Top image credit: Al Jazeera
In November 2015, Burma’s National League for Democracy achieved a tremendous victory. After decades under a military dictatorship, a surprisingly free and fair election boosted Aung San Suu Kyi to a position of national leadership. During this contested period of democratization in Burma, democratic nations worldwide ardently hoped that Suu Kyi would bring peace to a long divided country. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the democratization as many observers agreed that Suu Kyi was a strong leader for Burma’s bright future.
But two years after she and her party’s promising victory, the Burmese army is busy in the Rakhine state burning homes and killing civilians. Burmese security forces are targeting a native Arakanese (a demonym for occupants of the Rakhine state) Muslim ethnic minority called the Rohingya. But this time, the offenses aren’t being carried out by a military dictatorship but by a legitimately elected democratic government. The abuses in the Rakhine state are so troubling that UN officials and Human Rights Watch believe that the army may be attempting an ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Such persecution against the Rohingya is older than the nation of Burma itself, but the new wave of atrocities brings fresh attention to the plight of Muslims in this nation. More than that, though, they raise serious doubts about the “bright future” so many wanted for Burma’s democracy.
Muslims were living in the Rakhine state before it was Burmese territory.
The influence of Islam in the Rakhine state is ancient. Before Burma laid any claims to Rakhine, the region (then known under the name Arakan) was a de facto independent entity under its own governance, though it was often caught between larger states in territorial wars. As an autonomous area, Arakan cooperated with Portugal to raid the Mughal territory to the northeast, a profitable venture that had the unforeseen consequence of bringing many Muslim slaves into Arakan. They were not alone, joined by Muslim immigrants and mercenaries who settled permanently in the region.
In 1660, the Mughal prince Shah Shuja escaped from a violent war of succession in India and took shelter in Arakan. He was welcomed by the king of Arakan, and almost certainly surprised to discover the degree to which Islam already influenced the area. The Arakanese lords used both ethnic Burmese titles and Bengali Muslim titles despite their independence both from the native Burmese states and the Bengali Muslim sultans, signifying the region’s confluence of two religions and cultures. Shuja brought in his wake a “new wave of Muslims” who settled in Arakan, further strengthening the foothold Islam had gained in the region. But Shuja’s asylum in Arakan was short lived: Arakanese soldiers soon assassinated Shuja, along with many of his soldiers and his family. Those who survived became members of the Arakanese king’s guard known as the “Kaman,” a group of archers whose descendants, now estimated at around 50,000 in number, constitute the modern Kaman ethnic group in the Rakhine state.
It’s unclear how much of this history of Arakan is apocryphal. Shah Shuja possibly died in Arakan, but sources indicate that he left the state after a series of betrayals from other players in the Mughal war of succession. Arakan’s role in this history is essentially to serve as a refuge for those Mughal lords defeated during the infighting, so Mughal sources hardly place Arakan at the pinnacle of importance. However, a distinctly factual takeaway from this history is that Islam was central to the Arakanese culture and lifestyle long before Burma annexed the region in 1785. It really is important to bear this fact in mind: Muslims got to Rakhine before the Burmese did.
The era of British rule in Burma exacerbated ethnic tensions.
Burma was made a province of British India after the Anglo-Burmese wars in 1826 and 1852. By virtue of being geographically closer to the British India, Rakhine was conquered during the first war. The immediate effect of British rule in Rakhine was to permit the uninhibited flow of people between Burma and India. The British brought to Burma a level of industrialization and commerce that was unprecedented in the region, and the new British export economy required, above all else, cheap labor. This labor overwhelming arrived in Rakhine in the form of Muslim Indian laborers. These people moved to Rakhine in huge numbers, not immigrants because they were simply “moving from one district to another within the same political entity.” This further bolstered the number of Muslims living in this region of Burma.
Economic depression and war would ravage Burma along with the rest of the world in the 1930s and 1940s, although in Burma these troubles were imbued with a distinctly sectarian flavor. Buddhists in Burma responded to the economic depression in the 1930s with widespread anti-Indian sentiment and rioting. With Indian Muslims making up so much of the Burmese labor pool, native Burmese blamed their economic misfortune on immigrants, as is so often the case. This placed Muslims and Buddhists on opposite sides of a national conflict.
Then, in 1942, the situation only worsened when the Japanese invaded Rakhine during World War II. The sides became very clear: While the majority of Rakhine’s Muslims sided with the British, Arakanese Buddhists allied themselves with the invading Japanese. The Buddhists used the invasion as an opportunity to initiate “cruel measures against the Muslim population,” and to expel many Muslims from their homes. But their victory was short-lived: Soon enough, the British retook Rakhine and placed loyal Muslims into “administrative positions in local authorities which easily enabled them to retaliate against those who had collaborated with the Japanese, particularly Buddhists.”
