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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 12, New Delhi, March 6, 2021

The Impact of Democratization on the Rohingya Issue in Myanmar: (2011-2021) | Nazia Khan

Friday 5 March 2021


by Nazia Khan *


Myanmar emerged as the promising state in the twentieth-century as it not only released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest but ushered into political and economic reforms. The adoption of the 2008 Constitution and political and economic reforms brought an end to the military junta rule. The end of the military -junta rule has not ended the influence of the military within the government. While Myanmar is transitioning into a democracy, it is also facing multifaceted challenges on the human rights front. The increased attack and exodus of Rohingyas post-2012 by extremist Rakhine Buddhists and subsequently by the Tatmadaw after the attack by ARSA has been described as the textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ by United Nations. This study seeks to analyze the transformation of Myanmar into a democracy. It will compare the role played by the government of USDP and NLD in dealing with the Rohingya issue. And how has democratization impacted the Rohingya? It argues that change in the government has not brought any major policy changes concerning the Rohingya issue. Moreover, two governments were controlling Myanmar, one is NLD and the other Tatmadaw. This has further complicated the issue and the military ended up carrying out a coup and seizing the power on 1 February 2021 citing election fraud.

Keywords: Aung San Suu Kyi, Democratization, Rohingya issue, Tatmadaw, Religious Extremism.


The issue of Rohingya became complex with the coup by the military in 1962. The 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize them as a citizen stripping them of their basic human rights. This paper reflects on the issue of Rohingya post-democratic transition. It examines the steps taken by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the successive National League for Democracy (NLD) party in dealing with the increased violence and attack on the ethnic community. The scope of the paper covers the issue till the NLD government rule which came to an end in January 2021 as the military carried out a coup on 1 February 2021. NLD gained a landslide victory winning 396 out of 498 contested seats. [1] The coup which was carried under commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing citing election fraud has not only drawn strong international criticism but the citizens are also protesting against it within Myanmar.

In Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims are considered Bengali immigrants and are excluded from citizenship. The 1982 Citizenship Law recognizes 135 ethnic minorities depriving others of their rights of freedom of expression, movement, and marriage. The Myanmar state also refuses to recognize the term ‘Rohingya’ and does not consider them an ethnic community of Myanmar. The issue of Rohingya came into international attention post-2012. Though the anti-Muslim sentiment can be attributed to the pre-colonial policy of bringing the labor from India. The Indophobia of Burmese has over the years transformed into Islamophobia. The clash between extremist Rakhine Buddhists in 2012 and 2017 Army’s retaliation in response to an attack by ARSA has led to a mass exodus of the community to the neighboring countries especially Bangladesh. This was criticized by the United Nations and the Gambia has also filed the case in the International Court of Justice against Myanmar citing genocide of Rohingyas.

 Both the state and the religious extremist group have built a narrative that Rohingyas are not part of Myanmar. The role of the state is more entrenched as they have from time to time for their benefit played politics with the Rohingyas. The 1982 Citizenship Law excluded them from the rights of a citizen rendering them stateless. The history of Rohingyas is complicated as they even wanted to join East Pakistan in 1948, and had been involved in insurgency with the government post-independence. This has made the issue of Rohingya more complicated and is considered a threat to Buddhists. The international politics and the attack on Buddha in Bamiyan have added to this threat.

The monks who cannot take part in politics have always played a major role in protesting against the military junta rule. They have not only protested against the harsh economic condition during military rule but also supported the Democracy movement. However, a section of monks since 2012 have supported religious extremism in the name of protection of Buddhism and race. The Rohingyas who have been excluded due to the state policies from citizenship are also facing anti-Muslim hate spread by the religious extremist organizations. The famous Ashin Wirathu was named ‘Buddhist Bin Laden’ by Time magazine who is the face of the 969 Movement.

To understand the situation of Rohingya today, we need to understand the demography of the Rakhine state. It is a state which has over the years from being an independent kingdom, colonized under British rule, and then came under Bamar —dominated military rule. The Rakhine state is situated on the western coast of Myanmar, bordered by Magway Region, Bago Region, and Ayeyawady Region in the east, Bay of Bengal to the West, Chin state in the north, and Chittagong Division of Bangladesh to the northwest. It is separated from central Burma by Mountain Yoma. There are three stakeholders in the Rakhine state: The Rohingyas, The Rakhine Buddhist, and the Bamar Buddhist.

