From legislative issues to citizenship for Rohingyas, Suu Kyi has an uphill task in reforming Myanmar

AP Photo/Khin Maung Win
AP Photo/Khin Maung Win

By Shreerupa Mitra-Jha / Firstpost

As Myanmar’s parliament elected its first-ever civilian president, a UN expert on Myanmar said that even though there have been wide-ranging reforms since 2011 “hundreds of laws remain on the book” that do not comply with international standards and that need immediate attention.

“Hundreds of laws remain on the book that do not comply with Myanmar’s human rights obligations and some of these laws are very outdated — old laws — while others have been recently enacted,” Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, told reporters on Tuesday.

In her annual report that she presented to the Human Rights Council (HRC) on 14 March, Lee notes 30 legislations that need to be “re-looked at, amended, repealed or rescinded”.

Htin Kyaw, a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept the historic elections on 8 November, 2015, won 360 of the 652 votes cast in the two houses of parliament. This is Myanmar’s first-ever civilian president after half a century of military rule.

Suu Kyi has been barred from the post because her husband and children are British nationals.

Kyaw said after winning the elections that it is “sister Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory”.

The new government will be handed over power end of March but will start functioning effectively May onwards, given that there are many holidays in April in Myanmar.

“The transition period is way too long from the outgoing government to a new government. A new parliament came in. There is still lot of uncertainties: even (how) the structure of the government will be formed, who will be responsible for what etc.”

However, not all the seats in the Hluttaw (Myanmar’s parliament) were up for grabs. In what the generals call a “disciplined democracy”, the military-drafted constitution guarantees that unelected military representatives constitute 25 percent of the seats. Any constitutional change requires 75 percent of the votes which effectively gives the military a veto over important decisions.

Lee in her report has listed recommendations for the outgoing government, the new government in its first 100 days and targets for the government over the next year. The recommended changes include structural and legislative issues, like, lifting curfews and restrictions on freedom of movement in Rakhine State, immediately ceasing arbitrary arrests and prosecution of those exercising their rights to freedoms of assembly, association and expression and to release any remaining political prisoners.

She particularly highlighted the gross human rights violations against Muslims in the Rakhine State.

“The arrival of this government is an opportunity to break the tragic status quo situation of the Rakhine state,” Lee told reporters.

“There are more than a million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar deprived of some of their most fundamental rights. This is a million too many,” Lee added.

Under the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, only those ethnic groups who settled in Myanmar prior to 1823 AD. are given full citizenship. The Myanmar government has insisted that these are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and even disapprove of them being called ‘Rohingyas’ and prefer the term ‘Bengalis’.

“In particular, provisions that provide for the granting of citizenship on the basis of ethnicity or race, which are clearly discriminatory, should be revised,” Lee states in her report.

More than 1,00,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar since the 2012 communal violence between local Buddhists and the Rohingyas. Another estimated 1,40,000 people, majority of whom are Muslims, live in camps since 2012 meant for the internally displaced people that require them to take official permission even for moving between towns.

“There is no restriction of movement in those areas where the communities have learnt to exist together in harmony,” Maung Wai, ambassador of Myanmar to the UN in Geneva told the HRC after the presentation of Lee’s report on 14 March.

Rohingya migrants stand and sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015.  The boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days.     AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT
Rohingya migrants stand and sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. The boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants — including many young children — was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT

Last year, the “boat people” from Myanmar had grabbed international headlines when many Rohingyas died trying to flee the junta-ruled state and enter Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia and when mass graves were discovered in Thailand.

“There continues to be little progress in resolving the legal status of the more than one million Rohingya in Myanmar, including their access to citizenship,” the report states.

The UN Special Rapporteur also urged the new government to takes steps towards universal birth registration in Rakhine, “regardless of the child’s or child’s parents’ nationality, statelessness or legal status” as children have a right to be registered at birth.

“The need to address the deeply entrenched human rights issues in Rakhine State represents a significant challenge for the new government, but also a major opportunity to break from the tragic status quo,” Lee stated.

On 31 March 2015, all temporary registration cards (TRC), the main identification documents held by Rohingya as well as people of Chinese and Indian descent, expired. The military government had announced in June 2015 that those who submitted their TRCs by the deadline would be eligible for new cards called “cards for those whose nationality will be scrutinized”.

There has been low acceptance of the new cards by the affected population, mainly due to a lack of trust in the process, the report states.

However, the Myanmar delegation in Geneva said that the card gives the right to the bearer to apply for citizenship.

Also, the UN expert urged for the revision or repeal of four ‘race and religion’ laws adopted in 2015 that are particularly discriminatory towards women and minorities.

The ambassador, however, told the HRC that the changes in laws in 2015 reflects “people’s choices and people’s desires”. “None of these are contrary to our acceded treaties and international obligations,” he added.

ERC Geneva“We hope our problems are solved during the times of Aung San Suu Kyi but we are sceptic[al],” Dr. Hla Kyaw, a researcher at the European Rohingya Council (ERC)—an umbrella organisation of civil societies working on addressing rights’ violations of the community—told Firstpost.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been largely silent on the Rohingya issue.

A member of the NLD and a spokesperson for the party recently said that Rohingyas are not their priority.

“She might not have enough power to solve the Rohingya issue because the three major ministries are under the control of the military. Those ministries are directly related to the situation of the Rohingyas,” Kyaw added.

Apart from the 25 percent reservation for military officials, the three important ministries of defense, home affairs and border control, are under the military.

“All of these ministries hold key to the progress in the area of human rights,” Lee also said.

“At the same time we are hopeful – our people are surviving on hope,” Kyaw said.

Lee also urged the new government in its first 100 days in office to “publicly condemn acts of incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence against minorities, while upholding freedom of expression”.

Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu in 2015 had called the South Korean rapporteur a “whore” apart from making other derogatory remarks for highlighting the Rohingya issue, thereby drawing criticism from the international community. The monk has already spent a decade in jail for inciting anti-Muslim violence.

Recently, Wirathu put up a video on Facebook that had earlier triggered communal violence – a dramatisation of the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men. Facebook has taken down the video. However, he has threatened to put up the longer version of the same video.

“We have seen signs of these possibilities of more incitement and rallies around more violence,” Lee said.

“He [Wirathu] is threatening that there is a longer version that will be posted soon. So, here we are,” she added.

Wai also added that Myanmar was a different country than what it was four years back and that it deserves the “constructive cooperation” of the international community.

The writer is a journalist at the United Nations


THE EUROPEAN ROHINGYA COUNCIL [ERC] is an Amsterdam based European umbrella organisation in Europe.