Thousands Flee Kokang, Myanmar Govt Imposes Emergency
Myanmar's troubled relationship with ethnic minorities
NEW DELHI: Thousands of civilians are fleeing the Kokang region of north-east Myanmar after heavy fighting that has claimed dozens of lives prompted the government to impose a state of emergency in the region.
Chinese state media estimates that 30,000 ethnic Kokang from Shan state have crossed the border into China, with the Myanmar government calling upon their Chinese counterparts to prevent "terrorist attacks" being launched from Chinese territory. The appeal to China is significant because the group behind the fighting in Kokang -- the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) -- emerged from the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma, that had fought the Myanmar government before splintering in 1989.
The crisis started on February 9, when the Myanmar army clashed with MNDAA rebels, with at least 50 government soldiers and 27 rebels being killed. The fighting itself is believed to have been the corollary of the return of MNDAA leader Peng Jiasheng, who had been driven out of Kokang in 2009 when government troops took over the region, bringing to an end a truce that had been signed by the two sides.
The fighting, it is believed, intervened with Myanmar President Thein Sein’s plans to use Union Day -- which is celebrated on February 12 to mark the signing of the Panglong agreement in 1947 which unified the country then known as Burma -- to sign a national ceasefire accord.
In reality however, the signing of this accord may have always been a pipe dream, with the ethnic Kokang being one amongst several ethnic minority groups up in arms against the Myanmar government. These include the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which represents the Palaung, an ethnic Mon-Khmer people in northern Shan State. It also includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an autonomy-seeking ethnic rebel guerilla force in Kachin state in the North.
The KIA, in fact, can serve as an example to elucidate the crisis in Myanmar. The Kachin Independence Movement was started in colonial Burma, with the purpose to address questions of minority representation in the predominantly Bamar country of Burma. The KIA was formed in the 1960s, when Kachin forces withdrew from the Burmese army, organising under the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). The region functioned autonomously till 1994, when a Myanmar offensive seized jade mines from the KIO, culminating in an agreement between the government of Myanmar and the KIA leading to a ceasefire that lasted till June 2011, when government forces violated it.
In the three years since the resumption of fighting, thousands have died and been displaced, with reports of torture, child soldiers and systematic rape emerging from the ground. A report released last year by the Bangkok-based Fortify Rights group has alleged that the Myanmar military “systematically” tortures civilians in the conflict-ridden Kachin state. The Fortify Rights group’s report details the victims being stabbed, beaten and having wire tied around their necks, hands and feet. It alleges that many victims were told to dig their own graves, whilst others were forced to lick their own blood off the ground following severe beatings. "We've documented such consistent practices across many different areas that would indicate that it is certainly a systematic practice and a widespread practice,” the report notes.
The report further comments on the ethnic dimensions of the conflict, with victims’ ethnicity and Christian faith being highlighted. "You are Kachin, and we will kill all the Kachin," one victim claimed to have been told.
However, the Kachin are by no means the most persecuted group in Myanmar, with this title being reserved for the Rohingya -- an ethnic Muslim minority in the Rakhine state. On February 11, President Thein Sein rescinded a voting rights offered to the Rohingya -- under intense pressure from far-right Buddhist groups.
The Rohingya are repeatedly denied their rights, with the context lying in the ambiguity associated with their nationality. The system’s context lies in the 1982 Citizenship Act, which supersedes all citizenship regimes in Myanmar. The Act created three classes of citizens - full, associate, and naturalised. Full citizenship is reserved for those whose ancestors settled in Myanmar before the year 1823 or who are members of one of Myanmar’s 135 recognized national ethnic groups - which, according to the recent census, continues to exclude the Rohingya. Associate citizenship applies to those who have been conferred citizenship under a previous 1948 law, which requires an awareness of the law and a level of proof that few Rohingyas possess. Naturalised citizenship is applicable to those who have resided in Myanmar on or before 1948, and here too, the Rohingya are denied citizenship as the government of Myanmar retains the discretion to deny citizenship even when criteria are adequately met.
It is under the legal system and the denial of recognition that the Rohingya continue to remain a stateless people. Myanmar, which as a member nation of the UN is obligated to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction,” fails to do so for the Rohingyas who are subjected to policies and practises that constitute violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms. They face restrictions on movement, forced labour, land confiscation, forced evictions, extortions and arbitrary taxations, restrictions on marriage, employment, healthcare and education.
There is an element of political opportunism in reference to the Rohingya in Myanmar. In 1990, Rohingya were permitted to form political parties and vote in multiparty elections. Myanmar even accepted about 250,000 repatriated Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in 1992 and 1994 issuing Temporary Resident Cards to some. Rohingyas were permitted to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 elections. In fact, in the 2010 elections the voting rights were tied to the promise of citizenship if the Rohingya voted for the military regime’s representatives. However, Rohingyas are yet to be included as a part of any reconciliation programme involving ethnic groups, with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, in the wake of the 2012 violence, stating that the Rohingya could not and would not be accepted as citizens or residents of Myanmar, going as far as to asking the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to consider placing the Rohingya in camps outside of the country and resettling them to others. While it is true that Thein Sein and other Myanmar officials have had to moderate their position since due to external international pressure, Myanmar continues to violate UN convention by rendering the Rohingya stateless. A relevant convention is the Convention of the Reduction of Statelessness which obligates states to prevent, reduce, and avoid statelessness by granting “its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless.” The Myanmar government is in clear violation of this convention, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya having been displaced in the last 25 years.
It is this system that has perpetuated violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar, with violent clashes between the country’s majority Buddhist population and the Rohingyas leading to deaths and displacement of the minority muslim community in 2012, 2009, 2001, 1978 and 1992, amongst other instances. In the most recent case of widespread violence in 2012, hundred of Rohingya villages and settlements were destroyed, tens of thousands of homes razed, and at least 115,000 Rohingyas displaced in camps in Myanmar, across the Bangladesh border, or further afield on boats.
The UN has termed the Rohingyas one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, a condition aggravated by the role of countries such as Bangladesh and Thailand that have turned back genuine refugees, with Thailand’s military being accused in 2009-10 of towing hundreds of Rohingya out to sea in poorly equipped boats and scant food and water after they tried to flee Myanmar. Although Thailand “categorically denies” the charge, the accusations have some merit as about 650 Rohingya were rescued off India and Indonesia, some saying that they had been beaten by Thai soldiers.
It is under these circumstance that rights groups have alleged that the Myanmar government is supporting a policy of “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, with William Schabas, a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars saying that “the Rohingya are the prima facie victims of the crime against humanity of persecution,” consisting of “the severe deprivation of fundamental rights on discriminatory grounds.”
In fact, it is reasonable to state that it is Myanmar’s response to its ethnic minorities that continues to compromise the country’s journey toward democracy -- rendering it far from complete.