Defiant in the Face of Oppression
While the upcoming elections are consuming much of the collective consciousness of people in Myanmar, for ethnic and religious minorities living in internally displaced person (IDP) camps, conflict areas and those suffering economic hardship due to COVID-19, their lives are dominated by the immediate concerns of ensuring they have enough food, water, adequate shelter and physical security. These hardships are inextricably linked to the Myanmar government’s failures to secure peace and their discriminationatory policies and practices towards ethnic and religious minorities. Additionally, basic human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, assembly, movement and association are being suppressed by Myanmar’s military and government, often against those who are raising their voices in opposition to the prolonged humanitarian crisis and human rights violations.
In Rakhine State, over 130,000 Rohingya continue to live in horrendous and oppressive IDP camps amounting to apartheid-like conditions, unable to leave due to discriminatory restrictions on movement and deprived of basic access to food, sanitation, education, healthcare and livelihood opportunities. Ongoing conflict is exacerbating the dire humanitarian situation in Rakhine State, which has resulted in more than two hundred civilians being killed by conflict since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Last week, on 20 October, shelling killed a 9-year-old boy, a 21-year-old teacher and injured others in operations conducted by the Myanmar military. This comes after two young boys were killed earlier this month during crossfire between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. These are in breach of Myanmar’s international legal obligations to protect children during armed conflict under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which Myanmar is a signatory. Furthermore, indiscriminate targeting of civilians is a violation of international humanitarian law, which is another hallmark of the Myanmar military’s offences against ethnic communities, to demoralize them into submission.
Meanwhile, civilians in Shan State are also experiencing attacks by the Myanmar military. According to the Shan Human Rights Foundation, waves of large-scale ground and air offences conducted by the Myanmar military against the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army since late September, sweeping through villages and shelling indiscriminately, and causing 4,500 villagers in the south Kyaukme Township to be displaced from their homes. During this series of attacks, there have been reports of looting and destruction of property and livestock, torture, disappearances and arbitrary arrests. The Union Election Commission has subsequently cancelled voting in this region, disenfranchising Shan communities and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, which won seats in this region at the previous election. While many IDPs have been able to return home to harvest their crops, safety and security in the region remains tenuous with Myanmar military nearby and undetonated artillery shells being found near villager’s homes.
Bringing attention to these grave human rights violations in Myanmar has always come at a price. Recent activism in reaction to conflict has been met with a government crackdown and a string of arrests against protests across the country. In September, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) began to organize demonstrations and poster campaigns in Yangon, Meikhtila, Mandalay, Monywa, Hsiphaw, Loikaw and Pyay, in solidarity with Rakhine students who held a protest against the Myanmar government for waging war and continuing the internet restrictions in Rakhine State. On 19 October, around 100 people marched from Atulamarazin Pagoda to central Sittwe, demanding an end to ongoing conflict and mass displacement. Four student protesters were charged and remanded in custody under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code in relation to this protest. In response to the arrest of the students, Sittwe University Students Union chairperson Ko Toe Toe Aung said, “We are just reflecting people’s suffering. People have the right to criticize the government. Every free democracy guarantees this right.” This is after Soe Hla Naing and Kyaw Thiha Ye Kyaw, members of the ABFSU, were handed down a total of seven years and two months imprisonment across four township courts (Maha Aung Myay, Aung Myay Thar Zan, Chan Aye Thar Zan and Amarapura) under the Penal Code but are yet to face charges under the Peace Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and the Natural Disaster Management Law for distributing anti-war flyers and stickers. Criminalizing protesters in this instance is a contravention of the right to peaceful protest, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and protected under international human rights laws and standards. A further 13 members of the ABFSU were charged and some homes raided in September for protesting at Mandalay’s Zay Cho market. In a joint statement, 183 civil society organizations demanded the immediate release of the protesters and pointed at the hypocrisy of the government’s actions, given that the election campaign public gatherings continue without such reprisals.
The Myanmar government is intrinsically failing in its international human rights obligations, especially in respect to children, women and ethnic and religious minorities. Additionally, there is a mounting suppression campaign of fundamental rights, with a harsh double standard against those defiantly protesting the horrifying impacts of conflict in Rakhine State and the resulting humanitarian disaster. The Myanmar government should learn from its history, that until underlying and entrenched discrimination of ethnic and religious minorities is addressed, defiance in the face of this oppression will continue and no genuine peace can be brokered, nor will the lives of those living in Rahkine and other ethnic states improve.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By 197 Civil Society Organizations
By 197 Civil Society Organizations
By Arakan National Council
By Fortify Rights
By Human Rights Watch
By Shan Human Rights Foundation
By UNICEF Myanmar
By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, Amnesty International and Athan
By Transnational Institute
By Transnational Institute
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”