BY JUNE CHOI
June Choi is an MA student concentrating in Energy, Resources and Environment, with a minor in International Development. She was previously at the Hopkins Nanjing Center, where she began research on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, climate and energy finance, and disaster risk mitigation. She holds a B.A. in Sociology and Asian Civilizations and Languages from Amherst College.
This is the second in a two-part piece analyzing Myanmar's punctuated trajectory to development. Read Part I here.
A Way Forward:
The combination of all three underlying factors—crony capitalism, ethnic conflict, and imbalanced foreign relations with China—ensure that the military continues to exert its influence within Myanmar, despite the NLD’s presence in Parliament. This means that the NLD’s current strategy focused on Constitutional reform while waiting for the Rohingya crisis to resolve itself can no longer be a feasible priority.
In the short-term, focusing on the safety of the Rohingya refugees is a priority. Seen as illegal Bengali immigrants in Myanmar, and treated as temporary intruders in Bangladesh, more than 866,000 total Rohingya are trapped in informal settlements, some in places deemed as “open air prisons” by Human Rights Watch. Several thousand more remain trapped in a “no-man’s land” on the border, exposed to the coming monsoon and cyclone season, which will negatively impact the rate of water-related diseases throughout the camps. Meanwhile, there are questionable plans of repatriating eligible Rohingya back to Myanmar, relocating Rohingya to an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal. Unsurprisingly, Sinohydro, a Chinese company known for constructing the Three Gorges Dam, has been contracted to build flood defense along the island’s coasts to prepare for the influx of refugees.
With the UN Special Rappoteur Yanghee Lee barred from the country since last December, and entry visas denied to members of the UN fact finding mission, it is clear that the Burmese government is unwilling to assist third-party investigation into the matter. Under such conditions, it is critical to raise global awareness of the situation, and for state leaders to exert pressure on Myanmar to cooperate with the investigation. A peace process can only start by holding the perpetrators of crime accountable for their actions, and exposing the process by which ethnic and religious persecution today is the product of decades of institutionalized discrimination.
Another area where the international leaders can exert pressure is Myanmar’s Citizenship Verification process. The Citizenship Law established in 1982 effectively bars Rohingya from proving their citizenship status, as it requires applicants to produce evidence of their ancestors’ residence in Rakhine prior to 1948. By granting no legal recognition, the state has basically absolved itself of any duties to the Rohingya. Since international refugee law is not robust enough at present to protect stateless populations, further pressure must be exerted to reform Myanmar’s citizenship verification process, and legal assistance provided to the Rohingya for gaining lawful citizenship.
“The Right to have Rights":
In the long-term, however, granting citizenship in itself will not guarantee inclusive development. As Hannah Arendt comments, citizenship is about the “right to have rights”—the mere conferring of a status will mean nothing unless the status is backed by the recognition of the basic human dignity that is conferred that status. Without this deeper recognition, further efforts towards development will be built on internal divisions, and will inevitably fail. Here are some suggestions focusing on breaking down internal divisions over the long-term:
Enforce land rights for minorities, starting with Shan, Kachin and Rakhine States:
Unfair land contracts drawn over the past two decades have become a key vehicle for the military to accrue economic gains along the borders. Myanmar must repeal the 2012 Foreign Investment law, which has allowed minority elites, Tatmadaw officials, and Chinese investors to take advantage of lax property rights. As Kenney-Lazar has shown in his study of rubber plantations in Laos, foreign capital is much less interested in employing local labor than in simply displacing them. Indiscriminate entry of foreign investment, weak enforcement of property rights and corruption contribute to persistently low returns on economic activity. To support ongoing efforts of land rights activists and prevent further land agreements that disempower minority residents, land dispute resolution mechanisms must be established at the local level and strictly enforced through an independent panel of officials with no former military associations.
Regulate the allocation of trade licenses under Ministry of Commerce:
The Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) serve as main revenue streams for the military. The number of trade licenses awarded to the UMEHL and MEC must be restricted, while increasing allocation to small and medium enterprises. As the Tatmadaw does not exercise direct control over the Ministry of Commerce, there is more room for Parliament to use the allocation of trade licenses as a tool to stimulate local economies and address the growing income inequality gap. Not higher income, but overcoming income inequality is what will allow countries to achieve and sustain stable democracies.
Increase minority representation in local administration offices:
Currently, members of the military-affiliated Bamar community occupy key leadership positions in the defense and border affairs of ethnic minority states. These elite power holders are the source of opposition to change. Adopting Peter Evans’ concept of “embedded autonomy” that emphasizes the mutual interdependence of bureaucratic capacity and social connectedness, traditional power holders can be incentivized to gradually expand the use of deliberative processes by rewarding them for taking actions on behalf of local residents.
By mandating at least half of local administration posts to be held by under-represented minorities within the province, channels of communication can be established at the local level. Increasing such interethnic networks of engagement at the communal level will lay the foundations for peaceful conflict resolution. Through such processes, ethnic peace can be re-conceptualized as an institutionalized channeling and resolution of ethnic demands and conflicts— as “an absence of violence, not as an absence of conflict.”
The plight of the Rohingya refugees is not only a violent reminder of the military’s continuing dominance within Myanmar, but also reveals the shortcomings of a global governance system that remains tied to politics at the nation-state level. To provide immediate protection for the thousands of Rohingya refugees, the international community must become involved in a way that simultaneously pressures the Myanmar government to address the long-standing barriers to inclusive development. As identified above, these barriers are related to the factors that have allowed the former military junta to consolidate its power, through crony capitalist networks, land-grabbing in ethnic minority borderlands, and dependence on foreign capital. Only by strategic targeting of these sources of military power, Myanmar will be able to break free from the vicious cycle of non-inclusive development.