Government’s refusal to implement core human rights treaties amplifies the devastation faced during the rainy season
David Baulk is a Gender and Development consultant, focusing on the human rights of women in Burma.
Correction, August 05, 2015: An earlier version of this article stated that The World Food Programme confirmed that food rations to IDPs are to be cut by up to 20 percent, however, the WFP Myanmar office has decided to hold off on ration cuts until after the November harvest.
This year’s monsoon rains have been some of the worst to hit Myanmar in decades, leaving dozens dead and thousands displaced across the country.
As the scale of damage has become clearer, a sombre inevitability has pervaded the coverage of the devastation left by Cyclone Komen.
Yet the hardship faced by many in severely affected areas – particularly northern Kachin and Shan states, and western Rakhine State – is not primarily a result of the heavens.
Decades of persecution by the Myanmar government, which continues unabated today, is the chief driver of suffering in ethnic minority regions.
Following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire in 2011, communities in both Kachin and northern Shan states have seen a dramatic escalation in hostilities between several ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and the Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw.
Human rights violations have followed on the heels of conflict. Attacks on civilians, destruction of homes and farm fields, sexual violence, torture, and restrictions on movement have been regularly reported from across these areas.
Human rights abuses
Human rights abuses – and fears of being caught in the crossfire – have displaced 100,000 people in Kachin State and thousands more in Shan State.
Given the instability and destruction in these areas, the monsoon rains often carry misery and death to communities living there.
Looking to Myanmar’s west, the persecution faced by the beleaguered Rohingya population in Rakhine State has dominated headlines in recent months.
Some commentators have argued that the scale of abuses faced by the Rohingya amounts to ethnic cleansing.
Violent attacks on Rohingya communities and severe discrimination have caused an estimated 100,000 to flee Myanmar since 2012, and left around 140,000 languishing in squalid internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camps.
The growth of extreme nationalist groups targeting the Rohingya has been abetted by the government, which has done little to rein in the hate speech and violence that has characterised the anti-Muslim movement.
Calls for the government to address the root causes of the Rohingya’s plight have been ignored, and their exposure to the devastation wrought by yearly monsoon rains has only heightened as a result.
Worryingly, the situation faced by these populations looks set to deteriorate further.
Earlier in July, The World Food Programme (WFP) confirmed that food rations to IDPs are to be cut by up to 20 percent, however, the WFP Myanmar office has decided to hold off on ration cuts until after the November harvest.
Increasingly, the burden to protect populations in Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine states is falling on grassroots groups.
“Aid to remote IDP camps in Kachin is overseen by local groups, not big international bodies,” said Seng Zin, general secretary of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT). “The government is not interested in IDPs. It’s the smaller organisations that take responsibility for these communities. But the situation is getting harder every day.”
With the spotlight increasingly focused on Naypyitaw, the government has found itself under pressure to meet its obligations under international humanitarian law.
In July, the government ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – reaffirming its commitment to safeguard the right to adequate food, housing, education, and means of subsistence.
Yet, as the government was signing on the dotted line, Tatmadaw troops were denying humanitarian assistance to civilians displaced by fighting in Kachin state, and the flood waters in Rakhine State’s many IDP camps were swelling.
For the government of Myanmar, the ratification of these standards seems to be more of a branding exercise than a meaningful pledge to safeguard people’s welfare.
Nevertheless, the increased level of scrutiny the government has been willing to face does provide the opportunity for groups to demand accountability for ongoing abuses.
Later this year, the Myanmar government will undergo its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) – a United Nations mechanism which serves as a regular marker of a country’s progress in meeting internationally accepted human rights standards.
Dozens of national and international civil society organisations have submitted reports to the UPR, highlighting ongoing human rights abuses across the country.
The reports are unequivocal: displacement, state-sponsored violence and the denial of basic services in ethnic states are central to the vulnerability faced by these populations.
Deaths can be stopped
There is nothing inevitable in the death and displacement reported over the last week – they are contingent on decisions made by the government, and they can be stopped.
There are those who point to the more amenable attitude of the Myanmar government in recent years, arguing that this suggests a real desire to improve human rights in the country.
But giving credit for the real progress made should not detract from the government’s continued failures, which disproportionately affect the country’s most marginalised people.
The government’s refusal to implement core human rights treaties amplifies the devastation at-risk communities face when the rainy season starts.
Unless the Myanmar government takes real, concrete steps to address the humanitarian situation in the country, and its own human rights record, the monsoon seasons will continue to be a harbinger of disaster for the country’s most vulnerable populations.