Myanmar, so near yet so far

Josh Hong

Malaysians can offer thoughts and prayers for the Myanmar people fighting with blood, sweat and tears to reclaim the short-lived democracy brutally snatched by the military junta. – EPA pic, March 8, 2021.

IN the early morning of February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military launched a coup and overthrew the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government. 

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was again placed under house arrest and subsequently slapped with several charges that border on absurdity.

Since then, scores of protesters have died in the brutal crackdown by the military regime. Once regarded as a beacon of hope for democracy in Southeast Asia, the country has abruptly been returned to the plight of military dictatorship.

In retrospect, Myanmar’s path to democracy has never been plain sailing. If anything, its pursuit of nationhood has been fraught with challenges.

The country is a patchwork of hundreds of ethnicities, with half of the territory populated by various ethnic groups such as the Kachin, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Karen, Karenni and Chin.

While the 1982 Citizenship Law recognises up to 135 ethnic groups as rightful citizens of Myanmar, many others are left out and disenfranchised, most notably the Rohingya, but also others such as the Chinese in Shan state and Indians across the country.

Making up at least 30% of the population, these ethnic groups historically enjoyed their own polities free from Burmese rule, until British colonisation brought them all under one roof.

Confronted with the ruling elite and the army that were bent on political and cultural assimilation, which later evolved into the hegemonic Barmanisation, with the Burmese language and Buddhism increasingly imposed even in areas where the dominant Barma was in the minority, these ethnic peoples began to fight for maintenance of their own states within a federal union. Given the complexities of ethnic relations, it was little wonder that Myanmar, then known as Burma, was plunged into civil war from the day it declared independence from British rule in 1948.

To date, many insurgent groups remain active, including the Kachin Independence Army, the Karen National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and the Shan State Army, to name but a few, and the armed conflicts between them and the Myanmar military have caused numerous civilian casualties and displaced hundreds of thousands.

In fact, just as the world’s attention is focused on the post-coup civil disobedience movement in Myanmar and Suu Kyi’s fate, large numbers of internally displaced people temporarily residing in squalid camps are facing shortages of food and fuel, not to mention the denial of a decent livelihood. These are the stories that we seldom hear from the international media.

Malaysia is a beneficiary of Myanmar’s political conundrum. In the aftermath of the 1988 nationwide uprising that propelled Suu Kyi to global fame, the then military was compelled to hold the country’s first democratic election in 30 years that led to a landslide victory for the NLD.

But the results were disregarded, and the military rulers at the time put Suu Kyi under house arrest and again closed the country to the outside world.

As the economy collapsed and gave rise to massive unemployment, the military junta began to look for ways to ease social tensions by exporting its labour. It was a period when Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia were experiencing an economic boom with acute labour shortages, and the readily available Myanmar labour force became a welcome relief for the neighbouring countries.

Official statistics indicate that there are approximately 150,000 Myanmar migrant workers in Malaysia to date, plus another 150,000 or so registered with the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees.

While these two groups may overlap to some extent, it is still safe to say there are at least 300,000 Myanmar people living among us. Their contribution to our economy cannot be overstated, as evidenced by the reliance of various sectors on Myanmar workers.

Once, a kopitiam in my neighbourhood that I frequent was forced to close for a few days because the Myanmar workers there decided to stay at home amid crackdowns by the Immigration Department.

Despite having valid documentation, their fear of arrest speaks volumes of the injustice they are facing on a daily basis. Yet, their predicament is often ignored by Malaysian society at large.

Instead of being grateful for the Myanmar labour force that helps build our country, Malaysia has chosen to put the lives of 1,086 Myanmar nationals in danger by handing them over to the military regime recently.

Some may think these people were merely “illegal immigrants”, and consider what the Malaysian authorities have done as “right and proper”, it is worth reminding that the political situation in Myanmar had taken a worrying turn for the worse prior to the deportation.

As the military regime tightens its iron fist, those who are returned as “illegal immigrants” could be perceived as potential political dissidents who had “tarnished” Myanmar’s name and hence face persecution; some might even be re-trafficked by unscrupulous officials.

In short, those who were forcibly returned by Malaysia could well qualify as sur place refugees, meaning that while they might not have come with an intention to seek asylum, the vastly changed political landscape in Myanmar could put them in harm’s way upon return. Malaysia’s violation of the principle of non-refoulement is indeed shameful.

Myanmar may have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons these days, but it is actually a country with close ties to Malaysia when one considers how much we depend on its workforce in our daily lives.

It is therefore not too much for us to offer our thoughts and prayers for the Myanmar people as they are fighting with blood, sweat and tears to reclaim the short-lived democracy brutally snatched by the military junta. – March 8, 2021.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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