Does supporting election justify exclusion of Rohingyas?
The European Union, barely three weeks before the general election in Myanmar, held a bilateral dialogue on human rights with the regime seeking re-election. Following the dialogue, a joint statement issued on October 14 by the EU and Myanmar noted that the EU reaffirmed its strong support for Myanmar's democratic transition, notably in the context of Myanmar's upcoming general election, as well as for its peace and reconciliation process and inclusive socio-economic development.
In the 393-word statement, however, not once did the term Rohingya appear, which describes the distinct identity of the ethnic minority group that has been the subject of a prolonged persecution in Myanmar since the enactment of the Citizenship law in 1982 that stripped them of their nationality. It is quite shocking as it ignores the fact that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) earlier this year in its interim order affirmed Rohingyas as a distinctive ethnic group of Myanmar and ordered that country to protect the remaining Rohingya population.
The EU's official press release only said that Myanmar and the EU discussed a wide range of human rights matters, including the situation in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States, humanitarian access and the situation of Internally Displaced Persons, accountability for alleged human rights violations, fundamental rights and freedoms, economic, labour and social rights, rights of women and human rights cooperation in multilateral fora. According to the EU release, the EU encouraged Myanmar to continue to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and took note Myanmar's efforts in the implementation of its National Strategy for the Closure of Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps. The Advisory Commission or the Kofi Anan Commission's recommendations about reconciliation and rebuilding, predates the 2017 Clearance Operation.
It is also quite intriguing that the statement does not mention anything about the long overdue repatriation of more than a million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, among them the majority, over 700,000, had to flee their homeland following a security clearance operation carried out by the Myanmar military. The United Nation's Human Rights chief likened the clearance operation with a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. The UN fact-finding mission in 2019 also concluded that killings, rapes and gang rapes, torture, forced displacement and other grave rights violations by the country's military had prompted some 700,000 Rohingyas to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh in 2017. It said hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya who remain in Myanmar may face a greater threat of genocide than ever, amid government attempts to "erase their identity and remove them from the country."
When the bilateral talks on human rights were taking place, reports were coming out from the troubled Arakan State of continuing indiscriminate attacks against civilian population including aerial bombing, arsoning and use of mines by the military in the name of tackling another alleged insurgent group, the Arakan Army. A leading rights group, the Amnesty International on October 12 called on the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, ICC. It seems that the EU is not willing to use all its tools and opportunities to press Myanmar on meaningful and visible behavioural changes. Or else, it is incomprehensible that they were not aware of those disturbing developments. It has now emerged that on the same day, UN agencies in Myanmar had expressed their "sadness" and "shock" over the killing of two boys allegedly used as human shields by security forces in the country's northern Rakhine province, earlier this month.
Another disturbing development involving the EU is that it has funded an election app in Myanmar that helps incite "racial and religious vilification" in the country by profiling candidates' ethnicity and beliefs, using derogatory terminology to designate those of Rohingya descent. The mVoter 2020 application has been developed under the EU-funded STEP Democracy Project, which claims to support "inclusive, peaceful and credible electoral processes" in Myanmar, in order to assist the democratic transition in the country. According to rights groups, however, the app, exacerbates religious tensions and contributes to the discrimination of subjugated Rohingya minorities. The app listed Rohingyas as "Bengali", a term that suggests these individuals are immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya community believe the term is applied in a derogatory context, taking into account the human rights abuses and persecutions they have been subjected to.
Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson for the rights group Justice for Myanmar said, "According to democratic values, voters should judge candidates on their merits, not based on their religion or outdated categories of 'race' which, in the case of the Rohingya, means denial of their identity." Listing Rohingya candidates as "Bengali" on the app, was allegedly the reason for the election commission to disqualify at least one candidate from taking part in the upcoming elections.
Reports from Myanmar suggest the National Democratic League (NLD) and its leader Aung San Su Kyi face very little challenge in the elections. Unless the powerful military makes any surprise moves, renewal of her government's mandate is almost certain. It is therefore, plausible that in the absence of a credible alternative, western powers are preparing themselves for a continuation of a working relationship with Su Kyi, despite all her shortcomings.
Her government's continued complicity with the military, however, brings more frustration and anguish to the victims of the atrocities and dashes their hopes for justice. Hence, president of the Burma Rohingya Organisation in UK, Tun Khin, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, calls Myanmar's democratic election a sham and warns the international community not to be fooled by it. His concerns are not unjustified.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.