According to the 2014 census, Seekins (2020) state Rakhine Buddhists constituted 56.2 percent of the population and Muslims, including Rohingya, and a small population of Kaman constitutes 41.8 percent. The state has its version of the history of the Rakhine region and it considers that as the absolute truth. According to it, Rohingyas are Bengali immigrants who are a threat to Buddhism. The Rakhine Buddhists of the Rakhine region, on the other hand, have been put in a dilemma between Islamization and Burmanization, in the process of which their own identity is under threat. The Rakhine Buddhists fear the rise of the population of Rohingya Muslims, “as the minority group occupies approximately ninety percent of the northern Rakhine State.” (Blomquist, 2016: 17). Also, the region is underdeveloped and the interest of China and India in the region has raised hopes for the Rakhine Buddhists. For them, Rohingya are a threat to their domination in the region.

The Rohingyas have been under attack not only by religious extremist organizations like the 969 Movement but also by the state and military. The rise of religious extremism happened many years ago, but it became worst in the period between 2012 and 2019. [2] It is an ugly form of religious extremism which is being used by the military for its political ends and agenda. The military-drafted constitution of 2008 constitution lacks rule of law. The military is above and over any law in Myanmar. The injustice and corruption done by them go unaccounted for. There is a lack of independent judiciary and it is ineffective in dispensing its duties. The fundamental liberties stated in the constitution are mere on paper. Therefore, there is still a need to strengthen democratic institutions.

Francis Buchanan, who documented the various community living in Myanmar in the eighteenth-century has identified one of the dialects spoken by Mohammedans, who were “settled in Arakan and called themselves Rooinga or natives of Arakan (Wade, 2017:65).” U Nu as well had not only identified Rohingyas vocally but they were even part of parliament and ministries in the post-independent Myanmar. “the Rohingya could be organized politically, the government-sanctioned the Rohingya Students Association at Rangoon University and the group had its own thrice-weekly Rohingya —language radio broadcast” (Wade,2017:66).

Rohingya who is not considered to an ethnic group of Myanmar enjoyed political rights in the democratic period just before the 1962 coup. They had their right to vote and even members elected in the Burmese parliament including parliamentary secretaries and government ministers. While in the 1950s there were Rohingyas who were Member of Parliament and various other ministerial positions U Nu, the first Prime Minister of independent Burma in 1954 with radio audience said:

The people living in Maungdaw and Buthidaung regions are our nationals, our brethren. They are called Rohingyas. They are one of the same par in the status of nationality with  Kachin, Kyah, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan. They are one of the ethnic races of   Burma (Haque, 2017:466)

The language of Rohingya was also recognized and broadcasted in the Burma Broadcasting Service’s radio station before the coup. After the military coup, the situation of Rohingyas worsened. In the election of 1990, Rohingyas were not only allowed to vote but two parties contested elections. Since 2008,” the military government allowed Rohingyas to use their temporary residence cards to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and then again in the 2010 elections” (Fink, 2018:263). The White card issued to the Rohingyas was not a document of citizenship but a temporary legal status of residence was issued to let them cast vote. It was purely a political move by the military to increase the vote share of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Till 2014 the Rohingya were given the right to vote. However, the protest from religious extremists like Ma Ba Tha resulted in the withdrawal of the voting rights and white cards for Rohingya.

Military-Junta rule (1962-2011)

Under the democratic rule from 1948 to 1962 under U Nu Buddhism was important but it was military which made it an essential feature of a true Burmese and used it to form the basis for nation-building. The military government introduced the National Security Act in 1964 and they banned all the Rohingya organizations. Rohingyas were denied citizenship from 1966 to the 1980s.In 1989, the Union of Burma was renamed Union of Myanmar by the military junta. They had only one motto which is reflected in the Independence movement slogan: Amyo, Batha, Thathana which stands for race, religion/language, and Sasana (the Buddha’s dispensation and teachings).

U Nu, the democratically elected leader from 1948-1962, initially wanted to establish democracy based on Western principles in the country. However, the institutions within Burma were not strong enough to adapt these western principles as the majority of citizens faced harsh economic conditions. Later U Nu promoted ‘Buddhist nationalism’ as he saw in Buddhism to unite the majority into a nation. In his tenure he was challenged by the monks on the various policies like when he allowed religious books of all faith to be taught in state government schools, monks protested against this and he had to take back the rule. He even tried to bring monks under control by setting up the Buddha Sasana Council in 1950 to implement policies of the government in matters of religion, but monks opposed it. “Sangha is an only civil institution with a wide network of monks and donors” (2016:36) and it helps in building legitimacy for the policies of the government if the state has good relations with it.

