Genocide and democracy cannot coexist. How did the Rohingya Muslims become one of the largest stateless populations in the world? The answer is intertwined with the struggles with democracy in their home country. The Rohingya Muslims are an ethnic Muslim group in the southeastern Asian country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), which explicitly denied them citizenship in 1982. According to the UN, the Rohingya are the most persecuted minority in the world. As Rohingya Muslims get displaced further and further from their home, Myanmar moves further and further from being a democracy. These are two separate issues, yet they should each be addressed together. Democratic institutions in Myanmar would benefit the whole country, and move it towards being a more inclusive one for its ethnic minorities as well. However, as long as the genocide of the Rohingya people continues, the country has no hope of moving toward democracy again.
The language of this topic is controversial for English speakers- in 1989, the country changed its name from “Burma” to “Myanmar.” This name change only affects English speakers, as both names stem from the same word in Burmese. This name change is recognized by some, but not all. The UN refers to the country as Myanmar. The US and the UK do not, and still refer to it as Burma. However, Burma is the name the British colonizers gave the state. The fear of taking on the new name stems from not wanting to validate the military dictatorship which created it. For the purposes of this blog post, the language used will be congruent to that of the UN, using “Myanmar.”
Myanmar’s affair with democracy began in 1988, 40 years after becoming independent. A series of pro-democracy protests in this year led to the founding of the National League for Democracy (NLD) by Aung San Suu Kyi. She is a figure loved by the citizens but hated by the military: she got put on house arrest for years due to her involvement in the protests and the NLD. Eventually, Aung San Suu Kyi won the title of State Counsellor in 2015 by popular vote. The military had issues with her throughout her time in power, and they ended up arresting her and taking back control of the government on February 1, 2021. Any work that Suu Kyi did to protect minorities and democratic values was almost immediately overturned by Military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.
While Myanmar struggles internally with democracy, its external struggles in the international community are just as difficult. A country actively committing genocide is not well perceived. Many major governments such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and even the European Union have imposed harsh sanctions on Myanmar for their actions. China previously was hesitant but has since spoken out against Myanmar.
While the democratic backsliding and the genocide are separate events occurring in Myanmar at the same time, both of them have similar causes, and thus have similar paths to a solution. This is easier said than done. Ending a military dictatorship is impossibly hard, but must be done for the well-being of the country. According to democratic-erosion.com, “disinformation, repressive media freedoms, weak rule of law, and failure to address ground conflicts specifically the Rohingya crisis are looming threats to the fragile democracy of Myanmar.”
The country needs to regain democratic leadership if it hopes to ever be in good standing with the international community. This can be done with assistance from the international community, and hopefully can occur without great human cost. Myanmar needs to revoke or amend the 1982 Citizenship Law, which states that “Nationals such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine or Shan and ethnic groups as have settled in any of the territories included within the State as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1185 B.E., 1823 A.D. are Burma citizens,” followed by “The Council of State may decide whether any ethnic group is national or not.” This clause specifically allows the government to recognize the Rohingya as illegal immigrants instead of indigenous citizens. Finally, Myanmar needs to create a path to peace for Rohingya as they return in the future from seeking asylum, including quelling anti-Muslim sentiments, providing safe and protected passage back to their homes, and programs to help them get back on their feet. It needs to be acknowledged that democracy does not work for all countries and is not inherently a catch-all solution. A poorly implemented democracy can be more harmful than a well-implemented autocracy. However, in the specific case of Myanmar, democracy was popular while it was available. Suu Kyi won every election by large margins, with promises to implement democratic reforms and include minorities. Myanmar has the chance to knock out two birds with one stone with radical democratic reforms. In the specific case of Myanmar, democracy is their best option, should they be able to achieve it.