For much of this past week, Myanmar’s collective attention has been fixated on the resounding election victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the rebuke by the people against the Myanmar military. Also capturing people’s attention is the post-election statement by the Myanmar military to continue peace talks with ethnic armed organizations by unveiling the formally established permanent five member Peace Talks Committee and the NLD’s intentions to work with ethnic political parties. Yet, while these developments may be promising to observers, they have not moved the needle one bit for ethnic communities who continue to face unrelenting decades-long conflict and squalid living conditions, such as in Rakhine State, where persistent conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) continues without concerted efforts by the government to alleviate the communities’ suffering and hardship. At its core, they are wholly unwilling and unable to bring about the end of conflict, testament to this are the spate of attacks over the past week.
On 2 November leading up to the day of the elections, the Myanmar military rounded up 100 villagers from Zaichaung Village, Rakhine State, held them hostage at a school and interrogated them for 10 days about links to the AA. This was after the Myanmar military entered Zaichaung Village and shot and wounded a woman, prompting 700 villagers to flee for safety. In another similar incident, over 500 villagers in Rambree and Sane Townships fled to the safety of nearby monasteries after the Myanmar military raided their villages, arresting residents in the process. On 10 November, six villagers, including two children were injured from heavy artillery shelling over Shaukkon Village, the second attack in two months in this village. The incident caused an influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to seek refuge at an IDP camp in Kan Htaung Gyi Township, which is in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Ko Aung Win Myint, a camp official said in an interview with Development Media Group, “With the arrival of more displaced people, camp officials are facing many difficulties to feed the IDPs. There is no medicine for the IDPs.”
These cases are indicative of the Myanmar military’s tactic to target civilians, which has spiked in recent months. A local civil society organization, Burma Monitor, reports that in the nearly two years of conflict between the AA and the Myanmar military (1 January 2019 – 31 October 2020), 247,442 people have become victims of the armed conflict, including 244,968 internally displaced, 313 killed (51 of which were children) and 1,491 arrests. Shockingly, within all regions of Myanmar, the UN reports that 100 children were killed or maimed in the first three months of 2020 due to conflict. None of these grave acts of violence are being pursued with accountability measures or any kind of justice domestically, mirroring decades of institutionalized impunity.
While the elections have concluded, many still remain unrepresented due to conflict and insecurity, including 1.2 million voters in Rakhine State. The AA issued a statement urging the government to hold by-elections for the cancelled elections in Rakhine State before the end of the year through a nationwide ceasefire facilitated by the NLD with the Myanmar military. The Myanmar military welcomed this statement by the AA , in a rare sign of agreement between the warring parties. Election laws give the Union Election Commission the mandate and timetable for by-elections to be held but a ceasefire and voter safety must be a prerequisite for by-elections to be held. Nevertheless, in their totality, these elections cannot be considered free and fair given the deliberate exclusion of ethnic communities, including the mass disenfranchisement of Rohingya from voting and standing for election. While by-elections may take place in due time, the most pressing issue remains the overwhelming need to provide people with their basic human rights, including the right to life, access to healthcare, food, water, housing, sanitation and protection against COVID-19.
Following the landslide victory of the 2020 elections, the NLD sent an open letter to 48 ethnic parties calling on them to join in partnership to build a federal democracy and a ‘national unity government’. While it is a promising sign the NLD has made overtures to work with ethnic communities, their track record and the stagnation of the Panglong Peace Conference does not demonstrate actions that reflect these intentions, as genuine peace has not been brokered and the self-determination of ethnic communities is persistently denied and suppressed through discriminatory laws, policies and practices within Myanmar’s Bamar-majority dominated political culture. With the Panglong Agreement at the dawn of Independence in 1947, ethnic nationalities were promised an equal seat at the table as equal partners in nation-building for a federal union.
The NLD must deliver on these overdue promises but before these issues can be broached, urgent humanitarian support must be delivered and a genuine nationwide ceasefire must be declared by the newly-elected government. The Myanmar government needs to fully recognize its duty as a signatory under the Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC), the CRC’s Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, obligations under the UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and international humanitarian law to protect children and women during conflict. Further, the NLD-led government has a duty to protect civilians from being targets of conflict and to provide them with much needed humanitarian assistance under the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and UN Security Council Resolution 1674 on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. To ensure this is achieved, the international community must make concerted effort to pursue a much tougher stance in their engagement with the NLD-led government, and fervently support international criminal accountability mechanisms to bring perpetrators of international crimes to justice. Five more years must not pass before such strides are made.
 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 16 Humanitarian Agencies
By Amnesty International
By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
By Burma Campaign UK
By Burma Campaign UK
By Carter Center
By Fortify Rights
By Fortify Rights
By Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, United Kingdom
By Justice For Myanmar
By Justice For Myanmar
By Carter Center
By Free Burma Rangers
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.”