The 1930s and 1940s turned Rakhine into a wellspring for future sectarian violence. Economic depression ensured that native Burmese Buddhists came to view Muslims as unwanted immigrants, regardless of whether they arrived with the British or resided in Rakhine for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, World War II’s invasions and counteroffensives provided the perfect opportunities for Muslims and Buddhists to inflict injuries on one another. By the time Burma achieved independence in 1948, distrust had grown deep within the Rakhine state.
The Burmese military dictatorship tried to eliminate Muslims from Rakhine state.
Not long after independence, Burma fell under the control of military dictator Ne Win, an eccentric and ineffective leader who ran Burma deeper into poverty. He was given to consulting astrology to make government decisions, and he twice demonetized the national currency so that he could print new bank notes inscribed with his new lucky number. His Politics were marred by insurgency and uprisings, while his economics cloistered Burma in a protectionist straightjacket that choked the Burmese economy.
Ne Win’s terrible rule was no less pronounced in Rakhine, where it was accompanied by worsening sectarian fighting. Upon Burma’s independence, the Muslim administrators whom the British had appointed were replaced with Buddhist officials. Much as the Muslims had done years earlier, the Buddhists retaliated by forcing Muslims off their land. In turn, Muslim militias formed to take action against the Arakanese ethnic Buddhists. While many, if not most, of Rakhine’s Muslims disdained the militant violence, Arakanese politicians nonetheless cited Muslim militias as reason enough to expel Islam from Rakhine. And this time, the ethnic Arakanese Buddhists received assistance from the Burmese army.
By 1975, roughly 15,000 Muslims had already fled Rakhine, the majority of them bound for neighboring Bangladesh. Three years later, 3,000 Muslims were leaving Burma on a daily basis, with about 250,000 total Burmese Muslims crossing the river Naaf into Bangladesh. If the army did not directly assist with expelling Muslims, as some sources indicate, they at very least remained indifferent to Arakanese militants enforcing the mass exodus. This expulsion catapulted the Muslim population of Burma into a full-fledged humanitarian crisis. Bangladesh received enough aid from the UN to build eleven temporary refugee camps out of straw and bamboo, but the camps lacked sufficient resources to cope with the incoming refugees. In the span of three months, malnutrition, dysentery, pneumonia, malaria, and cholera claimed around 850 lives, mostly women and children.
Then, monsoon season arrived and the number of recorded deaths rose to around 1,500. Most of the dead were children. With this wave of deaths in March of 1979, the world took notice of the crisis in Burma. Bangladeshi president Ziaur Rahman demanded that Burma cease these human rights abuses and permit all Burmese Muslims to return to their homes. Unable to continue its actions under international scrutiny without causing a tremendous scandal, the Burmese government agreed to the repatriation of Rakhine’s Muslims.
While Burma permitted the return of the expelled Muslims, they would not treat them like citizens. When they returned to Rakhine, Muslims were unable to return to their villages. The government built them no schools, houses, or mosques, and nobody returned to their previous job. Essentially, the Burmese government had permitted the Muslims of Rakhine the return to their country on the condition of destitution. And, for years afterward, the Burmese government antagonized native Muslim citizens and attempted to delegitimize their position in the country.
After the military dictatorship in Burma ended, moderates provided no respite for Rohingya Muslims.
After a long series of military dictators in the form of Ne Win and his compatriots, the Burmese presidency passed to Thein Sein in 2011. He was commonly perceived as a Burmese reformer and moderate, ending media censoring and releasing political prisoners, as well as reinstituting the opposition party in Burma, the National League for Democracy. Yet despite all these steps toward the liberation of Burma, Rohingya Muslims found no liberty in Sein’s new policies.
In 2012, Rohingya and Kaman Muslim communities became the targets of an organized, coordinated attack. This came in response to an incident on May 28th of that year, when three Muslim men attacked, raped, and murdered a 28-year-old Arakanese woman. The first reprisal for this violence occurred when Arakanese villagers topped a bus to beat and murder its ten Muslim riders. However, this vengeance was downright anodyne compared to what would follow.
In October that same year, thousands of Arakanese Buddhist men assembled. They were local citizens armed with “machetes, swords, homemade guns, Molotov cocktails, and other weapons” and they attacked Muslim towns in Rakhine with a vengeance. The villages had ample warning, but only a small number of riot police, local police, and soldiers were sent to monitor the attack. Rohingya citizens were probably made aware that the military was not acting in their interests when the army assisted “by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves.” With no protection from the army, seventy Muslims in a single town were killed in the October assault.
