BURMA: 2014 Ends, But Old Problematic Issues Linger On

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As 2014 comes to an end, all the woes and burdens that have been there from the previous year continue to exist and haunt us, with no appropriate way to tackle them, which could lead us out of the quagmire, resolve differences and start an earnest reconciliation-democratization process.
Let us look at list the hangover problems and speculate on what actually awaits us for the coming year.

US Campaign for Burma, in 2013, listed top 10 human rights violations, which include ethnic cleansing, extra-judicial killings, rape and sexual violence, needlessly creating IDPs and refugees, human trafficking, torture, child soldiers, forced labour, arbitrary arrests and land confiscation. The mentioned rights violations continue unabated during the whole year of 2014, as President Thein Sein – during his EU visit – made an appeal not to file human rights violations report at the UNGA. Not surprisingly, the European Union has refused to back away from plans to submit a resolution to the United Nations General Assembly on Burma’s human rights record, despite President U Thein Sein’s insistence that they are no longer needed.

Since the 1990s, multiple United Nations organs have also documented and condemned serious human rights abuses committed under the military regime. These include the UN General Assembly, the Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Council, numerous Special Rapporteurs on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar [Burma], the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (Source: Burma Link & HRW)

Accordingly, UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee, during  her speech to the UN General Assembly about Burma’s human rights situation, on 28 October 2014, warned that “there are signs of possible backtracking which, if not addressed, could undermine Myanmar’s efforts to take its rightful place as a responsible member of the international community that respects and protects human rights”.

The possible signs of backtracking report, titled “Situation of human rights in Myanmar”, under four major headings, were distributed or transmitted to the UN members, by the Secretary General, at UNGA sixty-nineth secession, on 23 September.

The gist or basic points of the UN Special Rapporteur’s observation and recommendation of the said four headings are as follows:

A. Electoral process, political participation and democratic space
In accordance with international standards, elections should be transparent, inclusive, participatory, free and fair.

B. National reconciliation and the rights of minorities
As Myanmar is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with more than 130 ethnic groups, the Special Rapporteur believes that ensuring full respect for the rights of minorities will be essential for national reconciliation and democratic transition

C. Development, economic, social and cultural rights
Land rights issues, in particular land-grabbing and land confiscation, as well as forced eviction, remain a major challenge. Cases of land-grabbing, environmental destruction and extortion have been reported throughout the country

D. Rule of law and the administration of justice
The current Constitution of Myanmar was adopted following a referendum in 2008. Its adoption was widely criticized for being fundamentally flawed, in terms of both substance and process. Current attempts at constitutional reform present opportunities to address some of these criticisms. It is notable that one of the key priorities reportedly identified from various consultation exercises on this issue was a change to the currently onerous procedure for amending the Constitution

Article 436 provides for the manner in which proposed amendments to the Constitution are to be approved. One study has pointed out that no other constitution in the world has an amendment procedure that requires the approval of more than 75 per cent of the members of both parliamentary chambers or allows for the military to have veto power over constitutional amendments

The report concluding note also writes:
Myanmar is undergoing an important transition, and the far-reaching reforms have dramatically transformed the political, economic, social and human rights landscape in the three years since the establishment of the new Government. This must be recognized and commended. Yet, there are signs of possible backtracking, which, if not addressed, could undermine Myanmar’s efforts to take its rightful place as a member of the international community that respects and protects human rights. Thus, human rights should be fully mainstreamed into Myanmar’s institutional, legal and policy framework, and a culture of respect of human rights must be engendered among all State institutions and the public at large.

Since the problems facing Burma are numerous, let us take stock only on major issues and how far has the Thein Sein, USDP-Military regime has resolved the corresponding issues.

The most five crucial issues that have been troubling the reform process are the ongoing ethnic conflict, constitutional amendment, land confiscation and Monywa copper mine, sectarian violence and the related 969 movement.

Ethnic Conflict
Even though almost all Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) have signed state-level or union-level ceasefire agreements, with the exception of Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/KIA), Taang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the armed clashes continue to occur at an alarming rate, which in normal circumstances would have tagged the ongoing peace process as a totally shattered undertaking.

During the ten-month period,  between November 2013 and August 2014, Tatmadaw troops clashed at least 122 times with ethnic armed groups in Kachin and Shan States, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Shan State Army-North (SSAN), the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). (Source: Altsean – BURMA: SLIDING BACKWARDS FROM REFORM – September 18, 2014 )

Armed clashes documented by Myanmar Peace Monitor in September is said to be 18, in October 31, and in November 20, totaling 69 times armed clashes for the said three months period.

