Ethnic Cleansing Roils Burma’s Democracy Transition

Migrants collect rainwater at a temporary refugee camp near Kanyin Chaung jetty, in Myanmar June 4, 2015. Soe Zeya Tun: This group of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued from a boat carrying 734 people off Myanmar's southern coast. Those on board had been at sea for more than two months - at the end with little food or water. The men in this photo were part of a group of 400 crammed into a warehouse by Myanmar police. They had arrived the day before, but while the women, children and some men had already been moved, these men were left behind. There was no sign of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR or foreign aid agencies. Just moments before this shot, the sky opened and the monsoon rains started coming down. The men were jostling with each other for space to catch water in their bottles and plates. The authorities were hesitant to grant us access at first, but as the morning wore on and the rains started, we were able to enter and start photographing and speaking to migrants. Just after taking this photo, the men were loaded into buses and trucks and driven to a camp where international aid agencies were waiting. I have worked on long and difficult assignments where I have gone days without a proper shower. But for these people it had been months without enough water. Everyone was dirty and had likely washed little while at sea. I could see just how meaningful it was for them to suddenly have a chance to drink and clean themselves with whatever small amount of water they could capture. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Migrants, mostly Rohingya, collect rainwater at a temporary refugee camp near Kanyin Chaung jetty, in Myanmar June 4, 2015. For the full story, see 2015 Photos of the Year, by Reuters REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
November 26, 2016

Burma’s 50 million people languished under a most vile military dictatorship for 50 years, but that has not made them a tolerant and open-handed society.

The country’s military is in the middle of a scorched earth operation against the one million minority Muslim Rohingya in Burma’s north-western Rakhine state that United Nations officials and international human rights agencies have called “ethnic cleansing.”

Scores, if not hundreds of people have been killed by the army and police since an attack on three police outposts on the border with Bangladesh on October 9. Police claim the attacks were by an Islamic militant group called the Rohingya Solidarity Organization and that nine policemen were killed.

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An official of the UN refugee agency says that in their reprisals the Burmese army and police have killed not only men, but many children and that women have been gang raped. Tens of thousands of people have fled over the border into Bangladesh or taken to boats in efforts to reach predominantly Muslim countries in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. For more than six weeks, UN agencies have been unable to reach the 150,000 people in Rakhine State, who normally receive food and medical aid because their livelihoods are restricted by the Burmese authorities.

The international agency Human Rights Watch says satellite pictures indicate at least 1,200 buildings have been burned to the ground in the police and army sweep. International concern and condemnation of the Burmese security operation is likely to grow. The neighbouring government in neighbouring, majority Muslim Malaysia says it will take up the issue on the international stage. There have already been demonstrations against the Burmese military in Malaysia’s principal city, Kuala Lumpur, and also in Jakarta, capital of the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia. Other protests have been held in Thailand, the exile home for tens of thousands of refugees from Burma’s long wars with ethnic minorities.

Burma has gone from military dictatorship to kleptocracy without drawing breath, writes Jonathan Manthorpe as fall elections loom.
Burma has gone from military dictatorship to kleptocracy without drawing breath, wrote Jonathan Manthorpe prior to Burma’s last elections.

Burma’s purge of the Rohingya has been going on for decades. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees there are 200,000 Rohingyas in camps in Bangladesh, including about 90,000 unregistered refugees in two unofficial camps. The Bangladeshi government is trying to close the border, fearing that if it makes it easy for Rohingya’s to cross, the Burmese military will take advantage and expel the entire population.

For outsiders, the difficult thing to comprehend is that most Burmese, who are staunch Buddhists, support the eradication of the Rohingya, very many of whom have lived in Burma – also called Myanmar – for several generations. Hatred of the Rohingya is so intense that they are denied citizenship, their movements within the country are restricted, they are banned from entering professions such as medicine and law, and they may not run for public office.

The campaigns against the Rohingya has been particularly problematic for the reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who while under detention for nearly two decades, became the international symbol of resistance to the military dictatorship.

In response to the public distaste for the Rohingya, Suu Kyi has remained largely silent about their plight. When she has spoken it has been only in the most general terms. Those statements have usually been to express the hope that the transition to democracy will bring peace agreements with all the country’s ethnic minorities, several of which have mounted armed insurrections for three decades and more.

Suu Kyi’s careful politicking highlights the tenuous nature of Burma’s transition to democracy, which began when the military introduced in 2011 what it said was a civilian government. In reality, this was a government of soldiers in mufti, but that changed somewhat in November last year when the NLD won a majority of seats in the parliament.

However, the military remains in charge. A quarter of the parliamentary seats are reserved for the military. This gives the soldiers a veto over any constitutional changes, which would require support of more than 75 per cent of parliamentarians. The most high profile of potential constitutional changes is one that would allow Suu Kyi to become president. At the moment she is banned under a section of the constitution written by the military that prohibits anyone with foreign family ties from becoming president. She was married to Oxford University professor Michael Aris, who died in 1999, and she has two children who are British citizens.

