Migrant Crisis: A Roadblock to Transition


Migrant Crisis: A Roadblock to Transition

11 Jun 2015

With the plight of Rohingya Muslims gaining worldwide attention, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics assesses reports by International Crisis Group and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

As elections approach in Myanmar, International Crisis Group (ICG) has produced a substantial report, ' Myanmar's Electoral Landscape', looking at the importance of this vote, the first in five years, after the last election brought the current semi-reformist government to power.

At the same time, Myanmar is once again in the international spotlight as thousands of migrants, most of whom are Rohingya Muslims, flee refugee camps and persecution in Myanmar, seeking refuge in neighbouring South East Asian nations. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has published a report, "They want us all to go away" – Early Warning Signs of Genocide in Burma, following a visit to Myanmar in March 2015 by staff of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

The ICG report suggests that the upcoming election will likely see the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), established by the former regime, replaced by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, which it suggests is more attuned to popular sentiment. There were in total 72 registered political parties in Myanmar in April 2015, many of which are regional or local parties.

Myanmar's prospects of a credible, inclusive and peaceful election face major challenges.

The report examines what has brought Myanmar to this point in its transition, but says there are major challenges to a credible, inclusive and peaceful election. One of the major concerns is that the election could be marred by violence, particularly in areas in central Myanmar, where there has been rising Buddhist nationalism since the violence of 2012, and in Rakhine State where minority Muslim communities, including Rohingya Muslims, have been struggling to gain a sense of identity.

The challenge, the report says, is to ensure that the elections are inclusive. However, many citizens from ethnic groups such as the Rohingya do not have identity cards (so-called white cards) which allowed them temporary citizenship. The decision by the government to evoke the cards of the Rohingya in early 2015, severs the last link that many Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state had with the political system, and this could have implications for stability in an already uneasy region.

Another question the whether the results will be accepted, particularly by the old elite, with Aung San Suu Kyi constitutionally barred from running for the presidency, even if her NLD party does win. The constitution sets out several requirements for candidacy, including that candidates' children are not citizens of a foreign country; Aung San Suu Kyi has two sons with British citizenship.

The 2012 by-election when Aung San Suu Kyi won her constituency with 85 per cent of the vote was seen, with the 2012 general election, as a test of how well the government could conduct credible elections. Thanks, in part, to the success of those elections and the wider reform process, there are hopes that the  2015 election will be similarly credible.

The report says that the reforms have made the political environment one in which people feel reasonably free to engage with, improved media freedoms, and with the possibly of the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement in June 2015. But the report warns that it is not beyond impossible that an armed group may choose election day in November 2015 to attack the electoral process, to get the maximum publicity and to damage the government.

The report concludes that there are major concerns that there could be tensions following the result of the election in November, particularly in the four month period between the result and the transfer of power to any new administration, at a time when trust in the present government is low amongst the majority of the electorate.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) report, produced by the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, examines first hand the camps and living conditions of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, following a visit to the region in March 2015, and similarly to the ICG report, also looks at the importance of the upcoming elections.

There are concerns over the prospect of genocide against the Rohingya.

The report focuses on the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim community in Rakhine state, following on from visits to the region by representatives of the United Nations in November 2014 and early in 2015. The latter visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, found that "no independent and credible investigations" had been carried out to look at the reasons behind the violence in 2012 in Rakhine state, which resulted in the mass displacement of thousands of Rohingya Muslims.

The findings from the report show that the organisation is "deeply concerned" that there were so many preconditions for genocide in place and that urgent action was needed now to prevent genocide from occurring.

The organisation met with representatives from a range of groups in the country, including Rohingya leaders, journalists and civil society activists, all of whom suggested that the policies that continue to detrimentally affect ethnic and religious minorities in the country are still not filtering out to the wider international community.

The organisation spoke to some older Rohingya Muslims, who spoke of how decades ago they had been accepted by their neighbours, even though they were regarded as minorities, and that the levels of vitriol from extremist groups towards the Rohingya is relatively new.

Drawing together its findings, the report says there are a number warning signs of future atrocities against the Rohingya, including:

  • Physical violence and segregation;
  • Blockage of humanitarian assistance;
  • Unchecked hate speech against Rohingya and other Muslims;
  • Restrictions on movement and citizenship;
  • Two–child policy and restrictions on marriage in some areas of Rakhine state;
  • Restrictions on voting.

Like the ICG report, the USHMM report looks ahead to the upcoming election, but it goes further to suggest that because of the restrictions, and with little being done to address the violence, further mass disturbances could be sparked by the election itself. The report found after talking to a number of Rohingya that because it was unclear whether they would be able to vote in the election, they were losing even more political capital in the country.

To address some these concerns, the USHMM report recommends that the Myanmar government take a number of steps, including:

  • End all discriminatory laws and policies targeting the Rohingya;
  • Revise the 1982 Citizenship Law so that it does not exclude any ethnic group;
  • Ensure that Rohingya camps in Rakhine State have adequate humanitarian assistance;
  • Investigate attacks on Rohingya and other minority groups;
  • Partner with other governments and international agencies to monitor potential violence against Rohingya and other groups.

The USHMM also recommends the international community should:

  • Have clear benchmarks on humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya, protecting voting rights, and ensuring those responsible for anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim violence are held accountable;
  • Be prepared to introduce a new UN sanctions regime targeting funders and organisations of anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim violence;
  • Establish an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Myanmar, to report on the condition of the Rohingya.

The ICG and USHMM reports are timely in highlighting how 2015 is such an important year for Myanmar, as it continues its democratisation process. The reports expose equally how issues relating to ethnic and religious minorities, including the citizenship of the Rohingya, are vital in this process as the election approaches, and highlights what Myanmar and the international community need to do to urgently to address these concerns.

The ICG report can be read in full here, and the USHMM report can be read in full here.

This article summarises two external reports, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.


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International Crisis Group/United States Holcaust Memorial Museum