External Affairs

The Plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Shows the Downside of Democratic Transition

As it moves towards democracy, the country is facing questions over who belongs to the national community, and which groups it is willing to include

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, 2015. Credit: EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash, CC 2.0

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, 2015. Credit: EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash, CC 2.0

The ongoing democratic transition in Myanmar has had devastating consequences for the Muslim Rohingya of western Myanmar. They have suffered communal violence, exclusion and disenfranchisement. This process is not unique to Myanmar. Political transition in ethnically diverse societies can often involve communal violence.

During the period of parliamentary democracy in Myanmar from independence in 1948 to the military coup of 1962, the Rohingya were generally treated well. The national government recognised the minority as an ethnic group of the country, and committed itself to an autonomous Rohingya area, the Mayu Frontier. Under military rule, the status of the Rohingya deteriorated. They were no longer recognised as a legitimate “national race” of Myanmar. The government refused even to recognise the term “Rohingya”, instead referring to the group as Bengalis. The Mayu Frontier was taken off the table, and replaced by violent military incursions which sent hundreds of thousands of refugees over the border. Military propaganda emphasised Buddhism. The government encouraged the idea that the country’s ethnic and religious minorities were loyal to outside powers. Muslim communities in particular were scapegoated to divert discontent with governance.

Fast-forward to the current democratic transition, beginning in 2011, when communal violence between Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists broke out. The first instances occurred a year after the inauguration of President Thein Sein’s government, and just nine weeks after the transition’s first free and fair by-elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament. IDP camps housed about 140,000 desperate Rohingyas, while an estimated 100,000 persons fled by boat. After pressure from increasingly vocal nationalistic Buddhist organisations, Naypyidaw revoked voting rights for the Rohingya in early 2015.

Credit: Human Rights Watch, 2013

Credit: Human Rights Watch, 2013

In a departure from past instances of conflict in Rakhine state, the military in 2012 was praised for its role in quelling the conflict. While the police were implicated in facilitating and even committing abuses against the Rohingya, Human Rights Watch noted the positive role played by the military. The European Union praised the President’s “measured response”. The military has also been appreciated for ensuring the violence did not spread on an even larger scale, although its methods of segregation and its failure to resettle the displaced have been questioned.

Whatever the other failings of autocratic governments, it is commonly believed that democratic transition can “lift the lid” on communal tensions, with devastating violence as a result. This phenomenon is explained as elites manipulating identities for electoral gains, or as the result of increased freedom of communication and expression degenerating into hate speech, and incitement to violence. In Myanmar, the root of this issue goes beyond the inherent tension in democracy between majority rule and minority rights. The country is facing questions over who belongs to the national community, and which groups it is willing to include. The oft-proposed solution is more democracy—in the form of elections, minority rights, and deeper civil society. Yet democracy is no magic bullet for communal violence.

Indeed, it is the early processes of democracy under transition that are often said to have contributed to this problem. There is little appetite across Myanmar for minority rights for the stateless Rohingya, and even less in Rakhine state. As Aung San Suu Kyi has made clear through her silence on the issue, there are few votes to be won by standing up for the Rohingya. Decentralisation of power from Naypyidaw to Rakhine may well compound problems for the disenfranchised group. A more powerful state government would inevitably be dominated by Rakhine Buddhists. Democracy alone cannot solve this problem. Deadly communal pogroms have taken place in the context of an institutionalised democracy and civil society as well as a vibrant media, the best instance being India.

This is not to say that minority rights are better protected under an authoritarian government. Naypyidaw’s relations with the Rohingya and other minorities were characterised by civil war and repression under military rule. The future of the Rohingya in Myanmar will be one of the many complex issues the government formed after the elections in November this year will face. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy are yet to outline their policy on the issue. Leadership will be required to bring the Rohingya into an inclusive Myanmar. All stakeholders must remember that democracy does not just end at casting a ballot—the treatment of religious and cultural minorities is an essential attribute. While it is for Myanmar to decide what sort of democracy it wants, it would do well to realise that religious schisms will come in the way of the country’s growth.

James T. Davies is a PhD Candidate in International and Political Studies at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Senior Research Associate with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat.