Home » Racial wart on Myanmar’s revolutionary troika

Racial wart on Myanmar’s revolutionary troika


As Myanmar’s political opposition complex marks a three-year anniversary since the 2021 military coup, its progress has been at best mediocre and at worst an abysmal failure.  

The three groups that comprise the complex are the multi-member policy advisory body the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), the appointed executive National Unity Government (NUG) and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a group of parliamentarians from the National League for Democracy (NLD) elected in the 2020 nationwide election annulled by military coup-makers.

There are 204 delegates and a further 230 observers. Long-standing tensions between these groups surfaced during the Second People’s Assembly convened by the NUCC from April 4-6, which was extended for three days amidst heated debate.

The NUG and CRPH boycotted the last day, likely from acrimony that surfaced between attendees stemming from procedural irregularities and division of responsibilities, long-standing personal animosities, dramatic accusations of a NUG-sponsored hit on a popular People’s Defense Force (PDF) leader and disagreements over priorities for the movement going forward.

All in all, there wasn’t much “unity” on display.

One issue was likely contained in the NUCC’s post-assembly statement around the perennially contentious 1982 Citizenship Law. Of the three “decisions” passed by the assembly, the third “determined that the (law) would be abolished…implemented in accordance (w)ith (sic) Chapter (5) ‘Interim Legislature’ of the Federal Democracy Charter.”

Chapter Five of the charter, revolutionary Myanmar’s guiding document released in March 2021, states: “provisions and policies in this Charter are the basic guidance that shall be applied in the implementation of the issues relating to the interim government and interim constitutional arrangements that will emerge soon.”

Yet nothing has emerged in over three years and there has been little more than platitudes for repealing the discriminatory citizenship law. Whilst the FDC has become the Rosetta Stone of the anti-SAC political movement, especially the NUG/CRPH/NUCC structures, it hasn’t served the other minorities and stateless people of Myanmar. Why hasn’t the citizenship law been repealed?

For such a divisive instrument, it is astonishing the law has endured. That it was originally the brainchild of dictator Ne Win makes it even more inexplicable.

His speech releasing the policy, published on the front page of the Working People’s Daily on October 8, 1982, is a nakedly racist diatribe, justifying a law that broke citizenship into three categories, “(r)acially, only pure-blooded nationals will be called citizens”, Ne Win vowed, formalizing the concept of taingyintha or official “ethnic nationalities.” The two lower categories, naturalized and associate citizens, had “mixed blood” and deserved lesser rights, according to the law.

This came just decades after the expulsion of South Asians from then-Burma after the military coup of 1962, anti-Chinese riots and the first large-scale assault on Rohingya Muslims in 1978, while the army was perpetrating systematic war crimes against ethnic communities in Karen, Shan, Kachin, Arakan and many other conflict zones.

Ethnic Lisu women wait for the arrival of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the Hsiseng township in Shan state, Myanmar September 5, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun  - RTX1R83F
Ethnic Lisu women wait for the arrival of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the Hsiseng township in Shan state, Myanmar September 5, 2015. Asia Times Files / Reuters / Soe Zeya Tun

A few years after the next military coup of 1988, the concept of taingyintha was entrenched with the classification of 135 national races: a list so absurdly contrived it should have been discredited and scrapped years ago.

But the law persisted, being used by petty bureaucrats to repress access to education, employment, issuance of ID cards, passports and business registration for Rohingya, Tamils, Chinese, Punjabis, Gurkhas, Telugus, Bengalis and smaller ethnic minorities living in remote areas. It was not just a tool of domestic repression, it also contravened Myanmar’s obligations to international treaties, especially on child rights.

There was no shortage of international advocacy and research on amending the law during the Kofi Annan-formed Rakhine Advisory Commission report of 2017, which had a substantial section on the issue and solid recommendations for reform, although with a more cautionary suggestion to “set in motion a process to review the law.”

The International Commission of Jurists wrote a thorough report in 2019 full of cogent reasons why the law should be reformed. Scholars such as Nyi Nyi Kyaw and Elizabeth Rhoads have published numerous academic articles on the subject. As Rhoads argues, the Myanmar state “uses multiple measures to strip, delay and defer citizenship of racialized and minoritized populations.”

