Burma is in the process of transitioning from a military dictatorship into a country that engages with the rest of the world. The old Burma was characterized by the imprisonment of its Nobel Peace Prize laureate-opposition leader, rebellions of ethnic minorities, and isolation from the world stage. The new Burma is a country that allows for a genuine opposition movement, is moving toward ceasefires and peace treaties, and is making other changes necessary to take part in world affairs.
Burma achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. Shortly thereafter, it became engulfed in the world’s longest-running civil war. Ethnic minorities, who enjoyed autonomy under British rule, did not want to be ruled by the Burmans, who had traditionally oppressed them. The minority groups rebelled in bids for independence and autonomy. In addition to these ethnic rebellions, there was a military coup in 1962 in which General Ne Win seized power. Ne Win oppressed the ethnic minorities, impoverished the country with his Burmese Way to Socialism, and closed Burma to the outside world. The country went from exporting rice to lacking sufficient rice to feed its people.
In August of 1988, university students led an uprising that looked like it might topple the military junta. The military cracked down brutally. It closed universities and schools and dissidents were either killed or imprisoned. The military State Law and Order Restoration Council, later renamed the State Peace and Development Council, took control of the country.
In 1990, the military junta called for elections. Aung San Suu Kyi, now a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-democracy hero in Burma, formed a new opposition party called the National League for Democracy (NLD). Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, who founded the modern Burmese army and advocated for Burma’s independence from the United Kingdom before his assassination in 1947. The newly formed NLD won a majority of the seats in parliament. However, the military refused to recognize the election results and cracked down on the opposition, placing Suu Kyi and other members of the opposition under house arrest. Suu Kyi remained under house arrest for 15 of the following 20 years.
Burma held democratic parliamentary elections in 2012. Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, with the NLD winning 43 of 46 seats in contention. Presidential elections will be held in 2015, and Suu Kyi has expressed interest in running. However, the Burmese Constitution of 2008 requires that the president have military experience and not have any immediate family with loyalty to other countries (Burma forbids dual citizenship). These provisions, which may have been written with her in mind, prohibit Suu Kyi from running for the presidency, as she lacks military experience and her two sons are British citizens. Suu Kyi is seeking to have the constitution amended, but more than 75% of the legislature needs to approve any constitutional amendment. A quarter of the seats in both chambers of the Union Legislature are reserved for members of the military, so a constitutional amendment will need to have at least some military support to pass.
Current Burmese President Thein Sein has spoken out in favor of amending the constitution to allow Suu Kyi to run in the 2015 presidential election. He has also made significant strides toward genuine ceasefires with ethnic rebel groups and worked to establish global ties. Nonetheless, despite the current trend toward democracy and an end to the ethnic conflicts in Burma, significant problems remain. For instance, Burma has not yet joined several important United Nations treaties pertaining to human rights. Moreover, it has committed many human rights abuses since its independence. Though it is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has conscripted children into the armed forces and failed to protect the rights of ethnic minority children, including their right to receive an education in their native language. Burma is also party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, but constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law have been only loosely enforced.
The Burmese government currently recognizes 135 ethnic groups, split into 8 major ethnic races. The Burmans comprise about 2/3 of Burma’s population. The two largest minorities are the Shan (9% of Burma’s population) and the Karen (8% of Burma’s population). There are also ethnic groups present in Burma that the government does not recognize, including the Rohingya, Sino-Burmese, Anglo-Burmese, Burmese Indians, and Burmese Gurkha.
Many ethnic minorities have fled Burma seeking freedom from persecution and better economic opportunities. The Karen, Karenni, and Shan have fled primarily to Thailand. The Chin have fled mostly to Malaysia, and India in smaller numbers. The Rohingya have fled primarily to Bangladesh. These countries function as their countries of asylum.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, seeks durable solutions for refugees. The three possible solutions are (1) voluntary repatriation to the country of origin, (2) absorption into the country of asylum, and (3) third-country resettlement. Third-country resettlement is usually an option of last resort, used only when conditions for safe voluntary repatriation are note foreseeable and the country of asylum is unable to absorb the refugees.
A third-country resettlement program for Burmese refugees began in 2005. The US has accepted more than 73,000 Burmese refugees since then (most coming from Thailand, and some from Malaysia and India). Around 19,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand resettled to other countries, but resettlement from Thailand is winding down. January 24, 2014 was the last day to register for group resettlement to the US. Urban refugees in Malaysia continue to have access to the US refugee resettlement program, but politics and demographics mean that the option will not remain open forever.
Although a voluntary repatriation process is not in place at present—a little over 3% of refugees from the camps in Thailand returned to Burma last year, half as many as left for third country resettlement—it appears likely that one is inevitable. However, refugees in the Thai camps have expressed fear and reluctance at the prospect of returning to Burma. Conditions in Burma are improving, but many areas are still unsafe and lack even the basic amenities found in the refugee camps.
The Thai government appears eager to close the camps. When the resettlement program began, around 150,000 refugees were in the camps in Thailand. Despite the resettlement of more than 70,000 refugees to western countries (most from Thailand), around 120,000 Burmese refugees remain in the Thai camps. Thailand fears that the prospect of third-country resettlement has served as something of a pull factor, drawing additional refugees into Thailand.
Despite the third-country resettlement of many refugees and the likelihood of an eventual voluntary repatriation to Burma, significant issues remain for Burmese refugees in the region. For example, the countries of asylum have had mixed human rights records related to their treatment of Burmese refugees within their borders. And while the circumstances for many ethnic minorities in Burma are on the upswing, the situation for others, including the Rohingya, remains dire.
This post will be followed by an exploration of the circumstances of the Rohingya.