Myanmar's skewed democratic election

Muhammad Zamir   | Sunday, 1 November 2020

Myanmar is gearing up for another parliamentary, state, and local elections. They are scheduled for November 8, 2020- a few days away. Their government has been trying to portray this election as the next step by Myanmar towards their transition to democracy.

Analysts are, however, asking whether democracy and democratic governance includes a dimension where there will be no mass persecution of its own citizens through state-sponsored discrimination by Myanmar's xenophobic regime. They are referring to the Rohingya population who are still treated and regarded as illegal immigrants.

This aspersion was not always there. Rohingyas, according to social historians had participated in active politics and the governance of the Rakhine State in Myanmar for more than a century. This continued until 1962 when the military seized power. In 1982, the generals imposed a law that took away their citizenship rights. This measure led to the Rohingyas losing access to freedom of movement and access to health care and education.

After that came other measures related to so-called "identity cards" for Rohingya, with constantly changing rules. This eroded Rohingya rights even more. Nevertheless, some Rohingyas attempted to continue participating in civil governance. In fact in 2010, three Rohingyas won their elections to the Myanmar Parliament. However, the Myanmar government, controlled by its armed forces, took another drastic step that year. It declared that such identity cards were invalid, removed Rohingya names from voter rolls, and placed other administrative challenges. This affected the possibility of the Rohingya population exercising their democratic rights.

This unfortunate development led many Rohingyas to enthusiastically support Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in the Myanmar general election held in 2015. However, after taking office, she and the NLD stood by as the military and its allies trampled on the rights of Muslims and spread anti-Muslim sentiment. Instead of standing up to these illegal measures by the military, the NLD actively supported it, ignoring systemic discrimination.

Many political leaders in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada have watched the terrible deterioration of Rohingya human rights since 2012.  Their disapproval was best recorded by former British Prime Minister David Cameron (in his book 'For the Record' about his time in office between 2010 and 2016) where he recalled his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi when she came to visit London in October 2013. Cameron had observed that all eyes were on her country's Rohingya Muslims, who were not only being driven out of their homes by Buddhist Rakhines but also subjected to rape, murder and ethnic cleansing. Apparently, Suu Kyi disregarded his concern by stating that "They are not really Burmese. They are Bangladeshi.'' One can only condemn such a response.

Bangladesh has been facing the problem of the influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh since 1978. Over the past four decades we have provided humanitarian shelter. Fortunately, more than 218,000 of such refugees who had entered Bangladesh in 1977-78 eventually returned to their own country. However, after that there have been several other waves of refugees from Myanmar's Rakhine State.

The worst situation developed in the month of August 2017. Unfortunate attacks by the Buddhist radical priests had been taking place on the Muslim community living in the Rakhine State and also in some other parts of Myanmar. This led to nearly 735,000 Rohingya refugees crossing the Bangladesh border and seeking shelter in the adjacent Bangladesh south-eastern districts. This has now grown to nearly 860,000. It also needs to be noted that with earlier Rohingya refugees who entered Bangladesh before 2017 and did not return to Myanmar, the total number is presently over 1.1 million.

 Our Prime Minister allowed them to enter Bangladesh in 2017 for humanitarian reasons. This was done with the belief that when there would be greater stability in a civilian ruled Myanmar, these Rohingya refugees would return to their homes. She had also placed her hopes on the will of the international community. None of that has happened.

Subsequently, Bangladesh tried to repatriate these Rohingyas. According to a bilateral instrument signed by Bangladesh and Myanmar on November 23, 2017, the repatriation of the Rohingya was supposed to begin from January 22, 2018, and be completed by January 22, 2020. However, this has not happened as yet. There have been two attempts at repatriation on November 15, 2018, and August 22, 2019. This did not materialise due to Myanmar's failure to create the necessary conditions for the return of its own people.

This year in September, 2020, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her virtual address in the UNGA Session again very correctly drew the attention of the UN Member States to the urgent need to find a solution to the continuing Rohingya repatriation problem. She also reiterated that the Rohingya crisis is a political one deeply rooted in Myanmar and thus, its solution has to be found inside Myanmar. In the meantime, Bangladesh has had to face unfortunate effects - in terms of instability, congestion problems in the refugee camps, environmental destruction and other illegal activities.

