Democratization Only for the Bamar

As many know, starting in 2011, Myanmar began its democratization process. Since then many sanctions have been lifted and the country has seen improvements in social and economic development (albeit slower than anticipated). However, much of this improvement has only been realized for the Bamar majority, especially those living in the southern region of the country, because the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) has recently sparked violent conflicts against ethnic groups in the outer regions of the country.

As a step towards democratization, the then ruling military regime created the 2008 constitution. In the constitution, 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military, and it requires 75 percent of the legislature vote to make any change to the constitution. Thus, this ensures that the constitution cannot be amended without the approval of the military. In the 2015 elections, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide victory, but the NLD has no control over the military branch of government (Tatmadaw). In fact, the commander-in-chief (highest military official) has powers that can override the president and can even take over the government in times of emergency. Thus, the military still wields tremendous power in the country.

To further complicate the democratization process, civil wars have been ongoing in Myanmar, especially after British colonization when the British solidified otherwise murky ethnic identities. After colonization ended in 1948, the government took on policies of Burmanization (Burma nationalism) making things like teaching ethnic languages and cultures in schools illegal and discouraging people from wearing ethnic clothing, celebrating local holidays, and practicing non-Buddhist religions. Many people believed the election of the NLD would allow more freedoms for ethnic groups, but it seems that there has been a rise of Burmanization and Buddhist extremism since the NLD took office. And more importantly, government violence has escalated against ethnic minorities, notably against the Rohingya, Kachin, Karen, Palaung, and Shan people.

The violence against the Rohingya, an Muslim minority in Rakhine State, causing over 700,000 people to flee Myanmar has been highlighted in local and international news. The most recent, of the decades long, conflict ignited when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 military police posts. The Burmese military responded with unnecessary force and began a “clearance operation” resulting in the killing and raping of Rohingya, burning of villages, and thousands of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar. [1] International organizations have been outraged and the UN has described the military’s actions as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” [2] Meanwhile, the NLD has not addressed the international accusations and does not denounce the military’s actions, which makes them at least implicit in the atrocities being committed against the Rohingya.[3]

The violence of the military against innocent civilians does not stop there. In northern Kachin State, there has been renewed violence between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). [4] Both sides have committed airborne and heavy artillery attacks making in extremely unsafe for residents living in villages in the region. The UN has expressed concern over the civilian causalities and hardships caused by the violence. Over 4,000 civilians have fled their villages to seek refuge in non-violent areas, with many going to Catholic Churches. [3] [4]

Correspondingly, starting on March 4, 2018, the Tatmadaw deployed troops to Kayin State controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army, which led to conflict breaking a ceasefire agreement from 2012. Since then, there have been bombings causing about 2,000 Karen people from five villages to flee to the jungle for safety. The Tatmadaw claims that it went to Kayin State so that it could repair an old road, but people are skeptical of their true intentions. [5]

In recent months, the Tatmadaw began bombing remote villages in Northern Shan State clashing with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, an armed wing of the Palaung National Liberation Front. The fighting has caused over 1,200 civilians to flee their home villages to other townships. [6]

Clearly, the Tatmadaw has been active in its use of violence against ethnic groups in the outer regions of Myanmar. These violent actions against its own citizens and residents cannot be tolerated in a government that is trying to become a democracy. The NLD has remained largely silent on these military acts and neglects the power to take legal action against the military. Ethnic groups cannot reap benefits from democratization when they live in constant fear of military violence and the possibility of having to flee their homes for safety. The unity of Myanmar cannot come under the umbrella of Burmanization, and while the history and conflicts in the country are complex, peace needs to be a priority in this democratization process. The future of the country’s government remains unclear, but the failure of the NLD to ensure peace for its civilians and residents is stark.

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