The military also retains direct control over the key security ministries and departments of Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence.

It is clear that there is a tortuous path ahead in the relationship between the military and Suu Kyi’s NLD if Burma is to complete the transition to a fully functional democracy.

The conflict with the Rohingya illustrates a major problem. The military maintains and will continue to insist on its primacy in dealing with recalcitrant ethnic minorities, most of which have homelands in Burma’s border regions with China, Thailand, Laos and Malaysia as well as Bangladesh.

In the last few days fighting has also broken out again in Burma’s northeastern Shan state bordering China. There, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the impoverished country’s most powerful militias, joined three smaller groups – the ethnic Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and its allies, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Arm – to take on the government’s military. The fighting has pushed thousands of people to flee over the border into China.

After decades of being unable to conclusively crush the armed separatist movements among Burma’s 135 recognised ethnic groups, the military has pursued a campaign of bribery with some success. Most of the insurgents have made peace agreements in the last 10 years or so in return for being put on the government payroll and being recognised as peacekeepers within their regions under loose government supervision.

But these deals are tenuous, as the renewed fighting in Shan state illustrates. The NLD persuaded the military to agree to a broad-based peace conference, which was held in August. Another parley is due in February, but while there is upheaval in Shan and Rakhine states the military, led by flambouyant Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, will be reluctant to cede the file to civilians.

The generals do need to maintain a functional relationship with the NLD government, though. Not least of the pressures on the generals and other senior officers is to protect the vast fortunes that many of them have made during the decades of international sanctions imposed during the military dictatorship. There are also attractive prospects of being able to add to those fortunes now that sanctions are being lifted and investment is flooding into the country.

It was never going to be a simple matter for Suu Kyi, the NLD, and, indeed, other political parties to wrest complete control of parliament and government from the military. The NLD has an added problem that the party has an intensely hierarchical structure. This limits the experience available to middle-raking officials – and therefore usually the up-and-coming future generation of leaders – especially in dealings with the military. And because of the cloistering of Burma during the decades of military rule, which started in 1962, there is a good deal of political naivety among NLD members. There is a blithe assumption among Suu Kyi’s followers that constitutional amendments removing military political power are inevitable and that they will soon no longer have to deal with the generals as equals.

The military modelled the current Burmese constitution on the former system in Indonesia, where the military kept ultimate control and a veto over ostensibly civilian governments. That system lasted over three decades from when Maj.-Gen. Muhammad Suharto seized power in 1967 until he was forced from office in 1998.

Burma also probably faces a generation of transition until it can be called a true democracy. And, as is all too evident in the current upheaval, the country could easily slip back into military rule. That possibility is heightened by events on the international stage. The assumption of the United States presidency by isolationist Donald Trump appears to be a major victory for capitalist authoritarian states like China and Russia. Burma is already surrounded by Southeast Asian nations where the transition to democracy is stalled – such as in Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore and Laos – or where it is in reverse – such as in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. Ironically, it is only in Indonesia – once the bad boy of the region – that democracy is flourishing.

What becomes of the Rohingya in this scenario is anyone’s guess. To begin with, there is little agreement among historians and ethnologists about who they are and how they got to Burma. The political story promoted by the Burmese military and accepted by the bulk of Burma’s people is that the Rohingya were moved into Rakhine state when both Burma and what is now Bangladesh were part of the British Empire. However, some scholars say that Muslim Rohingya first began settling in Rakhine state in the 16th Century. This theory, dismissed as a fairy tale by some academics, says the community was established by Arab seafarers and was a monarchy for 350 years.

The British annexed Rakhine after the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1826. People from neighbouring Bengal, now Bangladesh, were encouraged by the British to move to Rakhine to work as farm labourers. The Muslim population of the area continued grow over the next 120 years, punctuated by many outbreaks of conflict with local Buddhists.

In 1982, Burma’s most famous military dictator, Gen. Ne Win, imposed a nationality law, which denied citizenship to the Rohingya, denied them freedom of movement within Burma, and severely restricted their economic opportunities. His action was in response to sometimes violent protests by Buddhists in Rakhine state against the influx of Rohingya’s from over the border in the Bangladesh liberation war from Pakistan between 1971 and 1973. Upwards of 500,000 Rohingya – or Bengalis as they are known disparagingly among Burmese – are believed to have settled in Rakhine in the 1970s.

The state has seethed with violence and discontent since Ne Win’s edict. There has been communal violence incited by both the Muslims and the Buddhists. The heavy-handed tactics of the police and the army have only added to the tensions that made Rakhine into a classic war zone of death and destruction.

Emotions and prejudices are so intense that it is hard to imagine that even if Burma were to find some accelerated path into a full democracy a peaceful and equitable solution to the Rohingya problem could be found.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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