Burma’s democracy is on a military leash

Published: March 19, 2016

I remember meeting few children from the refugee camps. I can never forget how they frantically snatched away the bags with some snacks from me. PHOTO: ANAM GILL

The refugee crisis isn’t new and as long as there are wars, insurgencies, ethnic cleansing in the name of religion, cast or creed, this will surely not end anytime soon.

The world has been watching millions of refugees pouring in from Syria for shelter. There have been mass coverage and debates in the media regarding the influx of refugees on European soil. Some politicians are giving speeches on how the refugees can be a threat and a burden. It is true that while some countries opened their doors, there were some hesitant in letting any refugees in, and yes, there were some who wanted to shout out loud,

“Refugees go home!”

A few weeks ago, I was in Mae La Oon refugee camp at Mae Sot, a city close to the Myanmar (Burma), Thailand border. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to enter the main refugee camp as I was unaware that you needed prior permission from the UNHCR.

Mae La Oon hosts 10,693 refugees (UNHCR-2015) out of a total of 109,035 from Myanmar (Burma). According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), out of those many refugees, there were 2987 assisted departures in 2015 with most of the refugees taking shelter in the United States of America.

I remember meeting a few children from the refugee camps. I can never forget how frantically they snatched the bags of snacks from me. I was astonished to see how those camps were located away from the city with limited access to the outside world. It is true that no one chooses to be a refugee, and I am quite sure none of these people thought they would end up as refugees, or on ration books recording how much food they were eating.

With the current elections in Burma, people are hoping to see a positive change. In Mae Sot, I had an interesting conversation with Mr Malik who had been teaching in Burma for 33 years and had to leave his country to save his life as a Rohingya. His eyes glimmered with hope when he praised Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her courage. With her party, the National League for Democracy winning a landslide victory, Mr Malik was hopeful about his return home.

While Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been released to contest elections, many of her colleagues remain in detention.

So, did Burma’s military suddenly wake up one day and start believing in democracy?

Surely not.

Many nations in the past, just to get away with a few things, have played the same game; giving an appearance of democracy to the constitution that ultimately gives them absolute power. In Burma, the quasi-democracy was staged to end sanctions and the pariah status of the country. This transition was never about a transfer of power – the military is never going to give up its perks as the privileged class.

For decades Burma’s military wielded absolute power, morphing into a system on its own. They have separate schools and hospitals for their own families. They also operate many factories and businesses, some of which are the biggest in Burma, like Myanmar Brewery, as well as dominate the extractive industries like oil, gas and mining which are the major source of foreign exchange. The military controls the key government ministries; defence, home affairs and border affairs. The constitution that gives the military power to exercise full control can’t be amended either which means that 25% of all legislative seats go to serving military officers, who all vote as a bloc and with 75% needed to amend the constitution, it would be impossible without the Army Commander’s blessings.

Existing alongside the big issue of democratisation is the issue of ethnic aspirations and human rights. There are dozens of ethnolinguistic minorities in Burma – the Shan, Karen, Arakanese, Karenni, Mon, Chin, and Kachin and Rohingya people, all clamouring for decentralisation, autonomy and ethnic rights for decades.

The 1982 citizenship law made ethnic Rohingyas, and many other ethnic groups, stateless in their own homeland. They can’t visit other villages or pursue higher education. They’re also required to get permission from the government in order to get married. They weren’t even allowed to participate in the 2015 general elections. The military’s heavy handed response, which entails widespread abuses of every right imaginable, has made the situation worse and the demands of federalism and ethnic rights are a non-starter.

The nationalist fear of disintegration and foreign intervention has generated a high level of xenophobia among the military. In the past, Burma has suffered a substantial number of foreign invasions such as the Anglo Burmese wars (19th century) and CIA backed Chinese nationalist occupation of North-East Burma (1950-61).

With this backdrop, and the reigning abusive military, Burma’s democracy is on a leash. The United Nations, European Union, ASEAN and others need to open their eyes and listen to what the Burmese people have to say, for them it is literally a matter of life and death.

The current state of ‘democracy’ is another nail in the coffin. The moment of celebration hasn’t come yet. This is a moment of silence.

All Photos: Anam Gill

Anam Gill

Anam Gill

The writer is a social activist and journalist from Lahore. She is the founder of Dialogue Café, a creative space bringing people together to interact and engage in debates. Her writings have appeared in several renowned Pakistani and international news outlets, including Dawn, Express Tribune and Deutsche Welle.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.