Under Prime Minister U Nu, maintaining the democratic principles Rohingya nationality was considered equal to that of Rakhine, Karen, Mon, Kachin, and Shan. They were even recognized as ‘Rohingya’ in the 1961 census. It was in 1962 that major changes took place in the name of forming a single united country. “After 1962, the military junta in effect created a new logic whereby only Burman Buddhists could be loyal citizens (and if not ethnically Burmese then it was even more essential that they were Buddhists)” (Ibrahim,2016:17). The Rohingya did not fit either of the two categories. They also followed a different religion, had different skin colors, and spoke a different language.

According to Ne Win diversity is a source of dividing the nation and cause of violence which will never lead to the realization of pure Myanmar. The assimilation of the community by replacing ethnic minority languages with Bamar languages, placing the Buddhist community in the region dominated by a non-Buddhist community of those Muslims and Christians, and even carrying out conversion to Buddhism was done. The failure of the ‘Burmese Road to socialism’ by General Ne Win made the country economically weaker. The military-imposed sanctions had cut the nation from the outside world.

In the Rakhine region, a major demographic change was done during the military rule. There was a perception that because of the weak border area of the Rakhine region many Bengalis have immigrated since independence. To reverse this Buddhists inmate from jails were shifted to Rakhine region, access to higher education to Rohingyas were denied and they were even not allowed to repair or construct mosques and madrasas. The military saw Rohingya as a threat that wants to spread Islam in Myanmar and so from 1982, they were not recognized as an ethnic group and many of their rights such as marriage and movement were taken away from them. Na Ta La village (a model village in which Buddhist prisoners are settled in Northern Rakhine) was established in the Rakhine region to balance the Buddhists and Muslims. Many “Buddhist settlers from different townships and from out of the country” (Wade, 2017: 71) were settled to not make it a Bengali-Muslim-dominated area. By changing the demography and controlling the region the military wanted to strengthen their power in the area.

The exodus of Rohingya from Burma/Myanmar can be categorized into three phases. The first in 1978, second in 1991-92, and third between 2012 and 2017. In 1978 ‘Operation Nagamin’or Operation Dragon King was carried out by Tatmadaw under Ne Win rule. The operation Naga Min identified illegal residents in the problematic region of northern Rakhine. This led to marginalization, displacement, and mass persecution of the Rohingya community who were arrested on arbitrary grounds, raped and their villages destroyed and nearly 2,00,000 fled the country. The second exodus in 1991 took place under ‘Operation Pyi Thaya’ or Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation in which approximately 2,50,000 Rohingya fled the nation. The third phase of the exodus was initiated in 2012 attack by the Rakhine Buddhist Groups against Rohingya and in 2017 the army retaliation against the attack by ARSA has led to the exodus of nearly 1 million refugees. The two exoduses took under the military regime and the third which started in 2012 was under the quasi-civilian government of Thein Sein.

Democratization Era

Till 2008, Myanmar was under military junta rule and even though the democratic transition is taking place, the military has reserved 25 percent of seats for the serving officers in the parliament. The Union Solidarity Development Party led by President U Thein Sein in 2011 was the first government of the new Myanmar. Since 2015 there four major national parties which are Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) led by the military, National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, National Unity Party, and National Democratic Force. The Rakhine Nationalities Development Party was formed in 2010 to put forth the demands of Rakhine Buddhists. The USDP ruled from 2011 to 2015 and since 2015 NLD has taken over the power.

The military rule (1962-2011) uses the mistrust between the religious groups to divert attention from their failures. According to Fink (2018: 266), the military has contributed to the rise and reach of the religious extremist group like Ma Ba Tha (Organization for the protection of Race and Religion) by:

1. “The regional chief ministers were asked to build a patron-client relation with the organization in their region. Their monasteries were given assistance and the military and their close aids donated generously to them.

2. In 2015 USDP-dominated parliament passed the law of four race and religions which was drafted by the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion. The laws regulate religious conversion and marriage between people of different religions, institute jail sentences for those who have more than one spouse and allow for population-control measures in areas where government officials see fit. Through this law, Muslims were to come under target.

3. During the lead-up to the 2015 election, several monks affiliated with the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion endorsed the USDP, contending that only the USDP could be counted on to protect the future of Buddhism in the country”.

