Evan Gray, Blog Writer
In 2010, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) elected its first semi-civilian government since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. Since then, the country has experienced a period of rapid reform under President Thein Sein, leader of the military-dominated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Although recent reversals have caused many to question the sincerity of the current government’s desire for reform, Myanmar has experienced a significant opening of its political system, news media and economy since the (admittedly flawed) 2010 elections.
2015 represents an important crossroads in Myanmar’s long journey towards democracy. With general elections scheduled for later this year, the citizens of Myanmar may finally have the opportunity to experience their first democratically elected government after almost five decades of military dictatorship. If these elections go ahead, they will likely lead to significantly expanded role for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and its leader, Nobel Prize-winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
While the reformist course charted by Myanmar’s current administration since 2010 has received praise from foreign dignitaries, there remain sections of the population for whom the shift towards democracy holds little promise. In particular, Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims – identified by the U.N. as one of the most oppressed minority groups in the world – continue to experience violence and widespread discrimination, particularly in the country’s remote Rakhine region. Barred by Myanmar’s constitution from holding citizenship, the Rohingya are deprived of most civil and political rights, and are subject to restrictions on their freedom of movement, educational and economic opportunities, and even the right to freely marry. Despite widespread violence and human rights abuses, Myanmar’s government prohibits humanitarian organizations from accessing many at-risk communities, leaving minority groups to fend for themselves against incursions by military and radical nationalists.
Since the vast majority of Myanmar’s population are Buddhist, and public sentiment generally runs against the Rohingya, the prospect of democratic rule raises the troubling possibility of further violence and institutionalized discrimination. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, who gained a reputation as a staunch defender of human rights and democracy after years of persecution at the hands of the military dictatorship, has refused to come to the aid of the Rohingya. In public statements on the matter, Kyi has refused to condemn attacks on Rohingya by radical Buddhists in Rakhine, and has equivocated on the question of guaranteeing citizenship for the group. It is likely that this reticence is simply a means of retaining the political support of the majority of Myanmar’s citizens who remain hostile towards the Muslim minority. Nevertheless, given the stance of its leader, it is doubtful that the predicted success of the NLD party in the upcoming elections will bring relief for the Rohingya.
Although Myanmar’s ongoing political transformation represents a positive step towards enfranchisement for the majority of its citizens, it is unlikely to provide the solutions needed to put a stop to these chronic human rights abuses. Given the complex ethnic and religious makeup of Myanmar, the transition to democratic rule may even increase the likelihood of genocidal violence against the country’s Muslim minority. If countries like Canada and the United States are to open their arms – and their economies – to Myanmar as a newly democratic state, their support must be conditioned on its government’s respect for the fundamental rights of all of its citizens, not just those belonging to the majority.