IAN MACPHEE. A deeper view of the Rohingya crisis than media provide.

Nov 23, 2017

Since writing my blog on 13 October in defence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (whom I will now only term Daw Suu) external media has continued its criticism of her for not condemning the military for its brutal attacks on Rohingya people in Rakhine state on the border of Bangladesh. As I stressed then, I have no doubt that Daw Suu would be as appalled as most people about the rapid military action of which she would have had no knowledge until it occurred. But, had she condemned the brutality she would have risked being displaced by the military and unable to achieve anything for the rest of Myanmar.  

The Professor of Southeast Asian studies at Yale University, Professor Ben Kiernan, recently reminded me that the Rohingya Muslims have lived in Burma since the 12th Century and in recent decades have fled to Bangladesh when the military has oppressed them. That is verifiable but Non-Rohingya citizens of Myanmar dispute this because of the extreme antipathy felt by the overwhelming Buddhist population towards Muslims. Thus, no persuasion was needed when the military asked Buddhists on the border to be nationalistic and support the expulsion of Muslims. Hence the ISIS response. This also explains the international condemnation of Daw Suu for not condemning the military. But that condemnation was based on uninformed opinion. To have publicly criticised the military would have lost her the support of Buddhists widely throughout Myanmar. 

It seems clear that the vast majority of the population dislike and distrust Rohingya and support military action even though they would be appalled by its sheer brutality. Over twenty million Myanmar citizens use Facebook and fake news spreads widely, making it impossible to trace sources when fear of Muslims is amplified. Hence, while the overwhelming majority of citizens in Myanmar respect Daw Suu and wish her to lead the country, they also fear Muslims and expect her to support the military in opposition to Islamic movements. 

Therefore, Daw Suu’s dilemma is huge. For, so many people have become anti-Islamic and, therefore, anti-Rohingya. As the hatred between Buddhist and Islamic people in Rakhine state grew over recent decades the military denied that Rohingya is an ethnic category. Throughout Myanmar they are now termed Bengali Muslims. Daw Suu has no choice but to use this term. From independence the majority of Buddhist citizens have not sought integration with Muslims and they have remained divided. Citizenship for Rohingya was removed by the military government in 1982 and they now lack identity cards and public opinion overwhelming opposes its return. Daw Suu would risk loss of public support if she opposed the military on this issue.

As Reuters correspondent Hannah McKay wrote in Foreign Affairs on 6 November, government officials, media commentators and religious leaders mostly believe that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The attacks on Rakhine state by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in October 2016 and August 2017 have enabled Myanmar’s military to label Rohingya as terrorists and defend its violence against them as a legitimate response to extremism. Hence, it is now widely believed in Myanmar that Islam is inherently violent and poses an existential threat to Buddhism, Myanmar’s majority faith. Social media has spread this message along with writing of influential lay people, sermons of monks and local media. Rohingya are seen as hostile to Myanmar. 

Despite the sheer brutality of the military attacks on Rohingya, public opinion overwhelmingly supports the inaction of Daw Suu. For the military attacks were due to ARSA attacks on thirty police posts and an army base by Rohingya militants. The military said that it’s attacks were so strong because it was determined not to have continued encounters with Islamic terrorists. As the attacks were so strong more than half of the non-Rohingya population in Rakhine fled to southern Myanmar. 

Myanmar people now know that Daw Suu had no warning of the military attacks and that the ARSA attacks were timed with the release of Kofi Annan’s report on the border issue. Immense emotions prevail and a reconciliation process requires international leadership. Annan’s report provides the basis for multinational negotiations with Myanmar and Bangladesh. Australia must work with ASEAN to ensure security and human rights transparency in Myanmar, limits on military power and attention to education, health and infrastructure. Constructive regional dialogue is essential.