In the intergroup violence which took place between Buddhists and Muslims in the Rakhine region of Myanmar in 2012. The Muslims were mostly shifted to the displacement camps that emerged after the conflict. The areas like Aung Mingalar and Bumay in the Sittwe region which was not razed, police checkpoints were placed so that the Muslims did not leave from there. The violence of 2012 was the first wave that took place once Myanmar transitioned to democracy.

After 2012 violence, the Na Ta La project was revived. Since 2012 violence against Rohingyas has increased and they have been singlehandedly being targeted and their movement and life being contained to a point they will altogether leave the country. There are 86 checkpoints deployed by 2016 and vehicles are inspected as Rohingyas are considered a security threat. In July 2012, President Thein Sein stated that the illegal Rohingyas threatened the stability of the Rakhine state. He further stated that Rohingyas could be settled in UNHCR refugee camps or could be sent to a different country if that country was willing to take them. The President’s statement reinforced Myanmar’s majority groups’ belief that the Rohingyas do not belong in Myanmar. In the 2014 census held under President Thein Sein, Rohingyas were not recognized as citizens of Myanmar. And in 2015 parliament had granted the right to vote to temporary white card holders, most of them comprised of Rohingyas. But later, President reversed the decision not to offend the majority of Bamar citizens.

Since 2012 the violence against Rohingyas has been carried out by religious extremist groups like the 969 Movement and Ma Ba Tha. The trigger to violence against Rohingya is considered rape and murder of Buddhist women Ma Thida Htwe in May. The images of the violated body were circulated which saw violence against Rohingyas. However, this cannot be considered as the sole reason behind the targeting of Rohingyas as the state has institutionalized the exclusion of the community by denying them citizenship. “The 2012 riot in Rakhine was portrayed by the Myanmar government as spontaneous ethnic violence, but observers argued that the violence was well planned by the security forces, border patrol, and government” (Stoakes, 2015).

The reports on violence that have occurred since 2012 show that the military was working along with the Rakhine Buddhist in targeting the Rohingya. Rakhine Nationalities Development Party had requested United Nations that Rohingya should be deported to a third country. Before 2012 the student activists, monks, and Aung San Suu Kyi were bounded by a common opposition which was the military. After 2012, the Rohingya have become a threat to the nation and Buddhism.

Ma Ba Tha enjoyed patronage under the Thein Sein government and the race and religious law introduced by them was even passed by the parliament. In 2013 the violence which took place in Rakhine state saw no attempt from the Thein Sein government to curb it. “The President’s office released a statement in June 2013, three months after Meikhtila, that lauded 969 as a symbol of peace,’ and its spiritual figurehead, U Wirathu, as a ‘son of Buddha”.

 In 2015 the migration of Rohingyas through the Bay of Bengal to Thailand and Malaysia was stopped. Later Indonesia, Filipino, Malaysia, Thai, and the U.S. government decided to take a humanitarian approach toward the issue. After 2015, authorities of Myanmar have ensured that Rohingyas cannot flee through the sea route and so the feasible option for migration from Rakhine State is then through Bangladesh.

Myanmar is known by Suu Kyi and her long peaceful struggle for democracy. The term democracy stands for certain rules, laws, and institutions which can be guaranteed to the citizens. The transition to democracy in Myanmar has come with an ideology of establishing a Bamar majoritarian state. The National League for Democracy has been silent on the violence and attacks on the Rohingya. Aung Suu Kyi has often sided either with the military or argued that both needed to be blamed for the violence. She has even refused to recognize the term “Rohingya” and instead uses Bengali for them. As a leader who has been awarded a Nobel peace prize, she failed to acknowledge the restrictions, atrocities, and violence inflicted on the community. Suu Kyi, herself elite Bamar was under house arrest for decades by the military junta. She has been vocal for democracy in Myanmar, but when it comes to the issue of Rohingyas she doesn’t want to go against the military or the majority Bamar population.

Like the earlier military government and Bamar Buddhist nationalists, she also does not recognize Rohingya as ethnic minorities of Myanmar. The Nobel Peace Prize winner does not even recognize the genocide like situation of Myanmar in the Rakhine region, she has consistently avoided answering question related to persecution of Rohingyas. The military regime in Myanmar and also Aung San Suu Kyi has maintained that Rohingya are not part of Myanmar and they are ‘Bengali’ who should belong to Bangladesh. As the support for Aung San Suu Kyi led NLD comes majorly from Bamar Buddhist in an ethnically complex Myanmar, she does not want to go against the sentiments of the majority. She is criticized by a Ashin Wirathu for advocating Muslim rights. She also had a legal adviser U Ko Ni, who was assassinated in January 2017 in daytime outside Yangon International Airport. U Ko Ni was a Muslim and guided her on legal matters and with regard to reform in 2008 constitution of Myanmar.

