February 28th, 2014

What should the International Community do to end the Plight of Burma’s Ethnic Nationals?

This is the Runner-Up Essay for the HART 2014 Essay Scholarship

“Every thought, every word, and every action that adds to the positive and the wholesome is a contribution to peace. Each and every one of us is capable of making such a contribution. Let us join hands to try to create a peaceful world where we can sleep in security and wake in happiness.”

 – Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, Oslo, 16 June, 2012


There can be no doubt that Burma has had a troubled past. Recently, this country has increasingly been making the headlines and winning praise from the West for embracing more democratic values. The elections in 2010 and the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the suspension of sanctions, and dissolving the military junta in 2011 all appear to show a “bright light at the end of the tunnel” for its people. Burma may be heading towards democratisation now, but it is way behind its South East Asian neighbours. These unprecedented changes are encouraging, but the naïve optimism expressed obscures many an unpleasant reality: the 2010 election were condemned as fraudulent; hundreds more political prisoners remain imprisoned; there has been no change in the constitution; the power of parliament remains constrained by the military. Most significantly, despite apparent democratisation, vicious ethnic conflicts are tearing the country apart.

Burma is a diverse country with over one hundred different ethnic groups. The Burmese, although the dominant group, make up little more than approximately two-thirds of the population. The rural regions thrive with a variety of peoples each with their own singular history, language and culture. Yet, the ruling forces of Burma suppress signs of ethnic difference, afraid of the union’s potential dismemberment, instead of taking pride in their country’s rich diversity. Burma today is home to some of the world’s longest ongoing ethnic conflicts. The largely Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, is one of the country’s lesser known ethnic groups, yet are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The amount and extent of gross human rights violations is astounding: according to Human Rights Watch, child soldiers are a major part in the Burmese Army; rape, forced labour, slavery, torture and loss of life befall those unfriendly to the Burmese Army.

As a result of these ethnic conflicts, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh and Thailand. Refugee camps are scattered along the border, home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons. Freedom of movement and the right to employment are severely restricted: according to the ethnically Karen refugee Zoya Phan, a refugee camp is “more like a prison camp”. A significant number of these camps’ residents have already entered their second decade in limbo. The dream of returning to their homeland, for them, is a hopeless one as attacks against civilians and human rights abuses in ethnic areas continue, exacerbating their chances of a healthy and happy life. There are many Burmese people wondering who to turn to for help, what exactly the solutions are to achieving peace, how successfully they can been applied, and whether these recent reforms will last.

Arguably, there are three durable solutions that the international community looks at in order to help rebuild a country recovering from dictatorship, civil war or humanitarian crisis: international state-building, which emphasises strong political structures for security and stability, democracy promotion, which focuses on establishing social, economic and cultural freedoms, or a hybrid approach embracing both institutionalisation and democratisation. Each option, however, is fraught with complexities showing how complex, slow-going and messy the world of international politics and development aid can be. The result is often a mixed picture where progress has been made to some extent, with the establishment of an electoral process, for instance, but non-governmental and international organisations, in particular UNICEF and the UNHRC, are left to cater for the citizens most basic needs, such as access to food, water, medicine and shelter. As much as there is hope, there is also nervousness and fear that when any external help leaves the country, the situation will deteriorate once again.

The international community has a moral duty to help Burma improve its human rights record. Unfortunately, the situation in Burma, especially the plight of the Rohingya minority during 2012 Rakhine State riots, is often overshadowed by other major world events. Ultimately, there needs to a global cooperative effort of putting pressure on Burma to grant greater freedom and human rights to all citizens, including minority peoples. In the framework of international state-building, the state is supposed to provide security and protection to citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, language, culture or religion. But, of course, there are times when the state itself not only isn’t providing security, but is the source of insecurity and the threat to people’s lives. We should condemn Burma when it is the threat itself, and yet keep pressuring them to protect people’s freedom of expression and create equality, as it is fundamental first order human right.

So far, the UN has been ineffective in dealing with Burma. The international community must respond, rather than ignore a dangerous situation. Although it has accused the military junta of breaking the Geneva Conventions by deliberately targeting civilians, the Burmese people have yet to see a UN investigation into these crimes. The UN should set up an international criminal tribunal that thoroughly investigates war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in Burma. Like the aftermath of Nazi Germany, or the Cambodian Genocide, or the Rwandan Genocide, or the Srebrenica Massacre in Former Yugoslavia, the crimes with Burma need to be scrutinised in a court of international law with full accountability and transparency, so that justice will prevail, and the suppressed minorities have access to the full truth at last. There should also be the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission, similar to that set up in post-apartheid South Africa, so that lessons are learnt from such horrific brutality and to avoid such devastation from ever happening again. That way, many innocent lives of the highly vulnerable ethnic minorities, like the Rohingya people, could be saved. Only then can we say that ethnic conflict, and the destruction and devastation that tears community apart, has truly become a thing of the past in Burma.

Sophie Stollery

By Sophie Stollery

Sophie is studying International Politics and the Third World at Aberystwyth University as she believes it is important to explore why people are often deliberately and systematically kept in poverty and powerlessness in the 21st century. She is very interested in human rights as they are universal, with equal entitlement for everyone around the world, yet they are absent for so many people worldwide. Sophie is passionate about HART's work and wants to continue her support in the future.

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