Help our local partners realise their vision of hope for their communities
This essay, by Archie Barker, received second prize in the 2016 HART Prize for Human Rights, Junior Essay Category.
Undoubtedly, the most publicized human rights violation in Burma is the persecution of 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims, who mostly reside in Rakhine State where they make up 40.75% of the population. Almost 140,000 Rohingya have been displaced into refugee camps and up to 10% of the Rohingya population has left the country since 2012. Indeed, since the democratic election of 2015 little has changed, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party ‘having other priorities’ instead of assisting the Rohingya.
If I was to take Thein Sein’s position as President of Burma, helping the Rohingya would be a priority. The Rohingya are extremely marginalized and are concentrated in a relatively small area. Indeed, some villages such as Poutt Taw in Rakhine State are 98% Rohingya. These enclaves mean that the Rohingya do not integrate with the native Burmese- this therefore stirs resentment and has led to the native Burmese-dominated government declaring Rohingya as ‘non-citizens’ and barring them from voting in the November 2015 elections. In order to change this attitude, I would offer the Rohingya incentives to move such as offering them improved accommodation in other areas of Burma. Moreover, to persuade the locals to accept the Rohingya, I would offer tax breaks and rewards such as improved education (there are only 69 high schools in Rakhine province) to areas which accept Rohingya peacefully. This assimilation of the Rohingya would effectively end their persecution.
One of the key factors contributing to the persecution of the Rohingya is the fact that the military (who have overall control of the country) are against them. Indeed, President Sein has called for the Rohingya to be forcibly ‘resettled’ abroad. As a result, I would endeavor to alter the Burmese constitution and thus limit the military’s power. To do this, I would improve the education system in the country. There are only 101 colleges in Burma, mostly centered around the capital, Naypyidaw. I would build more universities in remote areas. This would give more young Burmese people an opportunity to improve their standards of living. Moreover, an increased supply of young, ideological students may lead to an overthrow of the military, echoing the successful (and largely peaceful) student protests at Tahrir Square against Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the Serbian student protests of 2000 that saw Slovan Milosevic removed from power. This removal of military persecution would improve the Rohingya’s standing in the country.
Another challenge facing human rights activists in Burma are the constant ‘low-intensity’ conflicts in Shan and Kachin provinces. The civil war in Kachin province has displaced 100,000 people since 1961. As President, I would offer the people of Kachin a transparent plebiscite as to whether they wanted independence or to stay in Burma. The conflict originates from the Burmese governments refusal to honor the autonomous state of the region, as promised in the 1947 Panglong agreement. Indeed, Kachin province already has stronger socio-economic ties with China than with Burma, so I would offer them the chance to leave in order to give Kachin province autonomy and to end a war which has killed more than 1000 people and damages the Burmese economy.
The civil war in Shan province recently claimed the lives of 50 Burmese soldiers. In order to improve the situation I would also offer the people of Shan province a plebiscite to see if they wanted independence. If the people of Shan province voted to remain in Burma, I would negotiate with the leaders of the Shan State Army. The focus of the negotiations would be to try and integrate the people of Shan State, and indeed all ‘frontier provinces’ into mainstream Burmese politics. This is because under military rule, many important positions were filled by people from the prosperous central cites of Yangon and Naypyidaw. This has marginalized those from peripheral areas and I would therefore integrate them into conventional politics in an effort to improve cooperation and end the civil war.
Lastly, the lack of political freedom is a problem in Burma with the country placing a meager 145th in the press freedom index and holding 570 political prisoners, 458 of whom are illegally awaiting trial. To combat this I would give all political prisoners a fair trial, and free those whom a democratic, uncorrupted court found innocent. I would give the press more freedom to facilitate this. To do this I would allow more tourism into Burma, if more Westerners arrived in Burma, awareness of the lack of political freedom would increase and international pressure to give the domestic press more freedom would increase. This increased press freedom would then increase domestic pressure to release political prisoners-allowing the fair trials I spoke of earlier. Moreover, the significant boost in income that would result from Western tourism would finance the aforementioned infrastructure projects, making my plan economically viable.