From June to October 2012, Rohingya Muslims were the clear targets of a “widespread” and “systematic” effort to cleanse the Rakhine state of its Muslim population. UN special rapporteurs have further concluded that these forced population transfers were not the result of angry mobs of local Arakanese, but were instead the explicit goal of “state policy.” Not only were Burmese security forces instrumental in executing attacks against Muslims, but the Burmese government also proved unwilling to investigate any human rights violations whatsoever. It was all too clear that the government of Burma wanted the Rohingya out, once and for all. In the end they were successful: At least 125,000 Rohingya were living in IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps, without “adequate food, shelter, water and sanitation, and medical care.”
The National League for Democracy won the Burmese national elections, but faced fraught challenges with ethnic violence and military resistance.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who was held in detention for some 21 years prior to the 2015 election, found herself at the helm of Burma and the NLD (National League for Democracy). But Suu Kyi, though a shrewd politician, was navigating a sociopolitical minefield if ever there was one. Not only would she have to deal with ethnic violence across the country, she would have to do it with an uncooperative military.
Aung San Suu Kyi endeavored to be a proper democratic leader in a historically undemocratic country. Upon taking office, critics noted that former military dictators and authoritarian generals went unpunished, and continued to be major figures in Burmese politics. Analysts also observed that the Burmese constitution, drafted just after a cyclone devastated Burma, was boycotted by the NLD but was nonetheless passed with an impressive 92.48 percent of voters in favor. The turnout rate, they claim, was 98.12 percent—impossibly high. And without NLD figures in attendance, military officials used the constitution as an opportunity to cement their role in the Burmese democracy.
Apart from the troubling fact that a now-democratic country’s draft of the constitution was created without the support of the National League for Democracy, Burma’s constitution was full of provisos that would hamstring any democratic government. One example is that the constitution ensures that 25% of all the seats in the Burmese parliament must go to military officials. And, conveniently enough, more than 75% of parliament must vote in favor of redrafting the constitution for the measure to pass. Another clause in the document was particularly unfortunate for Aung San Suu Kyi personally. In a bid to curb her rise to power, the generals included Article 59F, which stipulated that no president may have a foreign-born spouse or children. Unsurprisingly, Suu Kyi’s husband and of her sons are British-born.
This obstacle was overcome easily enough. Suu Kyi installed her close confidant Htin Kyaw into the presidency, while creating the office of State Counsellor for herself. In doing so, she has become “more powerful than if she had simply been president.”
Suu Kyi was not, however, successful in putting any leash on the Burmese military. During her campaign, she promised to change the constitution in favor of a politically weakened military. Since taking office, however, she’s said almost nothing on the subject. Experts believe that Suu Kyi perceived that the Burmese generals, still major political players, were not going to budge on military matters, especially if it meant giving up their own power in government. As such, she elected to let the military matter rest in favor of stability in the fledgling democracy. It is important to remember, however, that this oversight may enable the military to act without the express consent of Burma’s democratic leadership.
Stability is something Burma needs desperately. The state recognizes 135 official ethnic groups (Rohingya Muslims are not among them) all of which have been continuously at odds since Burma’s creation. While censuses are difficult to carry out accurately in Burma, the 2014 UN census concludes that, by ethnicity, 64 percent of the country is Bamar, while 9 percent is Shan, the largest of the ethnic minorities in the country. In terms of religion, the 2014 census estimates that 88 percent of the population is Buddhist, 6 percent is Christian, and 4 percent is Muslim.
Inter-ethnic conflict is prevalent throughout Burma, and it is no less pronounced in the Rakhine state. Arakanese Buddhists regularly victimize Rohingya Muslims, but in turn, Arakanese Buddhists feel alienated by the majority Bamar Buddhist Burmese government. It is perhaps Burma’s diplomatic complexity that has led Aung San Suu Kyi to turn a blind eye to the plight of the Rohingya. Already barely able to keep Buddhist communities from fighting, some experts suggest that Suu Kyi simply cannot acknowledge the terror suffered by the Rohingya without jeopardizing Burma’s democracy, and its very unity.
It is possible that the army is acting against the Rohingya without Aung San Suu Kyi’s authorization. Given the extent of military power in Burma, it would be unsurprising to learn that army generals do as they please without asking democratically elected leaders for permission. It is distinctly possible that Suu Kyi simply cannot afford to fight the generals directly on the issue of their actions in Rakhine. But this ignores the fact that Suu Kyi has herself displayed prejudice against Burma’s Muslim population. In the case that Consellor Suu Kyi isn’t totally in control of the military, she doesn’t seem opposed to their actions.
