Criticism of Myanmar over the Rohingya Muslims tragedy may set back its progress on human rights
Emily Chan says human rights must be evaluated based on the standards of individual countries, and that in economic development – the foundation of human rights – Myanmar’s progress is undeniable
The recent unrest in Rakhine, Myanmar has attracted the international spotlight, with some commentators describing the attacks as “mass atrocities”. But we should be mindful of the unintended consequence of limiting human rights when we intend the exact opposite.
Human rights have routinely been interpreted in an absolute sense, with a homogeneous benchmark for every country. However, there should be room for individual characteristics. In an emerging economy, human rights may largely mean economic development and international acceptance.
When Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi faced denunciation over Rakhine, she emphasised government efforts to improve living conditions. Indeed, this is akin to how China views human rights. It means, in large part, the right to be free of poverty.
In this respect, I see huge development in recent years. I first set foot in Myanmar in 2015 in Yangon. People sold live chickens on trains. One had to literally watch their step to avoid potholes on streets. Today, I see shopping malls and multi-lane highways. The gross domestic product of Myanmar has grown more than six-fold in the past 20 years. It is today a major exporter of oil and gas to South Asian countries and China. Myanmar can be an integral part of the economic corridor linking Yunnan to Calcutta in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Politically, the government has gained international acceptance. It has navigated through its military legacy and governed within the constitutional constraints that allow the military a greater say in state affairs than civilians. Myanmar’s success is evident in its membership in regional associations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Greater Mekong Subregion.
Once a country has its economy fixed or international standing secured, it cannot disregard civilians’ lives. But survival is the prerequisite for all other rights. Without a sound economy, the government cannot provide security to safeguard survival, let alone realise economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for civilians’ dignity and free development.
International recognition and partnerships offer another safety net. A better-connected country has more to lose if the world deems its human rights protection falls short.
Watch: What’s driving Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis?
We must be cautious about hasty dogmatism that fits our stereotypes. Most “news” we have read is from refugees who have fled Myanmar. By the same token, why do we not give Suu Kyi’s account that her government has started “defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible” equal weight?
Most people have come to believe that human rights are rigid and certain countries have attained the ideal. But the concept of human rights is fluid. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells us that the exercise of human rights also involves “due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others”. This respect is exactly why we should not judge all countries by one set of standards. It is why we should allow new economies their interpretation of human rights protection, and why we should remain vigilant against precipitous conclusions.
South Africa took 50 years to end apartheid. America abolished slavery in 1865 but the oppressed waited almost 100 years more for Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
Myanmar has only had its new government for one year. I am well aware that this is not an excuse for wanton atrocities and it is true that it should respect fundamental human rights. But one should fully understand the foundations of human rights, so that we do not unintentionally narrow human rights in the pursuit of it.
Emily K.H. Chan has a master of laws from the University of Hong Kong, and is a former assistant secretary in the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau. She currently works in the financial sector