Thus the whole year armed clash count, if one added the available figures, would amount to 191 times in total.

On top of this, according to Altsean documentation, in November 2014, the Tatmadaw followed through with their October threat to resume attacks in Kachin State. On 19 November, Tatmadaw troops from LIBs 389 and 390 launched an artillery attack on a Kachin military academy adjacent to an IDP camp in Laiza, the Kachin Independence Army’s (KIA) headquarters in Momauk Township, Kachin State. The attack killed at least one civilian and 23 cadets from various ethnic armed groups, and injured 20 cadets.

On 20 November, Kachin State Border Security Minister Col Than Aung explained that the attack was “unintentional” but also meant to “send a warning” to the KIA. The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) said the attack posed a “serious obstacle” to the peace process, while the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) said it was “deliberate” and proved that the peace process was “dead.”  ( Source: Altsean – November 2014)

Apart from the patchy and fragile peace talks between the regime and the ethnic armed groups, the Burma Army insists that the ethnic groups accept and abide by the 2008 constitution, which directly write off the ethnic groups’ demand for a federal union and a federal army.

The backtracking of Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UPWC), in September 2014 peace talks, on federal union and federal army issues discussion at a later phase of political dialogue, agreed in August 2014, combined with the Laiza Cadet School attack in November 2014, have been the last straw, completely halting the peace process to a stand still.

Constitutional Amendment
According to Altsean documentation of 18 September 2014, efforts to reform the constitution have yielded no results to date. On 31 January, following five months of deliberation, a 109-member parliamentary constitutional review committee submitted its report on constitutional reform. Despite receiving 28,247 suggestions, the committee’s report failed to propose any substantial changes to contested articles, including Articles 109 and 141, which reserve 25% of seats for military MPs; and Article 436, which requires an approval of more than 75% of the Parliament for constitutional amendments. The committee also retained the clause granting immunity to military personnel who commit crimes while carrying out their duties.

On 3 February, the National Parliament approved the formation of a new 31-member parliamentary committee tasked with reviewing the compilation of suggested amendments of the previous 109-member committee. On 10 June, the committee voted to retain, by a vote of 26-5, Article 59(f), which bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president. The 31-member committee is expected to deliver its recommendations to Parliament during the current legislative session, which began on 11 September.

The 14 August 2014 report of DVB wrote that the National League for Democracy (NLD) and 88 Generation Peace and Open Society (88GPOS), on 12 August 2014, handed over a petition to parliament with nearly five million signatures calling for an amendment to Article 436 of the Burmese Constitution.

NLD and 88GPOS members conducted a campaign launched at the end of May and concluded on 19 July 2014, in more than 300 townships across the country, had collected 4,953,093 signatures. NLD said the petition represented not only its supporters but people from all sectors.

However, the House speaker and as well, the commander-in-chief rejected the outcome as not important in influencing the constitutional amendment procedure.

The speaker said at a press conference on 18 November 2014 that a national referendum would be held in May 2015 to approve possible changes, but they would not be put to a vote in parliament until after the general election, which is expected in November or December 2015. (Source: Myanmar Times – 19 November 2014)

By the look of it, it is now becoming quite clear that the constitutional amendment is hardly possible within the parliament for the Commander-in-Chief has time and again rejected to amend it and openly stated that federal union and federal union army formation are not on his agenda. And with the military veto votes, there is no way that this could be pulled through within the parliament.

Land confiscation and Monywa copper mine
According to Altsean documentation, since President Thein Sein took office in 2011, the regime has allowed unbridled land confiscation for infrastructure, commercial and military development projects. The 2008 constitution identifies the state as being the ultimate owner of all land in Burma. Antiquated laws such as the 1894 Land Acquisition Act give the regime the right to take over any land, making local people extremely vulnerable to forced displacement without any recourse to remedy.

Given that an estimated 70% of the population depend on small- and medium-scale agriculture for their livelihoods, land confiscation has had a devastating impact.

President Thein Sein has continued down the path set by the military regime’s January 2011 Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Law, designed to attract foreign investment. SEZ developments in Burma have been directly linked to land confiscation. Currently, there are three major multi-billion dollar SEZ development projects underway: Tavoy in Tenasserim Division, which has been temporarily suspended, Kyaukpyu in Arakan State, and Thilawa in Rangoon Division’s Thanlyin Township.

Other large scale projects including the Kyaukpyu-Kunming oil and gas dual pipeline, the Myitsone dam project, and the Monywa copper mine have been at the forefront of land confiscation controversies mainly due to the scale and intensity of violence and human rights abuses against residents and activists. (Source: LAND CONFISCATION IN BURMA: A THREAT TO LOCAL COMMUNITIES & RESPONSIBLE INVESTMENT – Altsean- updated 5 May 2014)

Of all the land confiscation debacles, Monywa or better known as Letpadaung copper mine issue stands out as the most problematic one, due to the stark resistance from the inhabitants of the area and merciless crack down of the government police forces, resulting in death and wounded.

