Serious human rights violations continue to plague Myanmar, as minorities are being crushed under an extremist majoritarian rule. The problem which began from the ethnic religious minority, Rohingyas has spread to the civilians. . The government of Myanmar is not just failing to protect the human and civil rights of its people, but is actively engaging in creating a vicious web of rights violations of its people. As the remaining Rohingya population is bearing the brunt of oppressive policies, the current governmental regime is systematically cutting its ties from the core principles of democracy by silencing the opposition parties. The article discusses the political history of Myanmar to draw an analogical reference to the present political turmoil in Myanmar. It highlights the deteriorating human rights standards and what is the way forward for the state.
Political History of Myanmar
In 1948, Burma freed itself from the clutches of British rule, with pro-democracy leader U Nu as the PM but by1960 he was ousted in a military coup by U Ne Win. He introduced dictatorship after forming a single party state and imposing censorship on the press in the name of Burmese Way to Socialism. In 1982, the military backed party brought a law discriminating between indigenous and non-indigenous people, labelled them associate citizens and deprived them from being selected in public offices. Essentially this law laid the roots for Rohingya crisis. The said citizenship law coupled with disastrous currency devaluation converted small counter insurgencies to riots and led to the formation of SWORC. These riots led to imposition of martial law and later elections for the first time in Myanmar in 1990. NLD (National League of Democracy) won a landslide victory, however the military ignored the outcome and put leaders of NLD to house arrest for time periods as high as 21 years. After much global pressure diplomatically and by way of sanctions including from UN, USA, China, India, partly free elections could be held in 2012, won by NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Due to the presidency of Thein Sein amidst the Rohingya crisis, NLD faced major hurdles in keeping up with promises and finally in March 2016 with change of presidency, Suu Kyi, the NLD leader representing hope of a peaceful & democratic nation, could assert complete power over Myanmar after 50 years of military rule. However, to the surprise of all, in under the pressure of Buddhist nationalists and the military rule over the administration, in 2017, a deadly crackdown on Rohingyas happened which led them to flee and migrate to just any place out of Rakhine. Hundreds of villages were burnt, mass murders, rapes by men in uniform portrayed the clear intention of , as UNHRC termed it, textbook example of ethnic cleansing by the government. Next elections as decided are to be held on November 8 amidst the pandemic.
In the light of Myanmar’s not-so-democratic history, holding of elections should be an achievement. The scheduled November 8 elections claim the same. However, a simple analysis precisely points toward them being completely unfair and flawed. The government is using its 1982 Citizenship Law, which degrades Rohingyas as migrants to deprive around 730,000 people belonging to ethnic minorities from participating in the electoral process. The ICJ had also urged Myanmar to reform the 1982 law, which as per the UN was used to oust ethnic minorities with a genocidal intent.
The government has been restricting people from ethnic minorities still present in the region, from contesting in the election. Students protests have been crushed with heavy hands. Freedom of speech has become a joke and people are being jailed for sloganeering and holding pamphlets. Journalists have been ordered to stay homesincejournalism was kept out of essential services list in the name of Covid 19. Internet speed in conflict hit regions was also reduced to 2G, stopping any exchange of photos or videos in the region.
All this has been happening while the Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi remains the PM and is to contest in the upcoming elections.
The Fissure between Reality and Expectations
One can say that Myanmar will achieve a milestone by holding this second multiparty election, but the reality behind these elections only confronts us with fundamental flaws and violation of Human Rights Protocols. International Standards have been established to procure what has been tested in History and what has is commonly agreed by the nations. However, these fairly established principles have been blatantly violated by the State. The basic necessity of free and fair election(adopted by the Inter-Parliamentary Council at its 154th Session (Paris, 26 March 1994). Furthermore, the basic human rights such as rights to freedom of expression(Article 19 Universal Declaration of Human Rights), association(Article 19(1)(c) ), peaceful assembly (Article 21 and 22, ICCPR) and movement along with universal and equal suffrage, the right to vote (Article 25, General Comments 25 Fifty seventh session, 1996) and freedom from discrimination (Article 2, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) had been blatantly violated.
