Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Future Democracy in Myanmar: The oppressed Minority

Speech at International Conference organized by UTM Johor.
26 January 2015

First of all let me begin by thanking the organizers for inviting me to deliver a speech at this international conference on “The Future Democracy in Myanmar: The Oppressed Minority”. The title has aptly described the present situation of Myanmar. With regards to this, we can take three approaches; first: take a hard position and be very critical and confrontational without contributing to any solution or suggestion, second: middle way, by assessing the problem objectively and suggest solution constructively and finally take a soft route that ignores the entire conflict and presume as if it does not exist. I strongly believe that we should address the conflict and crisis in Myanmar by taking the middle route or moderate and strategically plan a suitable approach towards a solution. 

At this period of time, Myanmar is transforming itself from a totalitarian military junta to be what is hoped 'a democracy'. This opening up of a window of democracy has gained Myanmar regional and international acceptance. She hosted ASEAN and East Asia Summits. She is no longer an outcast. This is what Myanmar wanted.

It reminded me what Abraham Lincoln said about democracy. He defined democracy as: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Accepted that, Democracy is by far the most challenging form of government - both for politicians and for the people. The so-called "democracies" in classical antiquity (Athens and Rome) represent precursors of modern democracies. Like modern democracy, it was introduced as a reaction or as a check and balance to the concentration power and to prevent abuse by the rulers or those closely associated to them. Yet the modern democracy was not formulated until the Age of Enlightenment (17th/18th centuries), when philosophers defined the essential elements of democracy: separation of powers, basic civil rights / human rights, religious liberty and separation of church and state. 

Today after the end of the cold war, the majority of democratic countries in the world are adopting parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchies like in Europe (the United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg and the Scandinavian countries) have set clear limits on the duties and competences of the monarch. 

In addressing the theme of the conference today, let us look at the theories which are very much closely related to Myanmar. I like to begin by defining authoritarian and totalitarian regimes which cloak itself in democratic clothes. The totalitarian regimes are managed by a few group of leaders and elites on the basis of an ideology, that claims legitimacy in all aspects of life of the country. In the case of communism and far left socialism they even reject religion. The regime does not tolerate or allow any deviation from the state ideology. Regime opponents are persecuted, detained and members of ethnic minorities undergo all kind of oppression including genocide. Examples of totalitarian regimes include: Germany under Hitler, 1933-1945 and Soviet Union under Stalin. 

In contrast to totalitarian regimes, authoritarian regimes have no distinct state ideology and grant some semblance of freedom (e.g. economic and cultural) as long as their rule is not threatened. The most important goal of authoritarian regimes is the maintenance of power and the personal enrichment at the cost of the country and its people.

No one should pretend that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy can be the worst form of government that leads to exploitation except that it is better than other forms of government that have been practiced from time to time. This famous quote was attributed to the former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) which focused on the weak spot of democracy: There is no such thing as the "perfect form of government", but any other form of government produces even less desirable results than democracy. 

Since the theme of the conference includes the oppressed minority, I would also like to define who minorities are. Contemporary sociologists generally define a minority as a group of people differentiated from others in the same country by race, nationality, religion, or language who think of themselves as a differentiated group and are thought by the other as a differentiated group with at times have negative connotations. Further, they are relatively lacking in power and wealth, hence are subjected to social or political exclusion, discrimination, and many other forms of differential treatment. 

The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences explains the origin of the term “national minorities”. It is applied to various national groups who were identified with particular territories by virtue of long residence or by identify themselves within those territories. In some cases the minority groups ceased altogether to occupy their original territories and were dispersed throughout different nations of which they are now the subjects. More often they stayed in the same place but in a subordinate position, since the dominant political and economic institutions were now run mainly for the benefit of the larger national group. The latter usually enacted laws to regulate the political existence of the minorities; for instance, they might have to send their own community leaders to the national assembly instead of being able to vote individually for candidates in a national election.

Often, a minority need not be a traditional group with a long-standing group identification. It can arise as a result of changing social definitions in a process of economic or political transformation. The increasing saliency of a certain occupation, for example, can set apart the people who practice that occupation, if occupations are more or less hereditary in the society, and cause them to be considered a minority group. Language or religious variations in a society can be considered unimportant for thousands of years, but a series of political events can sharpen the religious or linguistic distinctions of the particular variation that happen to be without power in the society and are thereafter considered a minority.

A minority’s position involves exclusion or assignment to a lower status in one or more of areas of life namely: the economic, the political, the legal, and the social-associational. That is, a minority will be assigned to lower-ranking occupations or to lower-compensated positions within each occupation; it will be prevented from exercising the full political rights held by a citizen from the majority community. It will not be given equal status with the majority in the application of law or justice; or it will be partially or completely excluded from both the formal and the informal position found among the majority. Not infrequently, the minority also voluntarily excludes itself partially or completely from participation in these areas of life, partly as a means of maintaining traditional cultural identification. Accompanying the objective subordination and segregation of the minorities are usually to be found some subjective attitudes of mutual hostility, although these may sometimes be publicly denied and camouflaged. Majority-minority relations invariably involve some conflict, although this may take varied forms and operate at different levels.

