Burma and Human security

By Aman Ullah

“Human beings, the world over, need freedom and security that they may be able to realize their full potential.”   Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Organized society is, perhaps, primarily the product of mankind’s search of security of life and property. No people leave their traditional hearths and homes unless there is a serious threat to their personal security. For decades, wave after wave of Burmese refugees have fled war and oppression in their native land to seek uncertain exile in neighboring countries. The toll in human suffering is in calculable, and the continual mass migrations have created serious regional disruptions and tensions.
Security has always been and continues to be the prime concerns of individuals, groups and states. The issue of people’s security was considered an essential element of good governance even many centuries ago, as would be evident from the edicts of Emperor Ashoka. In more recent period we hear of the need for providing common security i.e. the security of people, being articulated by western writers. For example in 1705 the German Philosopher Leibniz expressed the need for the state to provide common security to its citizens.

Security means protecting the people’s life from various types of threats. One of the most prominent scholars influencing the analysis of security in the early 1990s, Bravo Buzan (1991) had suggested that there are primarily five major sources of threat to our national interest namely, military, political, economic, social and environmental. A well-known development thinker at a forum in Tokyo in June, 1999 had identified three vital elements of human security; human survival, human wellbeing and human freedom.

Human security was quickly mainstreamed throughout much of the world. Assisted by the process of globalization and its favorable perception of people, human security successfully made people the referent object of the security paradigm. By 1994, the United Nations (UN) had accepted human security as the driving force behind all of its work. The UN’s Development Programme’s (1994), Human Development Report defined Human Security as ‘Safety from chronic threats such as hunger, disease, and repression as well as protection from sudden and harmful disruptions in the pattern of daily life.’ It was quickly accepted that human security is influenced by environmental degradation, pandemics, economic disruption, population displacements, urbanization, famine, energy shortages, human rights, cultural diversity, nationality identification and recognition.

According to that report, “human security is a universal concern; the components of human security are inter-dependent; human security is easier to ensure early preventive and human security is people centered. It has been said very appropriately that the world will not be secure from war and violence if men and women have no security. Human security threatened by poverty and lack of development. Human security undermined by drug trafficking and trafficking of women and children. Human security seriously jeopardized through human rights violation. Human security can only be ensured if there is a greater involvement of civil society in support of the activities of the government. When human security is under threat anywhere, it can affect people everywhere.”

Eventually, state, peoples, and economy cannot secure unless the eco-system. Needless to say that an economically strong country is better placed to address the many treats it is comfortable with, military and non-military, external and internal. Prof. Muzaffar Ahmed of Dhaka University once asserted that it was mainly the economic power, not military power, which guarantees national sovereignty these days.

A nation’s defense potential does not depend upon its professional forces only but on collective moral strength of its people, strategy and diplomatic virtuosity. Even technical absorption, expansion, modernization and combat effectiveness depend less on sophisticated technology than on political, economic and social factors in the making up of the nation as a whole.

The link between security and development is illustrated by Robert Mc Namara, “Security means no military hardware, though it includes it. Security not military force, though it may involve it. Security is not traditional military activities, though it may encompass it. Security is development and without development there can be no security.”

Indeed, the state has no more fundamental responsibility than to safeguard the nation security. But what are the means of ensuring national security? For that matter, what is National security?  Is a strong army the only answer to the problem? The proposition, that strengthening of standing army, was the number one answer to the problems of national sovereignty and security. But global diplomacy is changing, compared to the empire era of physical occupation and subjugation till mid-20th century. Military power is a means to an end not an end to a means.
While the international community focuses on the issue of human security, the Burmese junta uses the mantra of national security to imprison dissidents and suppress ethnic groups.

Burma has traditionally been dominated by the national security paradigm, the principles of absolute sovereignty, and noninterference in domestic affairs. In this sense, it can regard humanitarian assistance or intervention as, potentially, illegitimate interference. Thus the extent to which Asian solutions to Asian problems can be pursued with regard to human security may turn out to be of vital importance for peace-building and development in Burma.

The successive Burmese military Regimes have repeatedly used “security” to justify oppression against their own people. The Burmese people have become victims of the generals’ notion of security, rather than its beneficiaries. People may be rounded up simply for listening to short-wave radio stations or talking to foreigners. “Preventive measures” are also taken by the military forces: opposition leaders are put in prison or under house arrest for the sake of “security”. It hardly needs to be asked for whose security these measures are really being taken.

Burma faces the double challenge of underdevelopment and human insecurity, and is also considered a difficult development partner due to its lack of political will to alleviate poverty. In 2011, Burma ranked 149 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index and 180 out of 182 countries (alongside Afghanistan) in the Corruption Perception Index. While the Burmese government-produced Millennium Development Goals (MDG) reports of 2005 and 2006 suggest progress in a number of areas, it has performed poorly across most of the MDG targets. At least 14 percent of the population is in poverty and 17 percent are undernourished. Burma also suffers from major deficiencies in most basic services. For example, also in 2011, the government spent just 0.3 percent and 0.2 percent of GDP on education and health care, respectively. Furthermore political instability and incidence of violent conflict threatens human security.

