Melvyn Foo is a law graduate from the National University of Singapore. He did some research in Myanmar this year, which opened his eyes to a larger world out there. He wishes to engage that larger world. You can read more of his writings here.
Myanmar is receiving unanimous condemnation over the Rohingya atrocities. So why is the crisis not abating? At this stage, despite the Myanmar governmentʼs equivocations, it is indisputable that atrocities are being committed against the Rohingya. Among other key pieces of evidence, satellite images confirmed that Rohingya villages were razed to the ground while a Buddhist settlement remained intact, a report by the UN secretary general Kofi Annan found that the Muslim community in Rakhine suffered from protracted statelessness and profound discrimination, and independent eye-witness testimonies corroborate 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.
But 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 its civil war—the worldʼs longest running one—and a host of other issues that plague its people, including resource inequality, land grabbing, internal displacement, cronyism, and crippling poverty.
To understand why the crisis is not abating, five intertwined reasons must then be considered:
- Myanmar is prioritising its vision for peace and unification, and this vision does not include the Rohingya
- Myanmarʼs majority sees the Rohingya as a threat to their Buddhist identity
- The Tatmadaw has always acted and will continue to act with impunity
- The Lady is unlikely to risk antagonising Buddhist nationalist or her goodwill with the Tatmadaw for the Rohingya
- The current international climate breeds non-interference and rejection.
Myanmarʼs and Aung San Suu Kyiʼs visions for unity begin with the Ladyʼs father: General Aung San. Hailed as the architect of Myanmarʼs independence, General Aung San spearheaded a historic agreement the likes of which Myanmar has never seen 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 Sanʼs 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 dʼétat. Since then, the civil war between the ethnic insurgent groups and the military has not ceased.
Although a 2015 election saw Aung San Suu Kyiʼs National League for Democracy (NLD) take office in April 2016, Myanmarʼs 2008 Constitution— drafted by the military—entrenches control of Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Military Affairs to the military. In other words, the military still retains significant power and remains a key divisive force in Myanmarʼs quest for peace and unity.
This quest culminates in the 21st Century Panglong Conference, which is the NLDʼs foremost priority and its 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 during all this time, the Rohingya have never been on anyoneʼs agenda. The 1947 Panglong Conference did not include them; nor does the 21st Century Panglong Conference. In fact, local news publications do not even use the term ‘Rohingyaʼ; they refer only to the ‘Rakhine crisisʼ.
On one hand, the foremost priority of Myanmarʼs key stakeholders is peace and unity; on the other hand, it seems like the only thing on which they are united for now is their unwillingness to protect Rohingya 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 and violence, not least because they are congregated in Rakhine State, fuelling existential fears that it will become the countryʼs first Muslim-majority state.
“Thereʼs 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 Myanmarʼs 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 and the proposal has since been criticised as a two-faced political ploy.
Till today, despite overwhelming evidence of the Rohingyaʼs plight, the majority seems to have little sympathy. A local publication reported that the government and the militaryʼs 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, “ARSAʼs 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 dʼétat 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 challenges, 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 Asiaʼs most educated to being the least educated and the poorest.
Although NLD is the current ruling party, the military still controls three key ministries: defence, home affairs, and border affairs. Regarding the Rohingya specifically, their policy is ruthless: they are advocating for a rigorous application of the 1982 Citizenship Law which could 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 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 ARSAʼs 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 weʼre in Parliament, we can bargain to change the constitution,” Myint said. But that raises another problem.
The Ladyʼs Unwillingness to Intervene
Various explanations have arisen in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyiʼs 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 NLDʼs foremost priority is building peace; antagonising the Tatmadaw is a surefire way to derail the peace process.
Regardless of what the Ladyʼs 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 inevitably 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 Ladyʼs personal sympathies, or lack thereof. Because when the NLD spokesperson 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 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 Myanmarʼs 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?