This book argues that the reality facing the Rohingyas, a Muslim confessional ethnic group who live in the modern province of Rakhine in western Myanmar, is the threat of genocide. Ever since Burma became independent they have been the target of choice whenever ambitious (or desperate) politicians need to defect attention. Both government officials and leaders of various parties have called for their expulsion from the country of their birth, and the main opposition party ignores their plight. Te build up to the elections in late-2015 has seen the final destruction of their civic rights in Myanmar (completing a process that began with the 1947 Constitution) and increasingly they are detained in what are now permanent internal refugee camps, denied food, work and medical care. Either the regime agrees to reduce the level of persecution (and this will require sustained international pressure) or we will see a repeat of the already-regular refugee crises as the Rohingyas try to fee. Equally, it is almost inevitable that there will be further inter-communal violence, aimed at either forcing the remaining Rohingyas to fee or succumb to mass murder. The charge of genocide is a serious one to make; the current situation in Myanmar fully justifies the use of this word.
The situation in contemporary Myanmar attracts relatively little attention from the international press even in the critical period leading up to only the third round of elections to be held in the country since 1990. If there is a common narrative it is that Burma (the name ‘Myanmar’ was adopted as part of the 1989 Constitution) was a closed country of little direct interest to the world; that Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), having endured years of house arrest, is fully committed to a democratic future for all the various ethnic and religious groups in the country; and that instances of inter-ethnic or inter-confessional violence are to be expected in a country making the difficult transition from authoritarian military rule to democracy. The problem is that all three of these beliefs are false.
Burma may have turned its back on the British-led Commonwealth when it gained independence in 1948, but it maintained substantial external links as a democracy (until 1962), under military rule (1962–2010) and subsequently. It is just that those links have been essentially pragmatic (especially under military rule), designed to allow the ruling elite to make money by trading away the country’s wealth while at the same time buying arms. As we will see, the military regime (which remains essentially in power despite the notional return of democracy and the electoral defeat of its political party in 2015) does not like international criticism of its actions, but is far more responsive than is often believed. This means those who decide not to criticise it, or to set it red lines, are failing in their duty under international law.
As in its response to the political dynamics in regions such as the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the Western media likes to identify clear heroes and villains in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi clearly fits the hero category for this type of analysis. She has spent over twenty years of her life imprisoned in her own home, she has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and she leads the main opposition party. However, as so often in the former Soviet Union, our chosen heroes are actually far more nuanced than our narratives demand. The other side of the story is that Aung San Suu Kyi herself is part of the Myanmar elite. Her father fought for the Japanese during World War II and was one of the leaders of the independence movement; her mother was a government minister from 1948–62. Te NLD’s deputy chairman was the commander in chief of the Burmese Army until 1976 when he was ousted after leading a failed coup. Equally, while the NLD may aim for democracy, in an ethnically complex country its electoral support comes almost entirely from the ethnically Burmese community. Thus, in terms of its senior officials and the ethnicity of its electorate, the NLD shares much with the regime, and has had a difficult relationship with the ethnic minorities in Burma ever since independence. In particular, Aung San Suu Kyi has opted to avoid direct comment when the question of the systematic persecution of the Rohingyas is raised.
Another easy assumption is that Buddhism is a peaceful religion that shows no sign of the intolerance to other faiths that scars some forms of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. Unfortunately this is not the case. Terevada Buddhism (which is also dominant in Sri Lanka and Thailand, where it is also associated with inter-communal violence) has a core argument that for Buddhism to be safe all other religious beliefs must be eliminated. It also tends to look to the state for support and to regard those who are not Buddhists as less than human.
In Myanmar, extremist Buddhist organisations have been at the heart of inter-communal violence ever since the return to relative democracy in 2008. Both the major political parties (the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, USDP, and the opposition NLD) are reliant on these organisations for much of their electoral support, giving them substantial influence over the political process. Equally there is emerging evidence that the old military regime funded and supported one major faction among the extremists to foster unrest. In turn, the existence of inter-communal violence keeps open the possibility of a return to military rule—in order, of course, to save the nation from violence.
This matters, as it means that Myanmar is not on a clear road to democracy. The violence against the Rohingyas is not an unpleasant, though predictable, side-effect of a society moving from authoritarian rule to liberalism. The repression of the Rohingyas is orchestrated, in part by those who believe there is no place in Myanmar for anyone who is not a Buddhist (and especially if they are Muslim), in part by ethnic extremists in other communities who want a racially pure state, and in part by the military regime that is content to see a degree of unrest.
As this book argues, global indifference supports the regime and is leading to genocide. There is nothing to gain from not challenging the military and the notional opposition since, if they are left unchallenged, each year will see refugee crises, which are already destabilising the region. And, sooner or later, the world will wake up to a genocide on the scale that shocked the world in Rwanda in 1994.
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