The Irrawaddy reported of 29 December 2014 that on 22 December 2014,, Wanbao began fencing in disputed land, leading to clashes between police and locals that resulted in the death of 56-year-old Khin Win. Several others involved in the protest were also injured.

According to the same report, the mining project in Sagaing Division—a joint venture between China’s Wanbao and the Burmese military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd (UMEHL)—was suspended in November 2012 after a brutal police crackdown on protesters that saw scores, including monks, injured.

Following the incident, operations at the mine were suspended and a commission was formed to investigate the project. Suu Kyi was assigned to chair the commission, which filed a report in early 2013 with a list of conditions that it recommended be met before resuming the project. The controversial venture resumed operations in October 2013.

In 2013 and 2014, police continued to violently repress protests and charge, detain, and jail activists protesting against the Monywa copper mine. Villagers have been sentenced to hard labor for resisting eviction. On 25 April 2013, police in Sete Village, Salingyi Township, Sagaing Division, fired shots and used batons to disperse farmers who were plowing land to protest against the Monywa copper mine. At least seven villagers were injured in the crackdown.  (Source: LAND CONFISCATION IN BURMA: A THREAT TO LOCAL COMMUNITIES & RESPONSIBLE INVESTMENT – updated May 5, 2014)

However, the controversial project move ahead, without transparency and the approval for the EIA [environmental impact assessment] and the HIA [health impact assessment], as required by the commission; with failure of the mining company and the authorities to think about providing long-term assurances for the livelihoods of farmers who lost the land which they have worked on for generation; and despite the refusal of some farmers to accept compensation. (Source: Irrawaddy – October 14, 2013)

Sectarian Violence
The 2012 sectarian violence between the Arakanese and the Rohingya Muslims, as they liked to be addressed, is a product of differing historical concept from different perspective of the two groups. While the Arakanese and as well, successive Burmese regimes, are convinced that the Muslims are mere illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, the Rohingyas consider themselves as one of the Burma’s minorities, which have been inhabiting Arakan State for hundreds of years.

In June 2012, deadly sectarian violence erupted in western Burma’s Arakan State between ethnic Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims (as well as non-Rohingya Muslims). The violence broke out after reports circulated that on May 28 an Arakan woman was raped and killed in the town of Ramri allegedly by three Muslim men. Details of the crime were circulated locally in an incendiary pamphlet, and on June 3, a large group of Arakan villagers in Toungop stopped a bus and brutally killed 10 Muslims on board. (Source: HRW – The Government Could Have Stopped This – 2012)

According to The Inquiry Commission on the Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State: Executive Summary, Final Report of 23 April 2013, the 2012 sectarian conflicts led to the 192 deaths, 265 injured, and the destruction of 8,614 houses, turning an estimated 100,000 into internally displaced people (IDPs).

Since then sectarian violence has spread to other parts of Burma like, Meiktila, Okkan, Lashio, Kanbalu and Thandwe, coinciding with the rise of the Buddhist 969 Movement led by nationalist monk U Wirathu. Many believe the 969 Movement has been responsible for inciting violence against Muslims in Burma, according to Wikipedia.

These anti-Muslim riots, outside the Arakan State, have produced a death count of more than 44, while making hundreds homeless, due to the torching of homes, mainly owned by Muslims, according to various media reports.

According to Altsean documentation, (S)ince inter-communal violence erupted in Arakan State in June 2012, outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence have continued across Burma, including attacks on Rohingya. Two major instances were:

9-13 January: Buddhist Rakhine and local police killed at least 48 Muslim Rohingya men, women, and children in Du Chee Yar Tan Village, Maungdaw Township, Arakan State. Then-UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma Tomás Ojea Quintana said that the regime’s subsequent probe failed to adequately investigate the killings.

1-4 July: Extremist Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim shops, homes, and other buildings in Mandalay Division, killing two and injuring 14, after extremist Buddhist monk U Wirathu shared a post on Facebook that falsely accused two Muslim teashop owners in Mandalay of raping a Buddhist woman. Riot police on the scene failed to stop the targeting of Muslims.