These measures reportedly worsened under the Aung San Suu Kyi administration between 2016 until the 2021 coup. Her NLD was obtuse to legal reform. A 2023 report from think tank Mosaic Myanmar, entitled Looking Familiar, Remaining Strangers, documented the experiences of “unofficial minorities” before and after the coup, the capricious and corrupt nature of local administrators and how lack of documentation particularly impacted younger people and the working poor.

Hopes were high as the anti-coup “Spring Revolution” began that the law would be repealed in line with the fine principles of the FDC. On June 3, 2021, the NUG released a “Policy Paper on the Rohingya in Rakhine State”, which promised to treat all minorities as equal citizens and pledged a “process of repealing, amending, and promulgating laws, including the 1982 Citizenship Law, by the new constitution when the drafting is complete.”

So legal reform and minority rights are held hostage to elite NUG/CRPH/NUCC inertia? Promises of reform are often made by senior opposition officials but never followed with action.

The NUG Ministry of Foreign Affairs first-ever press conference in 2023 completely dodged the issue when directly asked, aloof to the concerns of the international community. The most positive NUG move was appointing the highly respected Rohingya activist Aung Kyaw Moe as deputy minister of human rights in mid-2023.

The NUCC’s 21 proposals and recommendations included strong calls for reform, including for a “National Apology…towards the ethnic people regarding the suppressions (sic)”, the establishment of a “special commission on minority affairs”, a pledge to “eliminate all discrimination against ethnicity, religion” and the crucial final point “to amend or repeal laws that violate the values of human rights and women’s rights.”

Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh in Whaikhyang.Photo: AFP/Fred Dufour
Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh in Whaikhyang. Photo: Asia Times Files / AFP / Fred Dufour

What laws have the NUG/CRPH/NUCC addressed in the past three years? Only one law has been abolished: the Myanmar Police Force Maintenance of Discipline Law in 2022 (Law 1/2022). Three laws have been enacted. The first, on February 9, a day after the CRPH was formed, was the Counsellor of the State Law (Law 1/2021) that appointed Aung San Suu Kyi to be Counsellor of State “to give advice to the interests of the state and citizens not contradictory to the constitution.”

That is, the 2008 constitution that most revolutionary groups are opposed to. Just a week after the coup, the NLD prioritized the position of their leader, just as the party did in 2016 when the first piece of legislation was the surprise State Counsellor Law that gave Suu Kyi effective head of state status, enraging the Myanmar military leadership. The other two laws were the Union Taxation Law (Law 6/2021) and the People’s Police Force Law (Law 2/2022).

The five amended laws involved taxation, public debt management, gambling and the state counsellor law. This would be a shockingly unimpressive legislative record for a stable and functioning government.

But for the CRPH, which operates in a virtual Zoomtopia, the symbolic amendment or repeal of repressive laws should be little more than a keystroke away. They could have made sweeping, dare one say revolutionary, symbolic reform to the tangled, nasty web of the Myanmar legal system, with a priority being the Citizenship Law, therefore laying the ground for future revolutionary implementation.

One approach could be to target the use of laws the SAC is using against domestic dissent. The regime issued SAC Order No.29/2024 on April 17, remitting sentences of convicted prisoners, except for murder or rape or offensives from several laws that included the Unlawful Association Act and 2014 Counter Terrorism Law, but also absurdly the 1878 Arms Act, the 1924 Shan State Arms Order, and the 1948 Arms (Emergency Penalty) Act.

This would be police-state parody if it wasn’t so repulsively repressive. And yet the “legitimate” NUG/CRPH/NUCC continues to threaten people with prosecution using some of these laws.

The NLD/NUG/NUCC/CRPH’s inner circle of foreign advisors, paying forward their guilt in the Rohingya persecution and entrenched discrimination of all nationalities facing military and bureaucratic repression for years, share a collective culpability for failing to insist on the repeal of the citizenship law.

Why do they defend a supposedly legitimate government that has abrogated the fundamental duty of protecting universal rights? How can foreign donors pump millions in funding for federalism and governance support to a “revolution” that still believes in racial hierarchies?

The balking of the “revolutionary troika” to prioritize basic legal change is rank cowardice. This failure stems from a culture of bureaucratic infighting, personality vendetta, moral inertia, political hubris and the ingrained imperiousness of NLD political culture, a personality cult that fuels servility.

The NUG and CRPH have refused to transcend this debilitating culture. This partly explains their lackluster performance and dwindling popularity. Entitlement, alas, is not a strategy.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian, and human rights issues on Myanmar

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