An Unwanted People

Myanmar is receiving unanimous condemnation over the Rohingya atrocities. So why is the crisis not abating?

A version of this post was published on Fox & Hedgehog.

At this stage, despite the Myanmar government’s equivocations, it is indisputable that atrocities are being committed against the Rohingya. Among other key pieces of evidence, satellite imagery confirmed that Rohingya villages were razed to the ground while a Buddhist settlement remained intact, a report by the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan found that the Muslim community in Rakhine suffered from protracted statelessness and profound discrimination, independent eye-witness testimonies corroborated accounts of systematic and coordinated attacks.

It comes as no surprise then that the international media is awash with criticism of how Myanmar is handling the Rohingya crisis. Fellow Nobel laureates have even openly condemned Aung San Suu Kyi for her inaction.

Why then is the crisis not abating?

Five intertwined reasons must be considered:

(1) Myanmar is prioritising its vision for peace and unification, and this vision does not include the Rohingya;
(2) Myanmar’s majority sees the Rohingya as a threat to their Buddhist identity;
(3) The Tatmadaw has always acted and will continue to act with impunity;
(4) The Lady is unlikely to risk antagonising Buddhist nationalists or her goodwill with the Tatmadaw;
(5) The current international climate breeds non-interference and rejection.

A Vision for Peace and Unity—without including the Rohingyas

As with most countries, it is an assumption that the polity acts with one voice and one will. For Myanmar, in particular, this assumption is grossly mistaken. With 135 officially recognised ethnic groups (not including the Rohingya, who are stateless), the diverse and fragmented interests that rage in Myanmar also underpin the world’s longest running civil war.

Peace and unity are thus the foremost priorities of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

Myanmar’s vision for unity began with the Lady’s father: General Aung San. Hailed as the architect of Myanmar’s independence, he spearheaded a historic agreement the likes of which Myanmar has never seen again since then. This Panglong Agreement, unanimously signed by various ethnic minority leaders in attendance on 12 February 1947, crystallised a commitment to a united Burma.

But this fragile peace was built on two factors: General Aung San’s charisma and heroism, and a common enemy in the British. Unsurprisingly, after Aung San was assassinated on 19 July 1947 and after Myanmar attained independence on 4 January 1948, the Panglong Agreement unravelled swiftly as internal hostilities broke out again.

On 2 March 1962, the military staged a coup d’état. Since then, the civil war between ethnic insurgent groups and the military has dragged on till today. Although a 2015 election saw the NLD take office in April 2016, the military still retains significant power and remains a key divisive force in Myanmar’s quest for peace and unity.

This quest culminates in the 21st Century Panglong Conference, which is the NLD’s attempt to recreate the likes of the 1947 Panglong Agreement. “Only if we are all united, our country will be at peace. Only if our country is at peace, will we be able to stand on equal footing with other countries in our region and across the world,” said Aung San Suu Kyi in her opening remarks to the 21st Century Panglong Conference.

But all this time, the Rohingya has never been on anyone’s agenda. The 1947 Panglong Conference did not include them; neither does the 21st Century Panglong Conference, which is still struggling to build a tenuous peace. In fact, local news publications do not even use the term ‘Rohingya’; they refer only to the ‘Rakhine crisis’.

On one hand, the foremost priority of Myanmar’s key stakeholders is peace and unity; on the other hand, it seems like the only thing they are united on for now is their unwillingness to protect Rohingyan rights. This poses a twofold problem: first, no one is motivated to address the Rohingya crisis, and second, even if anyone was, they would be hard-pressed to get other stakeholders to unite on a course of action.

Rohingyas Perceived as a Threat to a National Buddhist Identity

Since independence, Buddhist nationalism and religious tensions have persisted in Myanmar. In particular, the Rohingyas are a focal point for conflict, not least because they are congregated in Rakhine State, fuelling existential fears that it will become the country’s first Muslim-majority state.

“There’s been a longstanding fear of Islamic cultures encroaching on Myanmar and weakening a national identity centered around Buddhism, and the violence of the past five years, which is spun as being largely perpetrated by Rohingya, confirms this in the minds of many,” said Francis Wade, author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim Other.

In 2015, the ruling government promoted a proposal to grant the Rohingya voting rights. However, a growing Buddhist protest movement shut this proposal down. The proposal has since been criticised as a two-faced political ploy.

Till today, despite overwhelming evidence of the Rohingya’s plight, the majority seems to have little sympathy. A local publication reported that the government’s and the military’s approach in Rakhine State has “garnered widespread support domestically”. A Myanmar diplomat and PhD candidate in international relations argued that the world is “see[ing] the villains as the victims and security personnel as the perpetrators of human rights abuses.” (The article has since been deleted, but a cached version can be found here). On 21 September, hundreds of Buddhist protestors tried to block aid shipments to the Rohingya.

Harvard student Jasmine Chia, who conducted research in Yangon and Rakhine State, wrote that the international media exacerbates these tensions by oversimplifying and mischaracterising the Rohingya situation. “In even a cursory survey of Rohingya history, it is clear that the Rohingya are not an ethnic, but rather a political construction… the lack of nuance with which the international community has approached very important issues of legitimacy has contributed to a sense that Rakhine Buddhists are misunderstood, and besieged. On the other side of the political tension in Rakhine state… are Rakhine Buddhists who are genuinely afraid of a (false) Muslim takeover.”