Regime authorities have failed to adequately respond to instances of hate speech and inter-communal violence, or take effective measures to protect Rohingya and other Muslims, thereby perpetuating an environment that fosters such behavior. In July, Minority Rights Group International ranked Burma 8th on a list of the world’s most dangerous nations for minorities, noting that hate speech was on the rise and that hate crimes against Rohingya had reached the scale of “mass atrocities.” It linked U Wirathu and the ‘969’ movement to violence and a “coordinated anti-Muslim campaign.” (Source: Altsean – BURMA: SLIDING BACKWARDS FROM REFORM – September 18, 2014 )

The said report emphasized that  anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya violence and hate speech has intensified, with security forces involved in many instances. Furthermore, the census – taken between 30 March and 10 April 2014 – excluded those identified as Rohingya. Those who gave in and identified as ‘Bengali’ are now being subjected to an oppressive ‘citizenship assessment’ process that may lead to deportation or lifelong internment in camps.

Meanwhile, AFP in its report on 30 December 2014 wrote that the UN General Assembly, on 29 December 2014, adopted a resolution urging Myanmar to grant citizenship to its Rohingya Muslim minority and grant them equal access to services.

The non-binding measure was adopted by consensus in the 193-nation assembly, a month after it was approved by the assembly’s rights committee.

The resolution expresses “serious concern” over the plight of the Rohingya in Rakhine state, where 140,000 people live in squalid camps after violence erupted between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. Under a controversial government-backed plan, the Rohingya would be forced to identify themselves as Bengali — a term seen as disparaging — in order to apply for citizenship. Those who refuse would be forced to live in camps.

969 Movement
According to Nathan G. Thompson, the 969 Movement portrays itself as a peaceful, grassroots movement dedicated to “promoting and protecting religion.” The underlying theme of their rhetoric is the view that Islam is threatening to “overrun” Burma, and that Buddhists must stand up and “save” their way of life.

While the origins of the 969 Movement aren’t terribly clear, Wirathu’s release from prison in January 2012 and subsequent activism clearly escalated the group’s presence and efforts. Beginning in April 2012, boycotts of Muslim owned businesses have spread across the nation, and sympathetic lawmakers started introducing legislation sponsored by the movement. More recently, Buddhist shop owners have begun displaying 969 logos in their windows, and some also use their businesses as a place to publically air the speeches of Wirathu and others in the movement. And along the way, Buddhists have committed numerous acts of violence and murder against Muslims, actions that Wirathu and other movement leaders deny supporting, but clearly are an outgrowth of the anti-Muslim atmosphere they have inspired. (Source: The 969 Movement and Burmese Anti-Muslim Nationalism in Context, Posted by: Nathan G. Thompson Posted date: July 16, 2013)

In an interview with The Irrawaddy, on 29 March 2013, Wirathu explained the 969 symbol as follows:

The first 9 stands for the 9 attributes of the Lord Buddha, second number 6 for the 6 attributes of the Buddhist teachings, and the third 9 stands for the 9 attributes of Sanghas (Monks). So they stand for the attributes of three Treasures of Buddhism – The Lord Buddha, his teachings and the monk. Like the other symbols of Buddhism such as “Buddhan Saranan”, “Arahan” or “Dhamma Sekya”, this “969” is also just a Buddhist symbol.

According to 27 June 2013, Reuters report, examination traces 969’s origins to an official in the dictatorship that once ran Burma, and which is the direct predecessor of today’s reformist government. The report said that 969 movement now enjoys support from senior government officials, establishment monks and even some members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma’s minister of religious affairs, U San Sint, a former lieutenant general in the Burma army is also an admirer.

The report further pointed out that President Thein Sein’s benign view of 969, declining to comment on the controversial issue. But in response to growing controversy over the movement, it issued a statement, saying 969 “is just a symbol of peace” and Wirathu is “a son of Lord Buddha.”

The sectarian violence reached prominence in June 2012 when more than 200 people were killed and around 100,000 were displaced. According to the Human Rights Watch report, the Burmese government and local authorities played a key role in the forcible displacement of more than 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims in the region. The report further specifies the coordinated attacks of October 2012 that were carried out in different cities by Burmese officials, community leaders and Buddhist monks to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population. The violence of Meiktila, Lashio (2013) and Mandalay (2014) are the latest Buddhist violence in Burma. (Source:Wikipedia – Buddhism and violence)

Regarding the bills of ‘National Race and Religion Protection’, the government makes it quite clear on where it stands on the issue. Altsean documentation writes:

In 2014, the regime has continued to pursue an antiMuslim agenda. In February, President Thein Sein expedited a package of four discriminatory bills to Parliament aimed at restricting the rights of Muslims. The bills, which make up the ‘National Race and Religion Protection’ package, are: the Religious Conversion Bill; the Interfaith Marriage Bill; the Population Control Bill; and the Monogamy Bill.