A state has the responsibility to serve and protect its citizens The Junta has failed in its responsibility to provide the people of Burma security. Human security is concerned with anything that affects people’s quality of life, or as we know it from the human development index, the capacity to achieve one’s full potential. The economic security for the majority of the population is doomed because of mismanagement by the state; their security is not guaranteed because of ongoing internal conflict; they do not enjoy complete freedom because of persecution from their own state forces; they are forced to live lives filled with fear and want.

The people of Burma have been fighting the battle for peace and security for over six decades. The people of Burma need a State that respects human rights and the rule of law, a state that is free from corruption, bigotry, and hatred. The Junta prosecutes without challenge and terrorizes the population under the guise of providing security for the state, but Burma is a state that serves only the elite and a small privileged few.

Burma’s history is a checkerboard of mistakes, mismanagement, fear and corruption. British Colonial rule had transformed Burma from a primarily agricultural subsistence economy to a large global exporter of raw products and minerals. By 1939, Burma was the world’s leading exporter of rice, earning the reputation as the ‘rice bowl of Asia.’ When Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 it was a thriving, economically rich state. What has shaped Burma’s human security predicament most significantly though is the brutal and xenophobic military rule that the population has suffered, almost exclusively, since 1958.

Since the military coup d’état in 1962 that ended democratic rule in Burma, the Burmese people have been subjected to widespread human rights abuses.  In particular, the coup d’état by General Saw Maung following the 1988 uprising, at which point Burma was renamed Myanmar, led to an escalation of abuses, specifically towards political dissidents and ethnic minorities.  Human rights abuses by the military junta, which have intensified to the threshold of Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) concern in recent years, include: the pervasive use of forced labor, forced recruitment of tens of thousands of child soldiers, rampant sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, torture, and the displacement of over one million Burmese people.

Part of this escalation can be attributed to the landslide victory in the 1990 elections by the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which exacerbated the military junta’s harsh repression of political opposition. The regime’s intolerance towards diverging political opinions resulted in the detention, abuse and torture of political dissidents – including Suu Kyi herself, who was put under house arrest for the better part of twenty years thereafter – as well as deadly crackdowns on demonstrations and restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.

Minority ethnic groups such as the Karen and the Rohingya people have also faced persecution and been subjected to forced labor.  Rape has also been used as a systematic weapon against women of ethnic minorities too, and thousands of villages comprised of minority ethnic groups have been destroyed, many burnt and razed to the ground, and their inhabitants displaced.

The military junta’s neglect of its population, its unwillingness to cooperate with humanitarian aid groups in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and its earlier violent crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a peaceful demonstration by Buddhist monks and civilians, brought the often overlooked humanitarian crisis in Burma to international attention.  Notably, RtoP was repeatedly invoked in calls for action by UN officials and leading human rights advocates in response to the Burmese military junta’s mistreatment of its population.

Following the 2010 national elections, it seemed Burma was headed towards a period of positive reform at the political, legal, and social levels.  Yet despite initial progress made by President Thein Sein’s government, continued ethnic clashes have re-elevated international concern and prompted the Global Centre for the Responsibility to ‘Protect to catalogue’ the crisis in Burma as one of “imminent risk.”

Given the diverse composition of Burma, which is host to seven major ethnic groups – the Burman, Shan, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Mon, and Rohingya – among others, tensions between different factions that have historically contributed to the unrest throughout the country have increased dramatically since the summer of 2012.  Despite the democratic progress promisd in the 2010 and 2012 elections, these tensions have remained unresolved, and it is against this backdrop that lethal ethnic violence has resurged.

Rohingya Muslims, the primary target of recent discrimination and state-condoned violence in Burma, live in Rakhine State and have been severely discriminated against for decades.  Beginning with the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, which accords the Council of State the right to “decide whether any ethnic group is national or not,” the Rohingya have been systematically excluded from Burmese legal recognition.  Rohingya are often referred to as “Bengali,” which reinforces the official stance that Rohingya are originally of Bangladesh, and therefore do not belong in Burma.

In recent years, the plight of the Rohingya has significantly worsened, as radical Buddhist monks have begun calling for a “campaign of exclusion” against Muslims.  This aversion stems from the insidious propaganda promulgated by U Wirathu, a Buddhist monk and the leader of the controversial and polarizing 969 Buddhist National Movement.  Wirathu argues that Muslims have a secret “master plan” to take over the country and Islamicize it, despite the fact that Muslims only constitute five percent of the Burmese population.  Even more tellingly, Wirathu is “[calling] on Buddhists to shop, sell property and marry within their own religion,” in order to preserve Buddhist culture and identity.  Wirathu regularly preaches anti-Muslim hate speech, and considers the Rohingya a “threat to the country and its culture,” a belief predicated on his fear that the Muslim population is increasing more rapidly than the Buddhist nationalist population.

An additional component of the anti-Muslim agenda is an attempt to draw linkages between the Rohingya and terrorism.  From this perspective, excluding and persecuting the Rohingya can be made justifiable on the grounds of maintaining national security.

