Myanmar: The repression of ethnic minority activists in Myanmar

February 16, 2010

Myanmar: The repression of ethnic minority activists in Myanmar

To a large extent, the military government has already cemented its position ahead of the elections, as the country's 2008 constitution ensures that the military will continue to dominate the government. It contains strict requirements on the eligibility of presidential candidates (ruling out Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for instance, due to the fact that her children hold British citizenship); reserves legislative seats for the military, effectively giving it veto power over constitutional amendments; leaves the military in control of key security ministries; and affords the military the authority to administer its own affairs. This constitution was "approved" in a referendum held in 2008 a week after Cyclone Nargis left nearly 140,000 dead or missing, and displaced hundreds of thousands, devastating much of the Ayerawaddy (Irrawaddy) delta.


This report details some of the government's repressive tactics against ethnic minority activists who opposed the 2008 constitution during the referendum, which included arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, and even extrajudicial executions of activists. It also describes the government's intensified efforts with elections approaching, to repress its critics and challengers among ethnic minority communities. The authorities have monitored, harassed, discriminated against, detained, and imprisoned ethnic minority activists, in some cases torturing or killing them. With the elections as the political context in Myanmar for the past two years, and the government thus preparing to pit its own candidates against an opposition, it has not tolerated any group, including ethnic minorities in challenging its legitimacy, policies, and practices.


Observers outside Myanmar frequently bi-furcate opposition to the Myanmar government, distinguishing between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD as a political force pitted against the government on one side, and on the other a variety of ethnic armed groups fighting against the tatmadaw, Myanmar's army. In fact, as this report demonstrates, much of the opposition to the country's repressive government is actually a product of activists from ethnic minorities, living in areas where particular ethnic minorities form the predominant population. Many NLD leaders, for example, as well as rank and file members, are from ethnic minorities. The clearest illustration of this phenomenon is the so-called Saffron Revolution, whose first stirrings occurred not in Yangon, but among ethnic minority monks and nuns in Rakhine State.4


Certainly government repression predates and extends beyond the scope of the elections, especially where the authorities have feared a challenge to their rule. As this report demonstrates, Myanmar's ethnic minority activists also have interests, concerns, and grievances distinct from both those of the majority Burman population and electoral politics, but which are no less critical to the defense and realization of their human rights. This report includes clear evidence that Myanmar's authorities often target members of ethnic minorities on discriminatory grounds, such as religion or ethnicity, or to crush their opposition to major development projects that adversely affect their lands and livelihoods. Though outside the formal political sphere, this activism and repression implicate the coming elections insofar as they illustrate the desire among ethnic minorities to ensure that their voices are heard and respected, as well as the lengths to which the government will go to stifle and deny them.