The most recent wave of anti-Muslim violence in Burma can only be called an ethnic cleansing.
In 2017, the 120,000 Rohingya who were forcibly expelled from their homes in 2012 are still living in IDF camps. They are without adequate healthcare, shelter, or sanitation. Worse yet, the Rohingya are without food, and embargoing food from reaching IDF camps seems to be an express objective of the Burmese army in the Rakhine state. Eyewitness refugees testify that “the security forces and Rakhine mobs deliberately targeted sources of food and food itself.”
This longstanding poverty and destitution is coupled with a new bout of atrocities perpetrated by the Burmese army and Arakanese Buddhist militants against Rohingya Muslims. On October 9, 2016, a militant group called Harakah al-Yaqin attacked three border posts between Bangladesh and Burma, killing nine police and five soldiers. The Burmese army characterized the attack as an “invasion” and began taking steps to combat it. Their precautions mainly involved training and arming Buddhist civilians in the Rakhine state and turning them loose on their Muslim neighbors.
Since the October 9th attacks, 66,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled Rakhine for Bangladesh. It is easy to see why, in desperation, many of these refugees resort to floating across the river on any buoyant object they can find. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights conducted a survey of fleeing Rohingya and found a startling number of them reported atrocities in their homeland. Most reported killings, forced disappearance, beatings, and arson. About 52 percent of female refugees surveyed said they were the victims of sexual violence, including rape. The OHCHR investigation furthermore concluded that, due to the “conservative culture” present in the Rohingya community, the incidence of rape and sexual violence was probably going underreported.
Nearly half of all refugees interviewed reported that one of their family members at least was forcibly disappeared. 47 percent reported a family member killed. Around 13 percent of refugees had themselves been shot or stabbed. Many cited the Burmese military’s use of “random firing and the use of grenades,” and far too many of those interviewed lost a family member or friend to indiscriminate shooting, including “the use of helicopters for firing bullets and dropping grenades.” These are not the tactics of a military trying to oppose an insurgency; these are the tactics of ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, the OHCHR reports that murders, beatings, and rapes were intentionally carried out in front of the victims’ family members, including small children. The cleansing is an effort to systematically destroy the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, but it is not without cruel malice against the Muslim community.
The Burmese government continues to deny allegations that the army is in any way involved with the crimes against humanity being perpetrated against the Rohingya. State media sources claim that Rohingya Muslims “fabricated the rape allegations and burned down their own homes,” a lie so malicious that it should have already met widespread international censure. Any claims coming out of the Rakhine state are indeed difficult to verify because the Burmese army denies access to “humanitarian groups, independent media, and rights monitors.” However, for refugees to fabricate tales about rape, arson, and murder, is just plain beyond the realm of possibility. But for a government to cover up or understate genocide is not only within the realm of possibility: it has happened consistently throughout history.
It’s unsurprising that years of persecution against Rohingya Muslims have culminated in full-scale ethnic cleansing. Videos, refugee testimonies, and official statements all point to the likelihood that genocide is precisely what’s occurring in the Rakhine state right now.
The Rakhine Muslims are perceived as a threat to Burma’s national unity.
In 1962, the Burmese government instituted an identification law. Some citizens in Burma received National Registration Cards, while others received Foreigner Registration Cards. The Rohingya were not eligible for National Registration Cards, but since they were not foreigners, they refused to accept the Foreigner Registration Cards. That rendered them stateless in the eyes of the Burmese government. Perhaps that made it all the easier in 1982 to declare the Rohingya de facto immigrants.
Indeed, many in the Burmese government, including Aung San Suu Kyi, will not even use the term Rohingya. Instead, they call the Rohingya “Bengali” or “Bangladeshi”, rendering them illegal immigrants instead of long-existing Burmese citizens. This allows anti-Muslim politicians to dispel claims of forced exodus by arguing that the Rohingya are, in fact, foreign nationals who have no right to live in Burma. The entire national dialogue about the Rohingya is colored by the perception of Burmese Muslims as fifth columnists, subversive foreigners, or simply illegal immigrants. Regardless of which denigration a Burmese politician chooses, the implication is clear: The Rohingya are a threat to Burma’s national coherence. The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya may very well be in the government’s best interests. After all, a Muslim-free Burma would be far easier to democratically govern. Ignoring minorities is all too often the best method for appeasing a majority, especially in a democratic state.