There seem to be three types of attitudes of hostility or prejudice with which the dominant group regards the minority and with which the minority may attempt to counter the dominant group. The complex etiologies of each of these, which differ somewhat from society to society, cannot be analyzed here. The first is an attitude in which power is the main element: the dominant group wishes to exploit the minority for economic, political, or social purposes, or for prestige, and the minority group seeks to escape their exploitation.

While the achievement of ascendancy in terms of one or more of these values may be brutal (including enslavement of the minority), it is seldom personal, nor does it, except accidentally, result in the death of a minority person. The second attitude is ideological: the dominant group believes that it has a monopoly on the “truth” (as may the minority group also). The achievement of ascendancy by one ideological group over the other results in drastic efforts to convert the minority to the dominant group’s version of the “truth” failing that, it banishes the minority by exile or death. The third attitude is racist: the dominant group believes itself to be biologically superior to the minority group, and it stereotypes the minority in terms of negative valued characteristics. The minority may have the same attitude towards the dominant group, but since it lacks power, this would have few or no behavioral consequences.

In Myanmar, we must realize the ground reality of diverse religious, ethnic and tribal communities, who are indigenous to the land and had been living side by side for centuries. Even the Buddhist majority is not of only one ethnic background or origin. There are 135 officially recognized and 8 unrecognized ethnic communities, speaking 64 different languages and dialects.

We must admit that it has never been easy for a state to change from one form of government to another. Our friends in Myanmar are currently passing through that difficult phase of their history at this moment, from Totalitarian or Military Dictatorship moving towards democracy. As Myanmar opens up and its transformation is in its infancy, it is having its teething problems and the growing pains associated with it.

As we all know in a democratic system it is always the majority whose will prevails, and no government can afford to antagonize the majority or go against its will. Now the majority in Myanmar associate itself with Buddhism, which I believe, should be no problem. Buddhism's emphasis on the Middle way not only provides a unique guideline for ethics but has also allowed Buddhism to peacefully coexist with various differing beliefs, customs and institutions in countries where it has resided throughout its history. According to Iman Mohamed Baianonia, wassat means to be moderate, to be in the middle and to be the best. Attawassot in an Islamic sense means that the Muslim should try his best to be moderate in all of his affairs and keep away from extreme practice. It is altruism that every individual has the absolute right to believe and practice whatever religion he or she wants. 

The problem starts when one individual or a group of individuals want to impose its will on the others, then it becomes a human rights issue. Having said that, we fully understand the problems Myanmar is faced with and we (the civil society) should be ready to encourage the people and the government of Myanmar to recognize that their transition to democracy is better served by inclusiveness, equality and justice.

Unfortunately there are elements in Myanmar that want to turn that country into a purist Buddhist - Burman state. The reality of course is that there is not a single state on this planet which could be deemed as a purist state of one people or one religion.

Pursuing such goal, which all of us know is simply an impossibility not only for Myanmar but for the whole region and globe. Learning form the lessons of the past, acting in this manner has been the cause of conflicts and crisis that could be disastrous for democracy and development. This could also have spill over effects on other countries in the region. Pursuing the policy of exclusiveness in this interdependent world will definitely not be beneficial to any country or anyone.

Any agenda of making Myanmar a purist Buddhist state will result in gross violation of the basic Human Rights of ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar, the shock waves of which will be felt throughout the region and across the globe. This has also has created unnecessary international concerns and attention on Myanmar.

In this regard, several countries, the OIC and the International Community is following closely the ongoing ethnic conflict in Myanmar, and is calling for a peaceful resolution to avoid another humanitarian tragedy. Some of the minorities have been abruptly made stateless since 1982 by an executive order and since then they are living in their own country as “refugees” and having no rights to anything at all.

Imagine one morning when you wake up, you realize that you have been made stateless, your nationality has been revoked and with that your right to employment, education, healthcare and travel etc. has been forfeited overnight. What would you do? You cannot seek employment because you no longer hold a valid ID card, you cannot send your children to school, you cannot get treatment at clinics and hospitals, you cannot register your newborn, you cannot travel within or outside the country and this goes on for decades. People born in or after 1982 are in their 30s now, “Aliens in their own homeland” without any valid identification. 

The 2012 communal riots in Arakan state has resulted in displacement and segregation of entire communities apart from hundreds of people killed and properties being razed to the ground. This mass displacement of an entire population of almost 150,000 people is a ‘human tragedy’, where people from vibrant functioning communities are being plucked and pushed into camps for Internally Displaced People. The conditions in these camps are simply deplorable.

