Myanmar's Rohingya issue handled poorly

Myanmar's Rohingya issue handled poorly

Less than a year after its last major upsurge in communal violence underpinned by religious tensions between Buddhism and Islam, the northern section of Myanmar's western Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh is again beset with another bout of similar turmoil and bloodshed. The pattern of conflict and violence this time is similar to late last year but the scale and scope are much wider and more lethal. At its root, the ongoing violence in Rakhine is more mixed than the Manichean images of good versus evil being portrayed in the international media.

At issue is the age-old raw tension between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state. Muslims are a small minority in Myanmar, and they have been persecuted and pushed around in Rakhine and elsewhere around the country. But in Muslim-dominated areas in northern Rakhine, minority Buddhists can also become victims of persecution. This two-way hatred is exacerbated when Myanmar's security forces, particularly the army known as the Tatmadaw, become involved. When the predominantly Buddhist Tatmadaw steps in, it becomes lopsided, worse than two against one, as soldiers and police side with Rakhine Buddhists at the expense of the Muslims. In their desperation, Rakhine Muslims, also known as Rohingya, have resorted to arms and violence, as seen in the growing role of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which includes extremist elements from Pakistan and the Middle East.

In October last year, the global news cycle was fuelled by violence in the same northern Rakhine region when several hundred lightly armed Muslims attacked police posts in Maungdaw township on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in Rakhine state, killing nine policemen and looting some 50 guns and ammunition. The Myanmar authorities effectively locked down Maungdaw for an operational sweep, targeting the Muslim assailants who were alleged to have been supported by foreign terrorist organisations. The ensuing pursuit and persecution elicited reports of wanton violence, murder and rape by Myanmar's security forces. More than 20,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. Access for humanitarian relief workers and reporters was impeded. By December last year, news of the Tatmadaw's "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya dominated global headlines.

This round, after the outbreak of violence on Aug 25, the numbers are much worse. Some 400 have reportedly died, mostly Rakhine Muslims, but also local Myanmar Buddhists and security officers. More than 120,000 Rakhine Muslims have been displaced, seeking refuge in Bangladesh under dire conditions. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding, with far-reaching ramifications for nearby Muslim-dominant countries, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, and beyond. There have been concerns that the spiral of death and violence could degenerate into religious and communal strife as Asean is home to a mix of Muslims and adherents of other faiths, particularly Buddhism and Catholicism.

Global media scrutiny has fixated on Aung San Suu Kyi, once a democracy icon now condemned for being ignorant and prejudicial with her lack of response. After the October violence in Rakhine last year, Ms Suu Kyi tried to contain the regional furore by hosting a special meeting of Asean foreign ministers. But this time her response is more muted because the stakes are higher.

The Rohingya issue runs deep. Even language is instructive. Myanmar officials eschew the term "Rohingya", and insist the estimated one million Rakhine Muslims are "Bengali", Bangladeshi migrants who trickled into Burma over the decades since the 1820s when British colonialists brought them in for labour. Just about all of Myanmar's predominant Buddhists who comprise 88% of the population agree on this, including the roughly two-thirds majority in Rakhine state. They will also say that the violence goes both ways, with Buddhists also being attacked in Muslim-dominated areas of Rakhine.

It is as if Burmese Buddhists, who dominated mainland Southeast Asia by conquering Siam and beating back the Chinese in the 16th-18th centuries, suffer a superiority complex -- a great warrior race which was defeated by British firepower in three calamitous 19th-century wars, taking it out on a Muslim minority. It is an intractable problem because the Rohingya maintain they were there prior to the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, whereas the Burmese claim otherwise.

The upshot is that the "stateless" Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, many with large families, have no prospects of a decent livelihood and upward mobility. As they eke out a living from local farming and menial work, their plight makes a shining cause for international media to rally around. Competing journalists used to back Ms Suu Kyi when she was "The Lady", a heroine fighting for democracy and justice against military rulers. Now they back the Rohingya against her.

Nevertheless, the ongoing violence needs to be effectively addressed and some mediation mechanisms put in place because it undermines and crowds out the good news and prospects in a country that has completely turned around over the past six years with elections and democratic rule after five decades of systematic misrule under military dictatorship.

Since 2011, when wide-ranging political and economic reforms were instituted under Gen Thein Sein, Ms Suu Kyi's predecessor, Myanmar is trying to become a normal emerging economy with normal development problems. The kyat (its currency unit) has been on a downward slide over the past few years, with inflation clipping a similar pace (but much lower than the military years). Yet investment and growth opportunities abound, featuring finance and banking, transport, telecommunications, construction, utilities, real estate and retail. Starting from scratch means Myanmar has had to learn basic processes that other countries take for granted, such as how parliamentary committees work and how legislation takes place.

From its spectacular opening six years ago, Myanmar's GDP is on track to double over the next five years. Thousands of political prisoners have been freed. The central government has reached a political settlement with most of the armed ethnic insurgencies, although several holdouts like those in northern Kachin state remain fierce. Military generals are still entrenched but a civil-military compromise and power-sharing is under way between Ms Suu Kyi and Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the armed forces commander in chief.

But while Myanmar's democratic transition and growth trajectory provide lessons and pathways for other economies in the narrow tunnels of poverty and dictatorship, perceptions matter. The onus is on Ms Suu Kyi to be seen to mitigate and ameliorate the Rohingya's plight and persecution. Ultimately, Rakhine's combustible ethnic and religious mix can only find long-term solutions with regional accommodation among Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Bangladesh needs better growth prospects and jobs, and Myanmar needs more inclusive development that incorporates Rakhine where the authorities must be even-handed in dealing with Muslim-Buddhist tensions and issues. Malaysia and Indonesia can step up their acceptance of Rakhine Muslims as labourers, and Thailand should be a more effective transit country. Generous Muslim countries elsewhere should also be invited to accept Rakhine Muslims as labour where possible. Above all, Myanmar must come up with a self-enlightened concession that it is not worthwhile to let the Rohingya issue erase years of progress and myriad achievements.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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