Suu Kyi has been actively setting “up a series of committees and commissions to address priority areas, from land disputes to environmental and economic reforms, and announced general policies to address an array of economic and political problems” (Thawnghmung and Robinson, 2017: 238). She portrayed herself as the torch bearer of democracy in Myanmar after coming to power and took a very pragmatic approach towards it. In April 2016 NLD-led government restarted the ‘citizenship verification processes in Rakhine state. Suu Kyi even set up an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by UN Secretary-General Kofu Annan in 2016. The report did not use the term ‘Rohingya’ or ‘Bengali’, instead referred to them as ‘Muslim community in Rakhine’ as directed by the government of Myanmar. The report submitted its recommendation in August 2017 and suggested addressing the issue of poverty of the region, review the 1982 Citizenship Law and address the human rights of Rohingyas. Post this an Advisory Board for the “Committee for the Recommendation on Rakhine State’ in September 2017 with local, regional, and international experts and experienced individuals. However, two of its members Kobask Chutikul, a retired ambassador and former member of Thailand’s parliament and secretary of the panel [3] who resigned citing little progress made by the committee. Earlier U.S. politician Bill Richardson had left stating the committee is a “whitewash” and “cheerleading operation” for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi had also promulgated the establishment of Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Development in Rakhine (UEHRD). It is a public-private based committee whose chairperson is Aung San Suu Kyi, “the vice-chair is the Minister for Social Welfare, and the Chief Coordinator of the UEHRD is Myanmar university professor Aung Tun Thet. The UEHRD is intended to coordinate and implement humanitarian, resettlement, and development activities in Rakhine state” (Callahan, 2017: 248). On September 16, 2020, the military also accepted to investigate the “possible wider patterns of violation” [4] committed before and after 2017 was with an intent of genocide as stated by United Nations.

In 2017, the government of Myanmar and Bangladesh had signed a bilateral agreement for the repatriation of Rohingyas. [5] However, the process has been very slow, and under criticism as the Myanmar government was asking for Nation Verification Card from the returning Rohingyas. While Rohingyas have been reluctant as they are concerned for their safety after experiencing the violence and Myanmar has failed to provide them with a safe return. Those Rohingyas who are residing in Myanmar do not enjoy any social or political rights. Abdul Rasheed who is among a very Rohingya aspiring to contest election in 2020 was rejected by the officials for the failure to prove that his father had citizenship of Myanmar. His father was a civil servant in Myanmar but he is being accused of having foreign roots.

U Win Htein former MP from Meiktila Township from National League for Democracy considered that “we have thousands of problems, and Muslim problems are one of a thousand. We will deal with each problem according to the priority we choose (Wade, 2017: 168).” This statement gives the overall position of NLD in terms of religious violence and attacks taking place against Muslims. Aung San Suu Kyi and the party want to take a very diplomatic approach without infuriating the military or the majority Bamar population. The Rohingya issue is an internal matter and nothing more than that. The genocide of a population and infringement of the right of Rohingya is not something which NLD wants to address because they have just made it to power. The party also faced difficulty when it came to power in 2016 as most of the important portfolios such as Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs were under the control of the military.

For NLD Ma Ba Tha is not only an organization posing and propagating threat and violence towards Muslims, they have also campaigned against the party. In a conference organized for monks before the election in June 2015, U Bhaddamta Vimala, a member and prominent monk in Ma Ba Tha said, “Do not look at the party. We only need to care about who will take care of our religion, who will care about the development of our community” (Wade, 2017:70). They considered the army as the protector of Buddhism. Aung San Suu Kyi is walking a tight rope, with a military share of 25 percent in the parliament, its hold over key departments, and its support to religious extremist groups for the support of race and religion in Myanmar. Tackling the religious extremist groups which work along with the military and leave no make derogatory remarks on her makes her decision-making power difficult. And so, she has chosen a safe side of supporting the military and its activities. This reflects that she is interested in maintaining her status quo.

