Democratic misgovernance in Myanmar affects prospects of Rohingya repatriation

Published : 16 Feb 2021 07:41 PM | Updated : 16 Feb 2021 08:47 PM

Analyst Terry Glavin recently made an interesting observation on 3 February regarding what is happening currently in Myanmar. He noted that the Myanmar coup had overthrown a 'democracy' that never was. In this context he drew attention to how Aung San Suu Kyi had enthusiastically supported the genocidal scorched-earth misery inflicted by her military partners upon the Muslim Rohingya people in the Rakhine State of Myanmar while she was in government.

Bill Richardson is a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Secretary of Energy has similarly responded to the latest Myanmar dynamics by pointing out that the Myanmar generals were reverting to type. He has also recalled his last encounter with Aung San Suu Kyi  when he had been invited to Myanmar in January 2018 as part of an international advisory panel the Myanmar government had set up to advise them on the continuing Rohingya crisis. Apparently at that time, during one meeting he had pointed out to Suu Kyi that she should take action to stop the atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw (as the Myanmar military is known) against the Muslim Rohingyas, and also arrange to free the two Reuters reporters who had been jailed after uncovering evidence of mass graves. Apparently Suu Kyi refused. He has also reiterated that it was obvious that she was complicit in enabling the atrocities, and was unwilling to accept the consequences.

The Tatmadaw have now engineered a coup to stop the first meeting of the re-elected National League for Democracy government and locked up Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto head of government since 2015. The wheel has turned a full circle. This is a lesson we all need to understand. Genocide and democracy are not compatible. It also underlines that one cannot turn a blind eye and overlook mass atrocities in the name of saving a democratization project or to protect your own power.

Suu Kyi’s appeasement of the Myanmar military has now empowered them to eventually take over the governance of the country by force on 1 February. Just hours before the newly elected Parliament was to be convened, the Tatmadaw detained Suu Kyi, former President Win Myint and dozens of other government and civil society leaders. Alleging claims of mass voter fraud, the Myanmar military has now transferred all power to the Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and declared a year-long state of emergency. Former Vice President Myint Swe has been elevated to the status of being President.

We have subsequently seen the convening of the UN Security Council on 2 February in New York and also watched as several world leaders have expressed strong views against this measure and asked Myanmar authorities to restore democracy in that country and also release those who have been arrested on flimsy grounds. At the same time there is the awareness that Suu Kyi has lost a lot of her previous international support and the admiration that she previously held, at a time when she needs it the most.

It needs to be mentioned at this juncture that within two years of Suu Kyi’s election victory in 2015, more than 700,000 Rohingyas had been driven out of their homes after rape, arson and killing into neighboring Bangladesh. Here they joined close to 250,000 Rohingyas who had also been ethnically cleansed from Myanmar in earlier pogroms. Two years after that, in December, 2019, the Nobel Peace Prize winner stood before the judges at the International Court of Justice in The Hague and denied that her government’s crimes against humanity in Rakhine had ever occurred. This was an example of Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s approach towards truth and human rights.

Yes, democracy in Myanmar has probably been injured once again. It is also true that the claims made by Myanmar military about election-day fraud and the coup pretext resorted to by their armed forces Commander-in-Chief has been undertaken to help – the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party that secured very few seats in the new Myanmar Parliament- where one-fourth of the total seats are reserved for the military. This erosion in the number of seats for their Party appears to have persuaded the armed forces to claim that the 8 November, 2020 Myanmar election was not an election that was “free, fair, unbiased and free from unfair campaigning.”

State Counsellor Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) had swept the polls, securing 396 of the Parliament’s 476 seats. However, such voting rights, based on racist citizenship laws, were denied to Rohingya Muslims living in Myanmar and also to those Rohingya refugees who had fled Myanmar and sought sanctuary inside Bangladesh.

It may also be noted that the Myanmar Election Commission dominated by Suu Kyi’s party had taken the arbitrary decision that the Rohingyas in Rakhine, along with Myanmar’s ethnic Kachin, Karen, Mon, Chin and Shan minorities, lived in “conflict areas” too dangerous to allow polling. In addition, many prominent minority candidates were barred from running in the election. Private news organizations were also crippled through rules ostensibly enacted for pandemic-related public health purposes. Election scripts to be used by different political parties were also subject to approval or rejection by Suu Kyi’s Ministry of Information. All these measures were taken in the name of ensuring national security.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric and several institutions of the United Nations, on different occasions have expressed their anxiety and concern about the 600,000 Rohingya that remain in Rakhine State in Myanmar, including 120,000 people who are effectively confined to camps and have extremely limited access to basic health and education services. Attention has also been drawn by Human Rights Watch to the continued misuse of power by the military in Myanmar since 2011.

The print, electronic and social media in Bangladesh have all expressed their concern about the possible shadow that this change in the Myanmar governance might cast on the repatriation prospects of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh that were ostensibly being put in place on a tripartite basis by Bangladesh, China and Myanmar in this regard. This latest change in the governance format has pushed the proposed Rohingya repatriation agreement into uncertain horizons.

Bangladesh had initially wanted this process to start from March 2021. The previous Myanmar authorities had however proposed that repatriation could start from June 2021. They had pointed out that they needed some more time for completing logistical and physical arrangements.

Now, under the changed circumstances, one wonders whether Myanmar’s hardline military leaders will want to honor the pledges made during the tripartite discussions where, in principle, efforts were being made by Bangladesh to permit the more than one million Rohingya refugees to return to their homeland with dignity and safety.

The military coup in Myanmar is presenting an early critical test for the Biden administration on how to respond to the crisis amid its promise to coordinate with international allies and to consult more closely with Congress on foreign policy issues. President Biden has been quick to denounce the military takeover and arrest of democratically elected government officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi. The U.S.State Department has also announced that it officially views the crisis as a coup and was triggering certain sanctions and a review of US aid to the country. Analysts have also noted that there is strong bipartisan support from US Republican and Democratic lawmakers for the new US Administration to take meaningful action in response to the military coup in Myanmar.

The response from the international community has been somewhat divided, with Western democracies strongly condemning the coup while countries in the region and Myanmar’s neighbors have been seen as pursuing a more cautious approach.

While initially identifying the events in Myanmar as a matter of major concern, Japan on 3 February has  joined the G7 countries in clear condemnation of the coup- joining European and North American allies, including the US. Japan joining the quest for justice will be an important factor as it possesses the strategic ability to exert influence on Myanmar’s economy.

Regional experts have also been carefully watching the response from the Association of 10 Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has so far offered tacit apprehension. A statement from the intergovernmental organization, which is currently headed by Brunei, has refrained from addressing the role of the armies in overthrowing the democratic government. ASEANs ‘statement has signaled that they are unlikely to take action -given the Organizations’ demand for governance by consensus among its members, which includes Myanmar. Conse­quently, it is unlikely that ASEAN will do anything about it. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has reportedly called the military takeover an internal affair which has also been echoed by Thailand.  It may be noted here that Thailand’s current civilian government is widely seen as a representative of military rule, with a former army Chief serving as Prime Minister.

For Bangladesh at the end of the day, priority lies in being able to start the repatriation of the more than one million Rohingya refugees who have sought shelter in our country back to their homeland. There may be a change in the governance structure in Myanmar but ensuing difficulties can be overcome if China, Russia, India, the USA, Canada, Japan, the UK, the European Union and the ASEAN take a pro-active positive humanitarian stand on this issue. Democracy, it must not be forgotten can only prosper through the upholding of human rights.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.