Saskia Sassen, writing for The Guardian, observes another consequence of the forced expulsions: they free up land. The Burmese military has been acquiring land from its former occupants, both Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists, since the 1990s. This land is in turn given over to corporate land development, such as “large-scale timber extraction, mining, and water projects.” Since both the Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya are minority ethnic groups in Burma, governmental entities have had no difficulty expelling them and reselling their land to foreign corporations. There are two problems this creates in particular. The first is that the foreign investment is often in extracting rather than manufacturing, which generates no employment for the Burmese people. The other problem is that the land grabs ensure that the refugees may never be able to return to their land. This may not, however, be a problem but a bonus for the Burmese government and military.
There are two recommendations experts give for thinking about and approaching the topic of Rohingya Muslims. The first is, truth be told, founded upon international anti-Islamic sentiment. These analysts view the Rohingya crisis as a possible cradle for Islamic extremism, and warn that “turning the Rohingya into a transnational Muslim cause could draw foreign jihadists of varying stripes to Myanmar.” Now, of course a surge of terrorism in Burma would only worsen the Rohingya crisis, and as the analysts point out, provide solid justification for the military’s “draconian response.” However, the idea that the Rohingya crisis is a “Muslim” issue must be debunked: Like anything else, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya must be treated like the humanitarian crisis it is.
The second recommendation, espoused by many experts looking at the region, is that “the path to better governance might be shorter if [Aung San Suu Kyi] and her ministers were given more space to study the options and learn from their mistakes” without foreign input, including aid organizations. This recommendation is built upon an overly optimistic appraisal of the Burmese government simply because of its type. The idea is that the Burmese democracy is still on shaky footing, and that foreign aid organizations and diplomats might damage or destroy it bringing too much pressure to end the expulsion of the Rohingya. In essence, stopping a potential genocide is of lesser priority than bolstering a new democracy. That’s not to say that the recommendation is heartless or that condones the ethnic cleansing—these analysts aren’t arguing that aid workers should stop assisting the Rohingya. The claim simply advocates that any crimes being committed against the Rohingya will be better solved in the future by a stronger democratic government.
It is true that the continued military influence in Burma’s democracy is a destabilizing force, and it is also true that a governmental effort to stem attacks against the Rohingya would likely likely aggravate many of Burma’s Buddhists. But if the difficulties of governing all of the people in a democracy are too taxing for the politicians to bear, then the democracy has failed.
Burma is a silent state.
The recommendations covered above are flawed exactly because they fail to recognize Burma for what it is: A silent state. That forced expulsions, perhaps even genocide, are occurring in Rakhine is enough to warrant outrage. That the democratically elected government tries to avoid talking about the Rohingya should in and of itself be viewed as a serious complication to those hopeful for Burma’s future.
Journalists, aid workers, and UN rapporteurs are not permitted to enter Rakhine. Information about the atrocities committed there filters out through refugee testimonies and occasional cell phone camera footage. It is impossible for the international community to characterize the scope and nature of the violence committed against the Rohingya if they can’t see what’s happening. Burmese state media claim that the Rohingya lie about getting raped, burn down their own homes, and are orchestrating an armed insurgency. Meanwhile, even democracy’s bright star Aung San Suu Kyi will not use the word Rohingya, and cautions foreign leaders against using it as well. She and her party conform perfectly to the historical pattern of treating the Rohingya as if they’re foreign nationals, or worse, as if they don’t exist.
A democracy is already seriously flawed if it ignores the voices of minority citizens. When it denies the legitimacy of such voices, however, while actively working to silence them by way of indiscriminate violence, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the democracy in question is broken. This is the case in Burma: a democratic government with an astonishing proclivity for authoritarianism.
The only recourse against a silent state is to force it open. Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t want to speak with Muslim reporters because she doesn’t want to talk about Muslim issues. One possible solution is to make her speak to Muslim reporters. Suu Kyi doesn’t want other leaders to use the term Rohingya? Use it all the same, louder if possible. As long as the world finds a way to excuse the abuses occurring in the Rakhine state, they will continue. But to end them takes outrage and international attention. If the eyes of the world fall upon Rakhine and Burma, it seems more than likely that Counsellor Suu Kyi will have to take action. But if not, Burma can continue to silence the Rohingya—even by means of genocide.
A brief note on word choice: While Burma was the name given to the nation by British colonialism (and is sourced from “Bamar,” the country’s majority ethnic group), the name Myanmar was chosen by the country’s military junta and the current democracy movement doesn’t recognize the military’s legitimacy in choosing the name. Many people, from the Burma Campaign’s Mark Farmener to Aung San Suu Kyi say that either name is acceptable, but Myanmar has come to connote a certain friendliness to the military regime. As such, we will be referring to the country as Burma for the sake of this article.
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