NLD had even opposed four laws (Protection of Race and Religion Laws) introduced in the Parliament in December 2014 as proposed and promoted by Ma Ba Tha. The influence that Ma Ba Tha gained was beyond NLD’s understanding. One of the information officers Htin lin Oo, under the party was not only threatened but eventually sent to jail for two years prison term with hard labor. He had given a speech in 2014 regarding the rise of violent nationalism which is being used along with Buddhism. Anyone questioning the state and Buddhism was immediately termed as a threat to the nation and religion. Generally, nobody and most importantly the politician will not want to be caught in such a situation.

However, a shift in the state patronage to the group can be seen since 2016, when NLD came to power. The State Sangha Mahanayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na) which is a state institution looking after the Buddhist monastic has reduced its support to the group by questioning its formal registration in 2016 and then in May 2017 the group asked to remove its signboards across the country because of its procedural shortcomings. This reflects that there is a change in the stand of the government of NLD regarding MaBaTha group.

Even after six years of violence, 128,000 Rohingya and Kaman have been segregated and their movement, access to the house, food, health, education, and jobs have been taken away. They are confined in the camps and not allowed to return to their original place of inhabitation. The government has done little to resolve the issue rather they continue to consider them as immigrants and their rights taken away from them. Suu Kyi government just like the military junta government refuses to deal with the issue considering the history of Rohingyas. This has provided support to the Rakhine Buddhist extremists in targeting them. Rohingyas are not only considered as an ‘other’ or ‘threat’ to Buddhism in Myanmar, they are not considered a part of Myanmar.

The most interesting point in the whole Rohingya issue is that the intensity of violence and attacks on them has only increased since 2012. Initially, the extremist Rakhine Buddhist targeting of Rohingya led to their displacement. As the country is transitioning and there is opening up of the society and liberalization of the economy the conflict has only worsened. In 2017 in response to the attack on police border post by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the military crackdown heavily on the Rohingyas. It is reported that the military’s crackdown was already pre-meditated and pre-planned. There are reports and satellite views of Rohingyas villages being burned down and cleared. Then these areas are occupied by the military clearing of any traces of Rohingyas inhabitation. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has considered ‘the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. As the election is due in 2020, both military and civilian government is not taking any steps towards humanly addressing the issue.

Suu Kyi’s lack of leadership and righteousness in resolving the Rohingya issue is not the only result of the limited rights she enjoys under the military government but also the lack of support from the majority Buddhist population. The majority community of Myanmar had access to only the propaganda news of the military rule. They consider Rohingyas as foreigners who are a threat to Buddhism in Myanmar. Suu Kyi wants to hold on to power and be a politician rather than a torchbearer of the protector of human rights. She considers the Rohingya issue to be an internal matter of the country.

The “observers accused the government security forces of their failure to respond effectively to the outbreak of violence. They were even accused of having supported or overlooked the violence of Buddhists against Muslims” (Lieder,2007).The government census in 2014 failed in Rakhine state as very few Muslims were ready to accept the official denomination as ‘Bengalis’ instead of ‘Rohingya’. The “satellite imagery from Digital Globe indicates at least 28 villages or hamlets were destroyed in a 50km radius around Maungdaw between December and February. On some of the cleared areas, construction crews had erected new buildings and helipads.” (The Guardian, 2018). Myanmar’s parliament has also approved a $15m budget to build a fence and related projects along the Bangladesh border in Rakhine state, from which about 700,000 Rohingya have fled since August. Deputy Home Affairs Minister General Aung Soe testified on Thursday that fences covering 202km of the 293km border had already been completed.

Although Myanmar was transitioning into a democracy, the military has again taken over the government for one year and detained Aung San Suu Kyi. This is going to further weaken the democratic process and the issue of Rohingya and their repatriation will be affected.


The issue of Rohingya has gained international attention since the democratization of Myanmar. But this has not changed the stand of Aung San Suu Kyi or the military against them. Suu Kyi still supports the military and defended the case of genocide initiated by the Gambia in ICJ. She considers the issue as an internal matter of the country. She has failed the Rohingyas, even though her house arrest was a concern for the international community. It was raised in various international forums. However, she as a leader has chosen politics over righteousness. This also shows that two governments are ruling Myanmar today which leaves little choice for her to take important decisions. However, there were many hopes tied with Suu Kyi as she is the torchbearer of democracy. Any efforts toward democratization without addressing the issue of Rohingya will fail. The military has carried out a coup on 1 February 2021 and detained Aung San Kyi citing electoral fraud in the election held in November 2020 in which NLD had won. For a year now Myanmar is under military rule again. This is again going to disrupt the functioning of a democracy.


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* (Author: Nazia Khan, PhD Scholar in the Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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