Skip to main content

Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law in Burma: Continuing Challenges

Since the historic 2015 elections, when Nobel laureate and longtime pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won an overwhelming victory after nearly 60 years of military rule, Burma’s democratic transition has been extremely uneven. On the one hand, citizens are relatively free to promote civil society, human rights, and democracy with support from international non-governmental organizations. On the other hand, the military still plays a major role in running the country, with the right to 25 percent of seats in legislatures at all levels, an effective veto over any constitutional reform, leadership of several powerful ministries, including defense, home affairs and border affairs, and no civilian control of the military. Further, home to the world’s longest running civil wars, Burma’s government and military are not in control of huge swaths of territory. For 70 years, violence between the military and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians throughout the country. These long existing tensions between the military and ethnic minorities, in particular the Rohingya, a religious and ethnic minority located primarily in Rakhine State, continue to rise with no clear solution to ending the violence and repatriating the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have fled the country.

Burma is an ethnically diverse state that is dominated by the majority Burman ethnic group but officially recognizes 135 indigenous ethnic groups. However, in August 2017, after a militant Rohingya group claimed responsibility for attacks on police and army posts, the Burmese military mounted a brutal campaign against the Rohingya, including burning villages, killings, gang rapes, and planting land mines. Over 700,000 civilians fled Rakhine State to Bangladesh. Since then, the military has been clearing the villages and building new infrastructure, claiming it is for the return of refugees, but there is no evidence that the Rohingya would face any safer or more dignified conditions if they were to return. While the Burmese government has negotiated several repatriation deals with Bangladesh in the past two years, they have been reached without consulting the refugees themselves. The Rohingya are barred from seeking citizenship in Burma, and suffer restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. Currently, there are over one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, with additional tens of thousands seeking safe haven in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Refugee camps are squalid and dangerous, full of disease and sex traffickers. In 2018, the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar described the Rohingya crisis as an “ongoing genocide.”

Because of the fragile state of the civilian government in Burma, many in the West have been somewhat muted in their response to this humanitarian and human rights crisis. However, the situation is reaching a critical point. Bangladesh’s resources are stretched thin and its government is putting pressure on refugees to leave the camps. The Chinese are also trying to convince the Rohingya to return to Burma, but will not pressure the Burmese government to appropriately prepare for refugees to return, and have played an obstructionist rather than helpful role at the U.N. Security Council when it has tried to take action to encourage the Burmese government to do more. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD refuse to acknowledge that ethnic cleansing has taken place. The Burmese military continues to engage in tactics across Burma that inflict human rights abuses on men, women, and children as a weapon of war against other ethnic armed groups. The State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report notes that the military is “perpetuating the forced labor of adults and children” by requiring “troops to source their own labor and supplies from local communities.” In addition to ethnic conflicts, Burma continues to struggle with corruption, lack of rule of law, restrictions on freedom of expression, and impunity. General elections are scheduled for 2020, but there seems to be no appetite for granting citizenship to the Rohingya, which would go a long way toward easing international tensions, and voters are frustrated with the slow pace of promised reforms, as well as the lack of better jobs and opportunities for themselves and their children.

Recommendations for the U.S. administration, Congress, and the 2020 presidential candidates on working with Burma on democracy, human rights and rule of law include:

  • Maintaining the current bipartisan policy toward Burma of supporting the economic and political transition, improving the peace process, and strengthening democratic institutions and civil society, including pushing for full civilian control of the military.
  • Demanding an end to hostilities against the Rohingya and other minority ethnic groups, and working with the international community to peacefully repatriate refugees.
  • Stressing the importance of ending human rights abuses, releasing political prisoners, and improving conditions for ethnic minorities, including addressing severe poverty.
  • Working to ensure that justice is served for victims of human rights abuses, accountability is brought to the perpetrators of abuses, and that there is an end to impunity in Burma so that this situation does not occur again.
  • Conveying the U.S. vision for Burma in clear terms to its government and citizens: a peaceful, unified, economically successful, and politically free and open country.
  • Empowering the Burmese to counter the influence of China, so they can positively advance an agenda embracing democracy, human rights and economic independence.
  • Emphasizing the importance of a diverse and independent media and development of strong institutions, including an autonomous judiciary, as well as the repeal of existing anti-defamation legislation that endangers journalists, human rights defenders, and everyday citizens online.
  • Encouraging ethnic minorities in Burma to coalesce around a smaller number of candidates than in 2015, so that they have a greater chance of representation in government after the 2020 general elections.
  • Exploring options for providing support for the 2020 elections, including the participation of ethnic political parties, a parallel vote count, civil society engagement, and a professional election commission.
  • Increasing support to civil society groups that are engaged in conversations about what it means to be Burmese, with a focus on tolerance, celebrating diversity, and demilitarizing the government.
  • Identifying reformers and points of leverage within the military – who originally launched the reform process – as well as within civilian entities that can be used to try to encourage faster and more substantial democratic and economic reform, as well as greater respect for human rights.
  • Supporting efforts against misinformation/disinformation ahead of the 2020 elections and beyond, particularly on social media, as this has been a significant driver of violence and ethnic tension.
  • Supporting investments in educational reform, with the goal of developing a new generation of skilled civil servants that can implement Burma’s transition to democracy in place of the current and largely ex-military staff.


* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.

Publish Date
December 16, 2019