The Asian Human Rights Commission has been following with concern news of the latest outbreak of communal violence in Burma. Although the circumstances of how the violence began are clouded, the president on 22 March 2013 declared an indefinite state of emergency over four townships of Mandalay Region–Meikhtila, Wundwin, Mahlaing and Thazi–after the imposition of an order under section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code on March 20 to shut down businesses until the situation improved failed to quell growing conflict that has officially left eleven people dead. Eyewitness accounts put the number of dead possibly in the dozens, with many people besides injured.
It would be disingenuous of the authorities in Burma to describe the violence as unexpected. Throughout the latter part of 2012, they permitted demonstrations by thousands of persons calling for the expulsion from the country of Muslims in the west alleged to have entered illegally. At that time, a number of reprise attacks occurred against targets in other parts of the country, although these did not spread widely and attracted little media attention. Yet now the response has been, as previously, to react with the introduction of a state of emergency as if confronted with an event that was wholly unexpected, for which the authorities had not been prepared.
Although this state of emergency is only the first proclaimed by the president for 2013, it is the latest in a series since he took office that is beginning to set a familiar pattern, and indeed, return Burma to its regular programming during years of dictatorship: that is, when in doubt, send in the army.
That the use of a state of emergency is becoming the default response to any type of widespread violence is at least as much a cause for concern as the incidence of violence itself. Although nobody doubts the seriousness of the situation and the need for the concerned authorities to have means at their disposal to address the violence, the question needs to be asked as to why the police operating under more conventional juridical measures appear as yet incapable of dealing with any incidence of violence that occurs in the country, and what the consequences for the fledgling political changes in Burma might be if the proclamation of a state of emergency remains the default response to incidents of this sort.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2001 spoke to these issues when it observed that a state of emergency ought to be imposed only where the nation is somehow threatened existentially, and that, “Not every disturbance or catastrophe qualifies as a public emergency which threatens the life of the nation” (CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.11, 31 August 2011, para. 3). It is unlikely that some violence in some northern towns of Burma, serious as it is, could be found to warrant the proclaiming of an emergency under international standards, especially when practically no other interventions were even tried before its proclamation.
The ready resort of the president to the proclaiming of a state of emergency each time local authorities are unable to deal with a situation not only constitutes an affront to international standards but also casts grave doubts over his assertions that the country is changing and growing politically. Granted that the declaration of a state of emergency is a marginal improvement from the dark days in the final years of military dictatorship when the army dispensed with any pretence of legality whatsoever, and imposed its authority over crowds on the streets without reference to legal parameters; however, given that it provides the military free rein to do what they wish in the affected areas once ordered, and given that it is of unlimited duration, these improvements are modest, and hardly consistent with the democratic aspirations that the president espouses each time he goes abroad.
The problem for the authorities in Burma today is really how to protect lives, property and human rights without having to resort repeatedly to measures associated with the authoritarian governments of old, measures inimical to the express intention of the state in Burma to democratise. No easy solution exists to this problem. But, one way that is bound, in the long run, to encourage rapid slippage back into the politics of old is the repeated use of states of emergencies. Therefore, the Asian Human Rights Commission urges that the situation in Meikhtila be stabilised through the use of conventional forces and instruments, and that the state of emergency be lifted at once and the army in Burma returned to the barracks.