated against in all areas of life, and subjected to a cascade of human rights violations, including restrictions to marriage and freedom of movement. Their position has been steadily deteriorating over the last three years; while Rohingya have voted in all previous elections since independence in 1948.
In the run up to the elections, in what has been surmised as giving into pressure from the ultranationalist Buddhist movement in order to win votes, Ms Suu Kyi and the NDL did little to take a stand for Rohingya. When recently asked about atrocities committed against Rohingya, Ms Suu Kyi replied that it was important to “not exaggerate the problems”.
As a result of the violations they face in Burma, many Rohingya risk their lives and take a perilous journey to neighbouring Bangladesh and from there, to other countries. If nothing is done to protect Rohingya in Burma they will continue to risk their lives to escape the country.
Desperate Rohingya have fled Rakhine State in droves on rickety boats and many have fallen into the hands of human traffickers.
It’s not just Rohingya who are trafficked. Many others from Burma have fled poverty and found themselves enslaved on fishing boats.
About 140,000 people are living in displacement camps in Rakhine State after their homes were destroyed in violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya in 2012. Most of the victims were Rohingya who make up almost all of those who remain in displacement camps.
Fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups has forced about 100,000 into displacement camps in Kachin and Shan states over the past four years. The United Nations says 6,000 people were displaced in northern Shan State in October alone, as the election campaign was going on.
About 120,000 people remain in refugee camps across the border in Thailand after fleeing decades of war. There is a push to return them to Burma, but the security situation remains uncertain and many areas are contaminated with landmines.
Burma has been riven by ethnic conflict since independence from Britain in 1948, and about two dozen ethnic armed groups operate today. The government signed a ceasefire agreement with eight ethnic armed groups on October 15, 2015. But many of the most powerful ethnic armies refused to sign, while the government refused to allow others to take part in negotiations.
There is little trust in the peace process, as ethnic armed groups accuse the military of undermining negotiations by launching offensives. Aung San Suu Kyi may be able to build confidence, but it will be a balancing act between reaching out to ethnic armed groups, while maintaining a working relationship with the military.
Corruption became deeply entrenched over decades of isolation and autocratic rule by successive military governments. The unfettered rush to exploit Burma’s rich natural resources has fuelled ethnic conflict. Aung San Suu Kyi has campaigned on rule of law, which is desperately needed in Burma, not least to regulate the resources sector.
Extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Arrest Condemned
ALAIWAH condemns the extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest by Burma’s military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). It also calls on the SPDC to take immediate steps to release Aung San Suu Kyi and all political detainees in Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s foremost democracy leader and head of the National Democratic League (NDL), has been under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.
On May 27, 2008, officials of the ruling junta in Burma confirmed the extension of her house arrest for another year.
ALAIWAH believes that the extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest is unwarranted and that there are no grounds for this under the law. It also clearly violates international human rights principles.
ALAIWAH is deeply concerned about the implications of this decision to extend Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention for another year. The extended term of her detention reaffirms our belief that the SPDC intends to continue its firm and tyrannical grip on the people of Burma, and that there is no intention on their part to respect human rights in the country.
ALAIWAH is also concerned that the ASEAN has not made a proactive stance on the issue of Aung San Suu Kyi’s extended house arrest term. As a regional body poised to establish a “human rights body” aimed at promoting and protecting human rights in Southeast Asia, the ASEAN should show more engagement in these issues and actively urge the SPDC to start taking steps towards conforming with international human rights principles.
Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), everyone has the right to liberty and security of person and that “no one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds in accordance with such procedure as are established by law”.
ALAIWAH urges the SPDC to make a genuine commitment to moving towards democracy and respecting human rights. It urges the SPDC to immediately release Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners in Burma.