Myan­mar’s moves against Ro­hingya a get-out cam­paign, not geno­cide

The Straits Times - - WORLD -

Com­mis­sion on Rakhine state an­nounced its rec­om­men­da­tions on var­i­ous is­sues, in­clud­ing cit­i­zen­ship, com­mu­nal di­a­logue, ba­sic se­cu­rity and safety, free­dom of move­ment and bi­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion with Bangladesh.

The raids by hun­dreds of Arsa as­sailants led to an orgy of vi­o­lent clashes that left more than 400 dead, mostly Rakhine Mus­lims but also scores of se­cu­rity per­son­nel and Bud­dhist and Hindu vil­lagers. Global at­ten­tion at the out­set fo­cused on State Coun­sel­lor and For­eign Min­is­ter Aung San Suu Kyi and how she had let the vi­o­lence hap­pen. In fact, it was Arsa that in­tended to nip in the bud the Kofi An­nan com­mis­sion and the ways for­ward it pointed to.


Co­a­lesc­ing in mid-2016 from Harakah al-Yaqin (or “Faith Move­ment”), and led by Ata Ul­lah, a Ro­hingya who was born in Pak­istan but grew up in Saudi Ara­bia, Arsa de­lib­er­ately pro­voked the Tat­madaw into over­re­act­ing in or­der to alien­ate Mus­lims and gain re­cruits to its sep­a­ratist cause. Prior to its Aug 25 at­tacks, Arsa’s first salvo took place in Oc­to­ber last year un­der sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances but on a smaller scale. This time, the con­fronta­tion may have reached a point of no re­turn.

Arsa now has the full-blown in­sur­gency it wants, with sup­port from Pak­istani and Mid­dle Eastern sources and an am­ple pool of re­cruits from dis­af­fected young Ro­hingya Mus­lims who have no prospect of a bet­ter life in north­ern Rakhine’s hilly shacks and poverty-stricken towns.

The Tat­madaw, how­ever, got the pre­text it needed to sys­tem­at­i­cally drive out Ro­hingya Mus­lims, who are not recog­nised un­der Myan­mar’s 1982 Cit­i­zen­ship Law as one of the coun­try’s 135 eth­nic mi­nori­ties. The ma­jor­ity of Myan­mar’s pop­u­la­tion are of Burmese (lo­cally called Ba­mar) eth­nic­ity but its eth­nic mi­nori­ties com­prise more than a third of the coun­try’s 53-mil­lion pop­u­la­tion, led by the Shans and the Karens. Rakhine state it­self has 3.2 mil­lion, 52 per cent of whom are Bud­dhist and 43 per cent Mus­lim, with Chris­tians, Hin­dus and oth­ers mak­ing up the rest. But in the north­ern Rakhine towns of Maung­daw, Buthi­daung and Rathedaung, the Mus­lims num­ber 950,000, ac­cord­ing to the 2014 na­tional cen­sus and the United Na­tions. Of these, more than 80 per cent are Mus­lims with large fam­i­lies, and most of them have now been forced out.

Prior to the lat­est out­break of vi­o­lence be­tween Ro­hingya Mus­lims, Rakhine Bud­dhists and the Tat­madaw, pe­ri­odic bouts of com­pa­ra­ble tur­moil and blood­shed took place in 1978 and 1992, with the com­mu­nal vi­o­lence in 2012 sow­ing the seeds of Arsa. The Rakhine cri­sis is deep-seated and at­trib­ut­able to the Bri­tish con­quest of In­dia that even­tu­ally led to three vic­to­ri­ous wars over the Burmese from 1824 on­wards, and the sub­ju­ga­tion of Burma as a prov­ince of Bri­tish In­dia from 1885 to 1937.

For more than a cen­tury, the Bri­tish brought in work­ers of dif­fer­ent faiths into Burma from In­dia (which sub­se­quently split into Pak­istan, In­dia and East Pak­istan/Bangladesh). Many South Asian mi­grants had also trick­led into Burma on their own in search of bet­ter lives. Among them were Mus­lim new­com­ers who mixed with the Mus­lims who had been in Burma from be­fore as a re­sult of mar­itime and over­land com­merce.

The pre-1824 Mus­lims had in­te­grated into Burmese so­ci­ety. Not so the Mus­lims who ar­rived af­ter. It is the de­scen­dants of those newer Mus­lim mi­grants from Bri­tain’s ex­pan­sion into and di­rect rule over Burma that are at the crux of to­day’s chal­lenge. Myan­mar peo­ple, not just Barma but also other eth­nic mi­nori­ties, see these later Mus­lim ar­rivals as hav­ing come mostly from what is to­day Bangladesh. These post-1824 Mus­lims are thus con­sid­ered bo­gus dwellers and “in­ter­lop­ers” in Rakhine, hav­ing tres­passed and re­fus­ing to go back to where they came from. Many Burmese un­sur­pris­ingly la­bel them “Ben­gali”, as they are seen as de­riv­ing from Chit­tagong and else­where in Bangladesh.

