As 2017 draws to a close, any last shred of optimism regarding progress in human rights and democracy in Myanmar has been emphatically blown away by the Myanmar Army's campaign of violence in northern Rakhine State. It is important to note, however, that while international attention needs to remain focused on the Rohingya crisis, there are pressing and urgent problems throughout the country that must be addressed in 2018, including the human rights violations being committed against victims of armed conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, an increasingly repressive media environment, rising anti-Muslim discrimination, and a failing peace process. All of which are underpinned by the impunity and power of the Myanmar Army.
2017 began with the dark shadow of U Ko Ni's assassination at Yangon International Airport in January. A renowned constitutional expert and legal advisor to the National League for Democracy, his murder in broad daylight was a huge blow, not just to his family and others around him, but to the country's democratic progress. The perpetrators have still not been brought to justice.
The year also began with the fallout from October 2016's violent crackdown in Rakhine State after the newly-emerged Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched attacks against border guard posts. 135,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh during the violence and the subsequent flash report by the Officer of the High Commissioner of Human Rights detailed horrific and systematic human rights abuses leading to the UN Human Rights Council mandating a fact-finding mission (FFM) to independently investigate the violations committed by the Myanmar Army and its related security forces. Their investigation, in which a final report will be presented in September 2018, will cover not only the situation in Rakhine State, but also other parts of the country including northern Shan and Kachin State since 2011. The Government, however, is still refusing access to the country for the FFM members.
The situation in northern Rakhine State took a dramatic turn for the worse in August 2017, when another violent crackdown after the Myanmar Government-alleged surprise attacks by the ARSA, resulted in a scale of violence shocking even by the known behavior of the Myanmar Army. Over 655,000 Rohingya (as of 14 December, 2017) have fled to temporary refugee camps in Bangladesh, as the Myanmar Army systematically burned villages, murdered, raped and tortured their way through the area. Both the UN Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights have labeled the crisis 'ethnic cleansing.' While a bilateral repatriation agreement has been signed between the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, the terms of the agreement mean that in reality it will be almost impossible for most of the Rohingya to return, and many of those who are legally able will likely not want to return without guarantees of equality, safety and restitution of lost and destroyed property.
This crisis has torn apart society in Myanmar, with hate speech, fear, disinformation and a rhetoric espousing security against 'Bengali' illegal immigrants and Islamic terrorism commonplace. It should be noted that some brave organizations remain committed to speaking out for the Rohingya and other of the most marginalized communities in the country. The Karen National Union, Myanmar's oldest ethnic armed organization, remembering the violence committed by the Myanmar Army in Karen State, stated that they regret "witnessing the repeat of this history." Karen Women's Organization has issued a strong statement denouncing the Myanmar Army's use of rape against Rohingya women while its umbrella, the Women's League of Burma also condemned how "widespread propaganda is inflating the threat of 'terrorism' in Rakhine State to fuel religious and racial extremism" and how this is "creating fear, insecurity, and hatred among different communities." This fear and hatred has become manifest in broader anti-Muslim hate speech and discriminatory actions with Ma Ba Tha (The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion) leader and ultranationalist monk, Wirathu, continuing to tour the country, spreading ugly rhetoric about the Muslim minority.
Ethnic minorities in Myanmar have borne the brunt of the Myanmar Army's abuse and military offensives for many generations, including during this time of so-called democratic transition. The worst of the fighting in the past 12 months has been in Kachin and northern Shan States, but periodic clashes have also occurred in other parts of the country such as Karen State. The historical record of the abuse and militarization of southeast Myanmar is highlighted in the report, "Foundation of Fear," by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), which outlines the patterns of abuse over the past 25 years since the KHRG was founded. Not just a historical record, the report seeks to highlight the importance of transitional justice for the victims, many of whom suffer trauma due to the abuse by the Myanmar Army. The need for justice was also highlighted by the Human Rights Foundation of Monland in a report "I Still Remember," which states "Rather than acknowledging Burma's history of vast human rights violations, the current administration in Burma seems unwilling or unable to address its violent past, instead resorting to victim blaming when individuals are unable to forget the violence inflicted upon them."
The hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from these Myanmar Army offensives and abuses stand as a testament to the violence. It is vital that these displaced persons continue to receive humanitarian support, but 2017 has seen a drastic reduction of essential provisions from international donors to Shan and Karen refugee and IDP camps, while restrictions on the delivery of aid in Kachin State mean that for many of the predominantly Christian IDPs, their Christmas will see them going hungry. A campaign from Kachin civil society is underway, as it has been for the past few years, to raise money for these war victims.
While the human rights situation has further deteriorated in 2017, the media environment that is particularly important in these troubling times, has become more restricted and dangerous. Reuters journalists, Thet Oo Maung - more commonly known as Wa Lone - and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on 12 December, 2017 and charged under the Official Secrets Act. This is just the latest in a long list of judicial harassment of media workers carrying out their legitimate work. Others include Aung Naing Soe and journalists from the Turkish state broadcaster, who are still in jail after flying a drone near Parliament in addition to Lawi Weng and his colleagues from the Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma who were arrested after covering a drug-burning ceremony of the Ta'ang National Liberation Army. It is telling that these media workers have been prominent in reporting on ethnic and religious minorities.
2017 will be remembered in Myanmar and throughout the world and not for the reasons many had hoped after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy had come to power. Yet it must be remembered if the processes of national reconciliation and democratization are to find their footing. Without truth, accountability and transitional justice, the many victims of the violence and abuse of the Myanmar Army, whether the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State, refugees living in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border, Kachin spending yet another Christmas relying on donations in IDP camps in the north of the country, or journalists harassed and jailed for doing their job, the narrative of transition, democracy, peace and human rights will be empty. The past year has perhaps shown the limitations of this narrative more bluntly than ever. The stage-managed political changes to the country since 2011, in which the Myanmar Army retains its power and acts with impunity, has resulted in the continuing suffering of the most marginalized and a huge democratic deficit. As 2017 ends as a watershed moment for the human rights situation, Progressive Voice renews its commitment to continue to amplify voices from the ground, especially of the most vulnerable and marginalized. Progressive Voice hopes for a brighter 2018, but also one in which the perpetrators of the abuses are held accountable, including the international community pursuing all available mechanisms for justice.
We look forward to continue our work with you in the coming year. Our Weekly Highlights will take a short hiatus over the holidays, but we will return with a full issue on 8 January 2018. We wish you happy holidays and all the best for 2018.
All the best,
Aung Khaing Min
Chair of the Board of Advisory
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term 'Myanmar' in acknowledgment that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of 'Myanmar' rather than 'Burma' without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten.