OPINION: Unpacking Myanmar's Complex View Towards the Rohingya

OPINION: Unpacking Myanmar's Complex View Towards the Rohingya
Credit: Reuters / TPG
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Is the West's condemnation of Myanmar for its treatment of Rohingya Muslims viable in the emerging world order?

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The people of Myanmar have plenty of resentment towards their country’s military. After all, they were governed by an authoritarian military regime for six decades. However, their disapproval vanishes with regards to the military’s acions in Rakhine state, currently ground zero of the ongoing Rohingya humanitarian crisis.

Why do the nation's people think so differently from the international community, which often describes the persecution of the Rohingya as an “ethnic cleansing” or a “genocide”? It is worth taking the time to understand the domestic complexities of viewpoints within Myanmar so we can grasp the true picture of how the people of Myanmar perceive military operations that have caused over 725,000 people to flee Rakhine state in the past year.

After his recent visit to Myanmar, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK would propose discussing human rights violations in Rakhine state at the United Nations General Assembly, held in September. During his two-day trip, Hunt spent half a day visiting Rakhine state, escorted by the military – against whom Western nations have recently levied stringent economic sanctions. There was no guarantee, of course, that Hunt's supervised excursion would allow him to see the true situation on the ground.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (left) meets with Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on Sept. 20, 2018.

Hunt also met with the country’s leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. However, the military’s highest-ranking leader and current commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, declined to meet with Hunt, saying he had other plans.

Hunt also mentioned Min Aung Hliang potentially being tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC), an idea which was quickly slammed by a military spokesperson as an undisguised intervention in the domestic affairs of another country. Dr. Nandar Hla Myint, spokesperson for the military’s USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party), told the BBC that Myanmar’s domestic issues should be dealt with legally and internally. Even if the current regime accepted an ICC trial, he said, the USDP would unconditionally oppose it.

The military’s position on the Rohingya crisis matches the attitude of the overwhelming majority of its country's residents. For them, the Rohingya refugee problem was caused by Western countries led by Myanmar’s former colonial ruler, the UK. They do not consider Rohingya people to be native to Myanmar, but rather Bengali “invaders” from the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

To this day, most people in Myanmar hold the UK responsible for the problems gripping Rakhine state.

Myanmar itself is a confederation composed of multiple ethnic groups. The country is geographically divided into seven regions, seven states, and one union territory. The 14 regions and states across the country are inhabited by 135 official ethnic groups of all sizes. The people of Myanmar claim that the Rohingya ethnicity never appeared in recorded Burmese history until the end of World War II and the post-independence 1950s, claiming the noun was a post-colonial invention. Myanmar’s government feels the same way, as the majority of Rohingya have not been issued legal residence permits.

To this day, most people in Myanmar hold the UK responsible for the problems gripping Rakhine state. They feel that Myanmar has no obligation to accommodate who they see as “refugees,” and bristle when they believe the UK comments or interferes with the issue. Instead, they support the continued forced expulsion of Rohingya people to what they consider the rightful Rohingya homeland, Bangladesh.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
A Rohingya man in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya people, still known in Myanmar as Bengalis, did not migrate to what is now Rakhine state until the UK invaded at the end of the 19th century. British colonial forces started bringing Bengali slaves to Rakhine to cope with a labor shortage. Since then, Bengalis have gradually migrated into Rakhine state, eventually forming one of the largest ethnic groups in the area.

Coexistence in Rakhine state has never been easy for the Rohingya, who practice Islam, and the Buddhists of what was then British Burma. Conflict surged in 1942 when the Japanese invaded Burma and pro-Japanese Buddhist Rakhine fought with pro-British Muslims. The 1942 Arakan massacres took lives on both sides; the actual death tolls are highly disputed, but the bloody conflict spurred a mutual resentment that carries forth to this day. Buddhists say Muslims were mobilized by the “V Force,” a mercenary army brought in by the UK to combat the Japanese invasion.

A feud between Burmese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims thus emerged. After the partition of India and Pakistan (which then included East Pakistan), some Rohingya allegedly formed mujahid forces with hopes of having their lands annexed by East Pakistan. These efforts quickly petered out amid low levels of local support, but people in Myanmar still cite them as evidence that the Rohingya want to gain territorial autonomy from Myanmar per the precedent of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which gave autonomy to the Shan, Kachin, and Chin minorities.

For the people of Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis goes beyond human rights issues and religious conflict and strikes at the heart of post-colonial national identity.

This April, the first Rohingya family was deported by Bangladesh back to Myanmar. The picture below shows the Rohingya family receiving government-issued ID cards, but these cards do not prove their citizenship and Rohingya leaders say they do not grant Rohingya people full rights. The repatriation was denounced by rights groups as a publicity stunt.

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Credit: Myanmar Ministry of Information
These government-issued ID cards are not exactly substitutes for citizenship.

Currently, many are wary of the presence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Profiled by the BBC and Al-Jazeera in 2017, the insurgents say they are fighting on behalf of the Rohingya people. On Aug. 25, 2017, ARSA attacked police posts in Rakhine state, killing 12 people. This spurred a retaliatory counter-insurgency operation by the military which witnesses said was disproportionate in nature. The army says 400 people were killed; residents told Al-Jazeera that number was closer to 1,000. Rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have harshly condemned the brutality exhibited by all involved actors.

For the people of Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis goes beyond human rights issues and religious conflict and strikes at the heart of post-colonial national identity. The importance of this issue has led Suu Kyi to refuse to condemn the military’s treatment of Rohingya, effectively torpedoing her once-sterling international image.

When conflict erupted in Rakhine last August, Suu Kyi disregarded international pressure and let the military deal with it as they saw fit. At this year's World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Hanoi, Suu Kyi said the situation “could have been handled better,” adding that “for the sake of long-term stability and security, we have to be fair to all sides.” At the same forum, she backed the imprisonment of journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who received seven years of hard labor for violating the 1923 Official Secrets Act after covering human rights abuses against the Rohingya for Reuters.

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Credit: Connor Macdonald
Demonstrators hold signs and balloons on Sept. 16, 2018 in Yangon to protest the sentencing of journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Read More: Aung San Suu Kyi Presides Over a Media Blackout

It is, however, worth recognizing that Myanmar’s economy has deteriorated since Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power. Rising prices due to inflation have sparked discontent among the populace.

But would Western-backed economic sanctions – following those already levied by the U.S., Canada, and the EU on the country’s military – truly bring Rakhine state closer to peace? Countless politicians, economists and diplomats have argued against the effectiveness of sanctions, which nevertheless remain a favorite tool in the global shed.

Myanmar is already drawing closer to Asian powers like China, India, and Japan, all of whom have received criticism for not condemning the human rights abuses committed against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. In a changing world order, traditional Western condemnation may wind up having more bark than bite. Any sustainable solution will likely come from understanding the feelings of both the Rohingya and the rest of Myanmar, the latter of whom just so happen to possess a triumvirate of new, powerful friends.

Read Next: China and Myanmar Circle Warily Around Proposed Economic Corridor

This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language ASEAN edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Lin Ying-jen

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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