In turn, these Mus­lims ral­lied for their own iden­tity and au­ton­omy. The term “Ro­hingya” thus sprung up in the 1950s as an eth­nic con­struct in search of iden­tity and recog­ni­tion. “Ro­hingya” as an eth­nic term was stip­u­lated in writ­ten records for the first time in 1963. Other names in con­tention at the time in­cluded “Ruhangya” and “Roe­whengya”, based on the oral un­der­stand­ing of “Rwangya”.

What will hap­pen now is that many thou­sands of Ro­hingya Mus­lims may not be com­ing back to Myan­mar and will form a long-term refugee pop­u­la­tion in limbo on the Myan­mar-Bangladesh bor­der where ten­sions and hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions will per­sist, with a grind­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis that rolls on in­def­i­nitely. In turn, the Tat­madaw may re­bal­ance the north­ern Rakhine pop­u­la­tion by bring­ing in Barma and/or Rakhine Bud­dhists to re­duce the Mus­lim ma­jor­ity there.


When she spoke on Sept 19, af­ter more than three weeks of si­lence, what Ms Suu Kyi un­wit­tingly im­plied about “ver­i­fi­ca­tion” and the right of re­turn is that many Ro­hingya Mus­lims are not likely to be al­lowed back be­cause they lack iden­tity pa­pers, as they be­long to an un­recog­nised eth­nic mi­nor­ity group of Myan­mar. As a re­sult, global con­dem­na­tion of “The Lady” is un­likely to let up. Yet Ms Suu Kyi is stuck be­tween a rock and a hard place. Af­ter five decades of mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship, in­clud­ing 21 years when she was mostly un­der house ar­rest in Yangon, she has ush­ered in a frag­ile democ­racy with the elec­tions of Novem­ber 2015.

But this demo­cratic achieve­ment was premised on a com­pro­mise with the Tat­madaw, headed by Se­nior Gen­eral Min Aung Hlaing. As the army ve­he­mently re­jects the Ro­hingyas, and is backed by wide­spread pop­u­lar sup­port in do­ing so, main­tain­ing a civil-mil­i­tary com­pro­mise on the mat­ter so as to keep democ­racy on track is the trade-off Ms Suu Kyi has to make. Stick­ing up for the Ro­hingyas would un­der­mine her sup­port base, alien­ate the Tat­madaw and po­ten­tially de­rail the sem­blance of demo­cratic rule.

For there to be a way for­ward, it would have to be based on a re­gional ap­proach built on the back of up­graded Myan­mar-Bangladesh ties.

Asean has proved in­ef­fec­tual – and even di­vided – on the Ro­hingya case. Malaysia re­cently dis­avowed a state­ment is­sued by the Philip­pines, the cur­rent Asean chair, on the Rakhine sit­u­a­tion. While its role is in­dis­pens­able in mit­i­gat­ing the Ro­hingya cri­sis, Bangladesh is not part of Asean. Five coun­tries are key, namely Myan­mar, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thai­land and In­done­sia.

In re­cent years, thou­sands of Ro­hingyas have risked their lives by cross­ing the seas in rick­ety boats in search of jobs, with many head­ing to Malaysia’s plan­ta­tions and tran­sit­ing through Thai­land for sup­plies. In­done­sia, the world’s largest Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­try, wants to show com­pas­sion and lead­er­ship on the Ro­hingya front.

Third-coun­try set­tle­ments can play a small but sig­nif­i­cant part. Fi­nally, the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Kofi An­nan-led com­mis­sion pro­vide the most com­pre­hen­sive so­lu­tion go­ing for­ward. A new com­mit­tee led by Ms Suu Kyi set up to im­ple­ment these rec­om­men­da­tions, is a step in the right di­rec­tion.

The Ro­hingya cri­sis is struc­turally in­tractable, a piece of his­tor­i­cal bag­gage for which there is no ef­fec­tive re­dress. The cri­sis can be mit­i­gated but not solved. There is cer­tainly a lot that is wrong about the Ro­hingya plight, as global head­lines will keep por­tray­ing. But, lest we for­get, there is also still so much right about Myan­mar to­day – af­ter its decades of go­ing nowhere.

The writer teaches in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and di­rects the In­sti­tute of Se­cu­rity and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies at Chu­la­longkorn Uni­ver­sity in Bangkok.

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