It is important to note here as well that, while the Rohingya have been subjected to some of the most severe and systematic human rights abuses in Burma, the government’s hostilities against the people of Kachin State have also intensified.  Kachin, which is located in northern Burma, borders the People’s Republic of China.

As such, economic interests on behalf of both the Burmese and Chinese governments have led to several issues in the State.  Beginning in June 2011, when the Burma Army broke a 17-year ceasefire agreement with the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization] by attacking a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) outpost, the military has committed human rights violations including land confiscation, torture, physical and sexual violence, and murder.  As news reports have indicated, much of this antagonism and abuse is due to the existence of a gas pipeline, which bisects Burma and runs directly through Kachin State. The gas from this pipeline is transported and sold to China.  A parallel oil pipeline is also under construction. Not only is daily life in Kachin State disrupted by the government’s desire to profit from this pipeline, but the abuses incurred by the Kachin, as well the resulting loss of land and complete lack of compensation regarding the profits from the transports, has severely impacted this ethnic group’s ability to live in a stable and conflict-free environment.

Violence against the Rohingya in particular has drawn attention from a myriad of international actors.  In response to the 2012 violent clashes, the International Crisis Group asserted that “widespread ethnic violence in Rakhine State, targeting principally the Rohingya Muslim minority, has cast a dark cloud over the reform process.”  Similarly, the Global Centre for RtoP noted in a November 2012 publication that recent sectarian violence had left 89 dead and more than 32,000 displaced, with a majority of victims of violence being Rohingya.

In Sittwe, Rohingya often had no other option than to seek shelter in displacement camps, and other ethnic minorities were also subjected to marginalization.  Later that month, in June 2012, the UN World Food Programme began providing humanitarian assistance to individuals in Rakhine State, while the UNHCR committed  to continuing to monitor the situation in Burma from Bangladesh.  In November 2012, Christian Solidarity Worldwide “[called] on the international community to invoke the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle, in light of the Burmese Government’s failure to end the conflict in Arakan State, western Burma, between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.”

In March 2013, UN Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana issued a Report on the human rights situation in Burma, wherein he identified several concerns regarding the treatment of prisoners of conscience, violations of freedom of expression and censorship issues, attacks against civilians in the Kachin and Northern Shan States, and violence targeting Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.  In addition, Vijay Nambiar, the Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Burma, briefed the Security Council in April 2013 and discussed Muslim-targeted violence against the Rohingya, as well as attempts at a renewed ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organization and the Burma government.  On 19 August 2013, the Secretary-General also released a Report on Burma echoing many of the concerns raised by Quintana, particularly the violence in Kachin State and against the Rohingya.

Since Quintana’s visit and Nambiar’s briefing, the OHCHR has released several statements on human rights abuses in the country too.  Most recently, on 21 August 2013, Quintana expressed concern over “the spread of incitement of hatred against religious minority groups,” and commented on the need to implement previously agreed upon ceasefires and address issues of freedom of movement in Muslim IDP camps, among other issues.

Response to the increasingly hostile crisis in Burma has also come from other international actors and members of civil society.  For instance, in May 2013, the United States renewed targeted sanctions against Burma, though it simultaneously lifted a visa ban to reward “progress” made by the Thein Sein government.  Two months later, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that it would be “expanding its efforts” to improve prison conditions and help those affected by continuing violence. Anti-Muslim discrimination and the ongoing perpetration of atrocity crimes have also led the Global Centre for R2P to call for President Thein Sein’s government to uphold its Responsibility to Protect.

The scope and nature of human rights abuses in Burma have led some to conclude that these systematic violations constitute ethnic cleansing.  Similarly, as the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention stated in its September 2013 Burma Risk Assessment, “following extensive research, [we] have concluded that the risk of genocide and related mass atrocities in Burma is extremely high.”  This claim is substantiated by the ongoing organized violence, instatement of a two-child limit on Rohingya reproduction, ban on interfaith marriages, and a myriad of additional evidence indicative of a governmental policy of discrimination against the Rohingya.

The question now is how to end such state terrorism. So far, there is no clear answer. The former Canadian foreign minister had proposed at the United Nations the creation of an international commission on intervention and state sovereignty in. Though this proposal has divided the UN, particularly along the lines of the North-South divide, activists both inside Burma and abroad have shown great interest.
As repression in Burma continues unabated, it is reasonable to expect that calls for intervention will continue to be heard from around the world.

The willingness and ability of the international community to get involved will continue to be crucial elements in resolving Burma’s problems. The political will of the UN must be regarded as a particularly important factor in determining how and when Burma will finally shed the burden of repressive rule. The creation of an independent international commission on intervention would be a promising move, and Burma should certainly be one of the first cases to receive careful consideration and study.

In fact, there are already options that could be used to save the lives of people, if the international community – including the Asean leadership – could find the will to use all of the tools at its disposal, from political engagement to radical action. The chains of oppression can be broken, but only if the world recognizes that human security is an issue that transcends national boundaries.

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Posted in Articles, Burma, Feature

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