In May, the regime published a draft of the Religious Conversion Bill. Drafts of the other three bills are yet to be published. In July, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma Yanghee Lee said the bills were “incompatible with international human rights standards.”

In addition, in March, the National Assembly approved a bill amending the Political Parties Registration Law, removing the right of temporary ID holders (which include many Rohingya) to form political parties.

Religious Conversion Bill The Religious Conversion Bill will require anyone wishing to convert to another religion to submit a detailed application giving reasons for conversion, then submit to an interview by four members of a township registration board, who will make a decision in 90 days.66 Anyone found guilty of violating the law will be subject to a maximum of two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 kyat (US$200).

Interfaith Marriage Bill Although not officially published, the Interfaith Marriage Bill would require women to seek permission from the state before marrying outside their faith. The initial draft proposed by the extremist Buddhist Organization for the Protection of National Race and Religion (OPNRR) stipulated that Muslim men who married Buddhist women would be required to convert to Buddhism, and that violators could face up to 10 years in prison.

Population Control Bill The Population Control Bill is anticipated to apply on a national level for all Muslims and other religious minorities, effectively extending the existing Rohingya two-child policy currently being implemented in Arakan State. The bills target the Muslim population, but will consequently affect other religious minorities. (Source: Altsean – BURMA: SLIDING BACKWARDS FROM REFORM – September 18, 2014 )

According to RFA report on 3 December 2014, President Thein Sein approved a controversial religion and family planning draft law on Wednesday and submitted it to parliament amid renewed criticism from rights advocates who say it discriminates against Muslims and women in the conservative, predominantly Buddhist country.

Lawmakers will debate the legislation, which imposes restrictions on interfaith marriages, religious conversions, and birth rates, in the next parliamentary session, according to reports.

The proposed bill was promoted by the newly-formed extremist Buddhist Organization for the Protection of National Race and Religion (OPNRR), headed by monk U Tilawaka Biwuntha, a supporter of extremist Buddhist monk U Wirathu’s ‘969’ movement.

2014 Wrap Up And Reminder
As outlined by the  UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee, Burma would have to tackle first and foremost, on how to go about with the upcoming election to be free, fair, transparent and all-inclusive; achieving national reconciliation; managing development, economic, social and cultural rights; and accommodating constitutional amendment to uphold the rule of law and the administration of justice.

As mentioned from the outset, while ethnic conflict, constitutional amendment, land confiscation, and sectarian violence issues are linked and equally important to resolve all the numerous woes surrounding the country, the controversial 969 movement could derail and even become a deciding factor, on how the country’s future would be moulded or look like.

There is no denying that the love for one’s race, ethnic or nationality and religion has to be cherished, but it doesn’t mean that one has to destroy or get rid of the others faith or commit gross human rights violations.

In an article titled “Buddhism in Myanmar: Extremism Galore”, dated 17 August 2014, it writes:

Fundamentalism can be found in any religion: Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam… you name it! But in every religion, the majority of the followers are always against fundamentalism.

More importantly, on the practical front, the radical monks serve as handy allies for the pseudo-civilian government of Myanmar. Therefore, even Aung San Suu Kyi, so well-known for her pro-liberty credentials, has chosen to be a mute spectator.

The actions of the fundamentalists is causing great tension and turmoil in Myanmar (not to mention the fact that it is putting the lives and property of the Rohingya people at stake). If Myanmar actually intends to progress towards true democracy and prosperity, it will have to eliminate the terror groups like the Mabatha and the 969 Movement, and attempt to safeguard the interests of its religious minorities. True development seems impossible as long as terrorists are dominating the Burmese politics and society.

The greatest angst that Burma’s movers, shakers and stakeholders should have or  keep in mind is the possible, viral, growth of Buddhist fundamentalism or religious intolerance, which would be able to dictate the outcome of 2015 election, by threatening not to vote for the parties that don’t toe their line of Buddhist extremism. With its extensive monastic education network and grass roots support, the 969 movement could be in a position to influence the electoral outcome. And if the fundamentalist political point of view would prevail and could dominate the parliament, we could all say good-bye to the peace process, all-inclusiveness, democracy and a genuine federal form of government.

Hopefully, all those concerned with the well-being of Burma, including the silent majority, would do everything in 2015, to limit the damage already done and fend off extremism of all aspects, so that harmonious co-habitation and reconciliation could return to this devastated and deeply divided society.

NOTE: This compilation and assessment won’t be possible without the use of materials from Altsean various documentation, UN  Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee’s statement/report, Human Rights Watch, The Irrawaddy and many other news outlet.

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