People put into these camps are not allowed to go out of the designated boundaries to search for work; therefore they are totally dependent on international NGOs for sustenance, which is always not sufficient. As a result the population is malnourished especially the children.

There are only a couple of primary schools for this huge population (being run by NGOs) where only a limited number of children can have their basic education, the much larger majority of children have no access to even basic schooling. Secondary or college education is off limits for these IDPs. 80% of this IDP population is illiterate.

Besides all, these people have no access to passports for traveling out of Myanmar. Human traffickers are taking advantage of the situation and are smuggling these people out often in overcrowded wooden vessels in life threatening and unsafe conditions across the seas. There have been credible reports of many of them perishing during the voyage.

Arriving in neighboring countries as illegal immigrants and going through detention and arrests by the authorities in the host countries is another story of hardship and humiliation faced by these destitute people. This is taking place right in our neighborhood, putting us as neighbors under some moral obligations to do something about it.

Well, as it involves the policies of a sovereign state in the region, one argument for doing nothing is non – interference. However, in the present situation we have a common interest namely to promote human rights and human security through development and share in the wellbeing of the region as propagated in the Bangkok Declaration 1967. The policy of inclusiveness is the best way forward. Approaching the issue with “Humanity” in focus may make it easy for everyone to evolve the feeling of Aseanness in the individual ASEAN countries. 

The international community has for some time expressed concern on the dire humanitarian crisis and the ongoing problems in Rakhine state faced by the Rohingyas and minorities in other parts of Myanmar. The newly revealed “Rakhine State Action Plan,” is the latest negative development in the future democracy in Myanmar. 

The very first chapter of the “Rakhine Action Plan” provided new measures for border security, militarization of the police, and the introduction of a new riot police force exclusively for Rakhine State. The fear is that these measures may cause the use of disproportionate force in the name of maintaining law and order.

Another worrying concern of the international community is a set of four new laws called ‘National Race and Religion Protection’ package that are currently going through the Myanmar National Parliament. The four bills in the package are: the Religious Conversion Bill; the Interfaith Marriage Bill; the Monogamy Bill; and the Population Control Bill. The bills are targeted at the Muslim population but will consequently affect other religious minorities.

Meanwhile, in the north of Myanmar, the war in Kachin state and northern Shan State has entered into its fourth year. Unfortunately, attacks on civilians have become a frequent occurrence in this war, with women and children bearing the worst burden of the violence of war. Sadly, peace talks that have been going on for years have not led to a reduction of hostilities. In the past five months, troops clashed with ethnic armed groups at least 88 times. Two weeks ago attacks broke out in another part of Shan state, sending tens of thousands of new refugees into China.

Many organisations and individual, myself included, have been working in Myanmar, ASEAN and the international community to help Myanmar on the road of reform. We hope that the Government in Myanmar can recognize these good intentions and not interpret it as an attempt to interfere in her internal affairs.

We would like to convince the Myanmar government and other political groups to embrace and practice inclusion, particularly of affected communities, so that peace and reform processes are durable and sustainable.

In order for us to go forward as a developed nation, we embraced inclusion in our governance and social life. We must accept diversity and sensitivities that go with it. Therefore, inclusion and tolerance, is an essential part of the way forward for the people and government of Myanmar, and indeed the rest of the ASEAN region.

Today we can sleep sheltered and safe tonight without the threat of a mob breaking down our doors or burning our homes. However, the minorities in Myanmar who also share this world with us are denied these fundamental rights, and suffer on a scale that no human must be allowed to suffer. They are no different from us except for the circumstances of their birth. They are our brothers and sisters just as those of you before me are my brothers and sisters. In these difficult moments it is our shared responsibility to reach our open hands to them.

This intolerance is not irreparable as prior to this the different communities had lived in peace and harmony. It is with patience, tolerance, kindness, love and forgiveness that we can break this cycle and restore inter-communal harmony. In the intelligence as well as diplomatic world we must be able to read the minds of the people we are negotiating with and devise our strategies accordingly.

I am of the opinion that instead of going in for confrontational arguments with the Myanmar officials at this point of time we should adopt a moderate approach, engage them in a constructive manner to build confidence and to bridge the gap.

I strongly believe that it is a delicate balance that we are searching for: we must continue to respect the principle of sovereignty and at the same time fulfill our responsibility to protect and give the help and support to those thousands who have made please to the international community.

To conclude, given the complexities of the ongoing problem in Myanmar, it is only natural that we weigh all options carefully and in a pragmatic manner to achieve the desired outcomes. We need to strategize the best approach to correct any possible negative perceptions through regular contacts and engagements. In this respect, a closer collaboration with state and non-state actors is definitely necessary. We need both “moderate” and “constructive” approaches to connect OIC, the Myanmar Government and the civil society.

Thank you.