Now that a state of emergency has been lifted, Myanmar must come up with immediate solutions on local orders that oppress the state’s minority groups, writes Thulasi Wigneswaran.
While Myanmar can be praised for developments in its peace process and national reconciliation efforts, the ripple effect of these changes may not stretch far enough to reach some of the country’s most vulnerable.
This is particularly the case in Rakhine State, where minority groups, including the much-maligned Muslim Rohingya, have faced decades of human rights violations and abuses.
The announcement of the establishment of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State is therefore welcome; it will be crucial in providing a formal space to deal with the larger humanitarian and developmental issues that have long existed in the state under the pretence of national security and a ‘state of emergency’.
However, the Commission’s mandate, though still hazy, may be limited to finding ‘impartial solutions’ to the future of Rakhine State. Former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, who is set to chair the Commission, has recently confirmed that investigating human rights concerns lies outside the Commission’s mandate. What’s missing is acknowledgement that the Commission cannot act as a substitute for the need of a more immediate solution to deal with the existing local oppressive apparatus.
Compounding this, while the state of emergency was lifted in March, related issues still plague the state.
If we sift through the discriminatory legal provisions and the national security facade of the state of emergency we find obscure policies existing at a local level in Rakhine State that inform these larger issues.
Discriminatory policies targeting the Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minority populations need to be addressed on a shorter timeframe than the Commission’s mandate allows. But the solution to the problem cannot be solely contained to a local context; it’s also heavily reliant on the spectrum of responses from the international community.
A few hours before leaving office, former President Thein Sein lifted the state of emergency on Rakhine State that he originally imposed after an outbreak of communal violence in June 2012 between Rakhine and Rohingya communities.
The four-year state of emergency period saw human rights violations, peace and security instability, and damage to human lives. But looking under the surface of this national security pretence, it is clear to see that the systemic root of these issues lies within local orders imposed predominantly in northern Rakhine state. It’s important to note that local orders continue to be enforced.
These local orders are a set of discriminatory policies and directives issued by local authorities often said to be used to target the Rohingya population. Though some have been in place since the mid-1990s, the orders were enforced more strictly after the 2012 violence.
Local orders prescribe broad powers to authorities to enforce selective restrictions on movement, marriage, childbirth and on the freedom of movement of the Rohingya population. Restriction on the freedom of movement can in turn impede on access to education, health care and other basic services.
Plainly, these amount to violations of freedom of movement, the rights to marry and to found a family, and the rights of the child under international law, to name a few. Under these punishable offences, the Rohingya population will be increasingly segregated on the ground, hindering the country’s national reconciliation process. If pursued, the abolishment of such local orders will inform long term solutions to larger issues such as the arbitrary deprivation of nationality.
In finding a way forward, national security considerations should not be downplayed. Undertaking national security risk assessments prior to developing solutions to human rights issues such as the freedom of movement is imperative.
Ongoing conflict in the country means a chance of re-escalated violence if all restrictions on movement are lifted. At the same time, national security cannot act as validation to veil the repetitive violations of basic human rights. For that reason, a balance between national security and human rights considerations should be sought when moulding proportional and non-discriminatory solutions.
The international community should capitalise on Myanmar’s democratic transition to engage with the country on this contentious and thorny issue. Neither the announcement of the Commission nor the lift of the state of emergency should hinder the UN and civil society to engage in continued advocacy on immediate solutions for the Rakhine State situation.
And though successful in some contexts, state-on-state engagement with Myanmar doesn’t necessarily need to be adversarial. States can take the reins here by providing the Tatmadaw apolitical professional military human rights education with a national security angle.
There’s no sense in undermining the National League for Democracy’s decision to establish the commission. Of course questions regarding the Commission’s inclusive minority representation and a clearer mandate should be addressed by the Government. Nevertheless, it is a commendable move and clearly aligns with other national reconciliation efforts.
However, the Commission is only due to submit its findings and proposed measures to the Government of Myanmar in the second half of 2017. This is far too long a delay in tackling these local discriminatory practices; especially considering it remains unclear whether the Commission will provide solutions to such issues. Worse still, nationalists are contributing to this delay after attempting to argue that the appointment of three international experts, including Kofi Annan, will undermine the country’s sovereignty.
These fears may prove to not only be unfounded but unhelpful.
Kofi Annan has repeatedly dwelled on the lessons learned by the international community’s mistakes when it comes to the mistreatment of minorities. Most importantly, he is well placed to voice the need for immediate solutions in Rakhine State and avoid the protracted struggle of the country’s most vulnerable.
Thulasi Wigneswaran is an Australian national who holds a Masters in Human Rights Law and Policy from the University of New South Wales. She currently works as a Research Intern with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.