To add to the plight of other political parties, the NLD government had put very broad and vague restrictions on what parties can say thereby violating the international standards for freedom of free speech. One could easily conclude that any election cannot be termed as free and fair as long as quarter of the total seats are reserved for military, access to state media is discriminatory and not equal, the action of criticising the ruling government is faced with a censorship or arrest and much more. These basic rights should have been enforced in an effective, impartial, independent environment whereby they would have accounted for equal access for candidates and political parties to unbiased state media; and an independent and impartial mechanism to resolve complaints and dispute ultimately aiding in the process of free and fair elections.
Drifting away from democracy
At present, Myanmar is mushroomed with the mentality that propagates divisions and caste and creed, institutionalises red-tapism and curbs the voices of dissent. The approach of the government in the Gambia v. Myanmar case clearly reflects its complacence towards the genocide that took place. In reply to the question of brutality and ethnic cleansing raised in the Court, Aun San Su Kyii, once an epitome of human rights, defended the brutality and merciless killings of the minority community by terming it as a mere internal armed conflict.The upcoming elections too have the segment of “caste” and “religion” which the candidates are required to fill. This is a tactful attempt by the government to filter out the Rohingya community from the Buddhist dominated state. With the general elections round the corner, the ruling party is silent about the steps it would take to re-habilitate the Rohingya. Instead, the overarching presence of three military leaders in the government has very craftily managed to downplay the Rohingya crisis as an “issue of insurgency”.
The government has left no stones unturned to impose a surveillance regime across the nation. The right to freedom of speech and expression, which is one of the cornerstones of Constitution of Myanmar, is systematically being crushed in the state. The ruling government has imposed rules which are in severe violation of the right to campaigning of the political parties. The leaders have been mandated to submit the scripts of their speeches for scrutiny to the Union Election Commission, which censors such words which reflect the atrocities committed by the ruling party. Publicising the ethnicity and race of a candidate, by introducing the columns of race, sparent race, Bengali, or non-Bengali may once again ignite tensions between various communities, and prove to be prejudicial to the spirit of religious tolerance and non-discrimination.
These instances not only display the blatant violation of human rights of the minority community but also threaten the very foundation of democracy in Myanmar. Crushing the dissenting voices, threatening the existence of religious minorities, and ripping off their identities by making them stateless raises pressing concerns. The hopes that were pitched on the November elections, for a better and inclusive government also appears to be bleak now, considering the prejudiced state of elections across the State.
The elections were supposed to take place to consolidate the fragile electoral democracy of Myanmar. However, the fundamentally flawed measures and resulting human right violations lead to mere impossibility of the above idea. With only 45 percent of electors expected to vote, there is a sincere need of reforms in the electoral laws and the 2008 constitution of Myanmar to improve the environment for voters, candidates, political parties, the media, civil society, and others involved to electoral reforms. As a long term measure, Union Election Commission (UEC) should also be reorganized to be an independent body and be more reflective of the ethnic, religious, and gender diversity of the country considering the recent decisions of the commission to systematically exclude Rohigyas from running as candidates, blocking human right websites and imposing blatant restrictions on political speech.
Myanmar having one of the weakest health systems should consider postponement of 2020 elections as undue advantage will be given to the majority party if online campaigning is only allowed by UEC. UN recommended that for progressive, democratic, and peaceful Myanmar elections, more autonomy should be granted to formal and informal organizations working on the elections. Given the prominent role of social media and journalism in Myanmar’s election, the lack of internet access in certain districts and terming journalism as a non-essential activity will suppress the voice of thousands resulting in elections not representing the popular will. Such restrictions should be released as has also been urged by International Federation of Journalists.
Title image source: Asia Democracy Network
This article has been written by Narinder Panghal. Narinder is practicing advocate at District Court, Bhiwani, Haryana.