In this context one also needs to recall her address delivered in the United Nations last year in 2019 during the 74th UNGA session. She had placed a 4-point proposal for solving the Rohingya crisis. These are: 1. Myanmar must express clear political will manifested by concrete actions for sustainable return and reintegration of Rohingyas to Myanmar; 2. Myanmar must build trust among the Rohingyas by discarding discriminatory laws and practices and allowing "go and see" visit to the Northern Rakhine by the Rohingya representatives; 3. Myanmar must guarantee security and safety of the Rohingyas, among others, by deploying civilian monitors from the international community in the Rakhine state: and 4. The international community must ensure that the root causes of the Rohingya problem are addressed and atrocity committed against the Rohingyas are accounted for. Sheikh Hasina also recalled that during the 72nd UN General Assembly in 2017 she had urged for "full implementation of recommendations of Kofi Annan Commission, and establishment of a "civilian monitored safe zone" in the Rakhine State."

Amnesty International in the meantime in the middle of this month has called on the United Nations Security Council to take urgent action against Myanmar before the International Criminal Court, amid mounting evidence of military abuses, including indiscriminate firing at civilians in the continuing conflict with armed Arakan rebels.

One needs to now refer to some recent significant comments made by Human Rights Watch on October 5, 2020. They have noted that Myanmar's electoral process is undermined by systemic problems and rights abuses that will deprive people of their right to fairly elect their government.

Human Rights Watch has noted that the national elections will be Myanmar's first since 2015 and the second contested election since 1990 (when the military annulled the NLD's overwhelming victory). According to HRW electoral problems will include discriminatory citizenship and other laws that bar most Rohingya Muslim voters from participation and being candidates; reservation of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for the military; criminal prosecutions of government critics; unequal party access to government media; and the lack of an independent election commission and complaints resolution mechanism. This means that the election in all likelihood will be "fundamentally flawed", according to Brad Adams, the HRW Asia Director.

 To make matters worse, on September 20, the Myanmar government declared journalism a "nonessential business", leaving many journalists subject to stay-at-home orders. This measure will create significant barriers for their travel to election-related events. The Myanmar government is also using the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law and the Election Law to disenfranchise the Rohingyas and prevent them from running for office, even though most Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations.

The Myanmar authorities have barred most Rohingyas remaining in Myanmar, estimated at 600,000, from registering to vote in the election. This includes approximately 130,000 Rohingyas detained in camps in central Rakhine State since 2012, where they endure crimes related to persecution and apartheid and other serious rights abuses. It may be mentioned here that voter lists, posted around Myanmar in July and August, were absent from Rohingya camps and villages.

These elements and Section 10 of Myanmar's election law have led not only HRW and Amnesty International but also some other international geo-strategic analysts to observe that many internationally recognised elements for a free and fair election are missing from Myanmar's electoral process-- including the right to vote by casting a secret ballot and also an effective, impartial, independent and accountable election administration to resolve complaints and disputes.

In the meantime, on October 16, Myanmar's Union Election Commission (UEC) has announced the cancellation of the upcoming national elections in conflict-ridden regions of the country, including swathes of territory in Shan and Rakhine states and also in parts of Kachin, Kayin, and Mon states, as well as in Bago Region.

The United Kingdom, the United States and European Union have recently organised a virtual conference along with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), aiming to meet a target of US $1billion in funding for supporting the requirements of the Rohingya refugees in 2020. The US, the largest single donor, announced nearly US $200 million in new funds while the EU pledged about US $113 million and Britain about US $60 million. A number of other countries also contributed. China and Russia were invited but chose not to participate in this meeting.

There is also the effort undertaken by Bangladesh to transfer a section of the Rohingya refugee population from their present camps in Cox's Bazar district to the specially built residential premises in Bhasanchar.

All these elements within the evolving paradigm are casting their own shadows. Unfortunately, they are also discouraging the Rohingya refugees from returning to their homes in Rakhine. They fear they will not be able to live in Myanmar with equality, dignity and safety.

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

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