Children and elders displaced by fighting between government troops and ethnic rebels in their area wait for food distribution from a volunteer group while taking refuge at a monastery in Namlan town, in eastern Myanmar's Shan state, on May 25, 2021. Photo: AFP / MNWM

On October 7, 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution “on the human-rights situation in Myanmar, including the situation of religious and ethnic groups.” The resolution was a response to the continuing crisis in the country following a military coup in February.

The generals had justified the takeover by alleging fraud during the 2020 general election. In the subsequent months, they have charged Aung San Suu Kyi, the former de facto leader, with electoral fraud and several other offenses

While the resolution was a step in the right direction, it has not been followed up by any meaningful action. It thus appears to have been of mostly symbolic value. In addition, the resolution contains several shortcomings, especially when it comes to the plight of Myanmar’s minorities: the very people referred to in its name. 

Myanmar’s minorities seen as victims only

First, the resolution victimizes rather than empowers communities it supposedly aims to protect. The text refers to Myanmar’s ethnic diversity 35 times (13 of these speak of the Rohingya), religious diversity 14 times and simply “minorities” four times. Yet only a handful of these references present the said populations as even remotely active subjects, let alone change agents in their homeland.

Quite the opposite. On exactly 19 occasions these minorities appear in a passive context. Mostly, we find out about the different kinds of violence they have had to endure, whether it is “sexual and gender-based violence,” “persecution,” “atrocities,” “crimes against humanity,” “discrimination” or “human-rights violations.”

In addition, we are told that these people need “immediate humanitarian access,” “assistance” and “empowerment.” This choice of language implicitly frames Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities as powerless sufferers of violence, and in doing so, re-victimizes them. 

There is absolutely no doubt that the country’s minorities have suffered immensely at the hands of the military over the last seven decades. Authoritarian rule, conflict and economic mismanagement have long plagued the nation. Even before the coup, there were about 980,000 refugees/asylum-seekers and 370,000 internally displaced people in and around Myanmar.

Many current reports focus on the political, economic and humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country since the military takeover. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2021 coup have only exacerbated the situation.

The country is descending into an even more widespread civil war and home-grown militia are getting organized across the country. More than 1,400 people have been killed, more than 11,000 arrested, and 320,000 internally displaced, while 19,000 new refugees have moved to neighboring countries since February 2021.

Importance of ethnic armed groups ignored

Despite being victims, Myanmar’s minorities need to be viewed as a part of the solution to the crisis too. Yet for some reason, the resolution does not mention the numerous ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) that represent and fight for the self-determination and equal rights of these people at all. (The text only briefly refers to “ethnic community-based organizations” and “ethnic service providers” in point 14.)

Thereby, it completely ignores the crucial role the EAOs play in the country’s conflict dynamics and political landscape at large.

Instead, the resolution states that the European Parliament supports “the CRPH and the NUG as the only legitimate representatives of the democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar” (point 5). Here, “CRPH” refers to the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a legislative body in exile established by the ousted Myanmar parliamentarians. The NUG is the National Unity Government (NUG) later formed by the CRPH.

The resolution by the European Parliament followed months-long efforts by those bodies to establish both domestic and international legitimacy.

Indeed, not all of the EAOs have openly condemned the coup or taken any direct action against the junta. However, many have shown clear support to the nationwide resistance movement and even provided sanctuary to CRPH and NUG members. What would these “legitimate representatives” of the people of Myanmar do without the EAOs’ help?

No more 2008 constitution

The resolution’s second shortcoming is that it paints an incomplete – and rather confusing – picture of the political situation in Myanmar. Specifically, the resolution “calls on the Tatmadaw to fully respect the outcome of the democratic elections of November 2020 and to immediately reinstate the civilian government … and allow all elected parliamentarians to assume their mandates” (point 1).

Myanmar held its 2020 general election under the military-drafted 2008 constitution that guaranteed its creators 25% of parliament seats. The resolution therefore seems to propose a partial reinstatement of the government formed under this very constitution.

The resolution also describes the European Parliament as “having regard to Article 34 of the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar recognizing the freedom of religion or belief and guaranteeing citizens the ‘right to freely profess and practice religion’” (page 2). Both of these instances thus signal that the 2008 constitution is still a somewhat applicable law in the country. 

This could not be further from the truth. While the recognition of the 2020 election results is indeed necessary, it cannot happen under the 2008 constitution. First, the law is ultimately undemocratic. Second, the CRPH has in fact already revoked the law in response to the demands of the public.

Suggesting otherwise would mean undermining both the sovereignty of the people of Myanmar and of the NUG and CRPH alike. Instead, the country needs a new constitution, which neither the CRPH or NUG can do alone. Neither of these entities has the mandate to draft constitutions.

The NUCC

That task is in the hands of the National Unity Consultative Council. At a press conference last November, the NUCC repeatedly claimed it had no intention of returning to the 2008 constitution. Instead, it announced plans to revise its Federal Democracy Charter, a precursor to a new constitution.

More specifically, it appears that the council will first adopt an interim and then a transitional constitution. After that, the NUCC will convene a constitutional convention to draft a federal democratic constitution of Myanmar for long-term use.

It is true that the NUCC’s role in the constitution-drafting process had not been entirely clear at the time the European Parliament was adopting the resolution. However, this outline now makes the resolution’s directives even less feasible. 

What to do

Drafting a new constitution of Myanmar presents the country with a unique opportunity to re-draw the rules of the game.

Instead of continuing on a path of dominance by majority-Bamar political parties, governments, personalities and militaries, it is time to get to the root causes of conflict in Myanmar and address the underlying issues preventing its people from co-existing in peace.

On the one hand, there are decades of the military’s presence in politics, economics and business (legal and illegal). On the other hand, there is “Burmanization” of minorities. All these have repeatedly prevented a more equal political arrangement between the different ethnic and religious groups of Myanmar.

It is also time for the Bamar people and those in the international community truly committed to bringing peace and stability to Myanmar to unlearn and relearn its history. Removing the current military junta from power is not enough. We need to put the voices of the country’s minorities at the center of any foreign or domestic efforts to bring about true democracy. 

YingLao NoanVo

YingLao NoanVo is the deputy director of the Salween Institute for Public Policy. She has extensive experience in civic engagement and political/human rights campaigning. She has provided technical support to peace negotiations and constitution-drafting processes in Myanmar, but also to a number of local non-governmental organizations working toward women's and ethnic-minority rights.

Radka Antalikova

Radka Antalíková PhD is the research adviser of the Salween Institute for Public Policy. Antalíková has been supporting education and research activities of local organizations in Myanmar, with a particular focus on young people, refugees and ethnic minorities.