It does not help that there are actual incidents of insurgent violence. On 9 October last year, a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked border guard police outposts. According to a local publication, almost a dozen security officers were killed. On 25 August this year, ARSA launched coordinated attacks again and claimed responsibility, triggering brutal retaliation from the military. The government has since formally denounced the ARSA as a terrorist organisation.

Of course, these militants are extremists. As Myanmar-based journalist Fiona Macgregor wrote, “ARSA’s techniques, however, are unpopular with many Rohingya. The group developed a frightening reputation—even within the Rohingya community—after militants killed dozens of village heads and others suspected of collaborating with the authorities.”

But such subtleties are either lost on a Buddhist majority conditioned to think that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants or wilfully ignored by a powerful military only too happy to have an excuse to exterminate a long-standing thorn in their side. And that brings us to the next reason.

The Impunity of the Tatmadaw

Since its coup d’état in 1962, the military has run amok in Myanmar without check. Officially known as the Tatmadaw, they ruled the country under martial law for the next 12 years, violently suppressed protests and political challengers, and marginalised minority groups. Even monks were not spared: in a crackdown on a series of protests in 2007 now known as the Saffron Revolution, security forces opened fire on thousands of people led by Buddhist monks, raided monasteries and even the Shwedagon Pagoda, and arrested hundreds of monks.

Under junta rule, the people of Myanmar deteriorated from being one of Asia’s most educated to being the least educated and the poorest.

Although the NLD is the current ruling party, Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution—drafted by the military—entrenches control of Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Military Affairs to the military. Regarding the Rohingya specifically, their policy is ruthless: they are advocating for a rigorous application of the 1982 Citizenship Law which can see the Rohingya being declared as illegal immigrants and being detained in camps. They are also pushing for the National Defence and Security Council, in which they control six out of 11 seats, to declare a state of emergency in Rakhine State and to place the area under martial law.

In other words, they are both the controlling mind and the executioners of armed violence against the Rohingya.

Of course, the Tatmadaw justify their actions as an exercise of their right of self-defence. But even then, any reprisals—if they can be characterised as such—are indiscriminate and are wholly disproportionate. Last October, the ARSA’s attacks on police stations prompted a retaliation where “hundreds were killed, villages were destroyed, and mass rape of Rohingya women took place.” To date, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced by the conflict. There is nothing at all to suggest that the military is being “disciplined in [their] response, and [that] it is all legal,” as National Security Adviser Thaung Tun claimed.

And there is little that anyone can do to stop them. In a New Yorker article on the 2015 elections, a NLD candidate (as he then was) Myint Lwin acknowledged that the 2008 Constitution makes it impossible for elected officials to keep the military in check.

“Hopefully, once we’re in Parliament, we can bargain to change the constitution,” Myint said. But that raises another problem.

The Lady’s Unwillingness to Intervene

Various explanations have arisen in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s puzzling and controversial silence. At the most self-serving end of the spectrum, some speculate that she wants to be the president; the 2008 Constitution bars her from doing so. Others allege that she wishes to be the “sole decision-maker to have no chance of establishing rival power centres”; for that, removing the military from power is critical. A more optimistic—though arguably still unjustifiable—reason is that the NLD’s foremost priority is building peace; antagonising the Tatmadaw is a surefire way to derail the peace process.

Regardless of what the Lady’s motivations are, amending the 2008 Constitution is key to realising them. But currently, the 2008 Constitution reserves 25% of parliamentary seats for military officers, while more than seventy-five percent is required to approve amendments. In other words, the military must assent to any proposed changes. The NLD invariably would have to offer the Tatmadaw incentives for them to release their grip on power. Such incentives might include amnesties or promises not to seek revenge.

Buddhist nationalism disincentivises governmental support for the Rohingya as well. As one Yangon-based journalist puts it, “Buddhist nationalists are also upset with [Aung San Suu Kyi], but for opposite reasons. They think she is weak on Rakhine and on Islamization.”

Beyond political motivations, perhaps what is most telling is the Lady’s personal sympathies, or lack thereof. Because when the NLD spokeperson Win Htein was asked if Aung San Suu Kyi might have private sympathy for the Rohingya, he paused and then said: “No.”

Rejection by and Non-Interference from the Rest of the World

Given how little domestic sympathy there is, the Rohingya can only look to the rest of the world. But the outlook here is also disappointing.

It is a classic case of bark being worse than bite: save for issuing strong criticisms, the international community has done little else. There is no mention of sanctions, much less the invoking of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. The Trump administration is notoriously apathetic about human rights, even threatening before to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council. China and Russia will maintain their stance of non-interference.

Closer to home, most of Myanmar’s neighbours want nothing to do with the Rohingya. Malaysia and Thailand have previously turned away boats crammed with migrants; Bangladesh sees them as a burden; India refuses to acknowledge their refugee status and brands them as “illegal immigrants”.

But darker organisations are taking notice, namely, ISIS and other extremist groups such as the Al-Qaeda. And if things continue the way they are, the Rohingya may just swell their ranks.

After all, where else can the Rohingya go?


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About Mel

I dreamt I was a whale.