I have spoken to the UNHCR representative in Australia about this issue and he believes that Australia could help ASEAN nations work together to camp Rohingya fleeing Myanmar in Thailand where they could be relocated peacefully in other countries. If sufficient foreign aid was granted to impoverished Bangladesh some could go there while others could settle in the moderate Islamic Malaysia or Indonesia.

If such action is not taken soon, Daw Suu’s delicate situation could be exploited by the military. As she has lost confidence in much of the western world the military would see little to loose in dismissing her. Military focus would then be on satisfying India, China and Russia regarding threats posed by ISIS. 

Daw Suu is correctly focusing on domestic progress on civil liberties, skill formation and use of foreign investment in jobs stemming from a range of gem extraction, manufacturing and crafts. Burmese always excelled in crafting gems and silverware especially. This must resume for the benefit of the Myanmar economy and culture. British colonialists rarely tried to comprehend Burmese culture and Western media is committing the same error. The crisis Daw Suu and her people face is far more complex than outside media portray. International governments and organisations must learn from that and inform the media of the Myanmar perspective. Only then would Oxford University and others understand the intense complexity of problems Daw Suu faces. In September, Zaw Hay, the official spokesman for Myanmar’s central government, stated that attacks by Muslim militants do not get sufficient attention in foreign press. Little coverage was given to the Islamic attacks on 25 locations in late August. Yet, statements such as this have recently been criticised as showing an indifference by Daw Suu to the Military response. Such ignorance hampers her greatly. For Myanmar social media is brim with alleged reports of ARSA atrocities against Buddhists and Hindu minorities in the Muslim majority part of Myanmar.

One monk, Sitagu Sayadaw, is probably the most popular and well known religious figure in Myanmar. He has portrayed Islam as a religion of violence. Drawing upon a fifth century text from Sri Lanka, Sitagu called for unity between the military and the monkhood, deeming it inseparable. Sitagu fled Myanmar in 1988 after criticising the military government but now rates high-ranking military officials among donors to his highly respected philanthropic work. 

This explains the otherwise inexplicable betrayal of Buddhist ethics by some Buddhists. And it compounds problems Daw Suu has in condemning the military’s appalling conduct against Rohingya, especially as Sitagu is so respected in Myanmar. Yet those who disagree are afraid to say so lest they also receive violent reprisals. And the Sangha, the highest Buddhist authority, has tried but failed to limit monks’ incitement to violence over the last five years.

Again this illustrates the massive challenges facing Daw Suu. Yet she must give priority to resolving the Rohingya crisis and persuade the military not to engage in ethnic cleansing of other minority clans. I have no doubt that this is her intention. To achieve that she must have the support of the entire international community. Sanctions such as the Trump administration is considering would merely make Myanmar more dependent upon China and would reduce Daw Suu’s prospects of reform and harm millions of impoverished people under decades of military rule. Sanctions would probably increase the power of the military over the civilian government and delay more democratic reform.

In the second week of October Daw Suu launched the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine to tackle the humanitarian crisis. It will focus on repatriating and providing aid for those who fled to Bangladesh. But regional and UNHCR help must be given. Displaced Karen in the southeast, Shan in the east and Kachin in the north are yet to be repatriated after displacement over the last thirty years. Nearly 100,000 refugees live in nine camps on the Thai-Myanmar border, the majority being Karen according to the 2016 Border Consortium report. The Naf river is the natural border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Red Cross, World Vision and others struggle to provide refugees with food, clean water and shelter. Daw Suu will lead the Union Enterprise to ensure that her government works with international aid agencies, financial institutions (including the World Bank) and friendly countries to cooperate with the government. She concluded: “there is no power which can compare with the support of the people and the unity of the people. I believe that no matter whatever difficulties we face we can overcome them with the unity of the people.” 

Burmese historian, Thant Myint U, argues that “Myanmar is a country broken by twenty years of sanctions, thirty years of self-isolation and fifty years of authoritarianism as well as over a century of British rule. It is still a broken state with the army entrenched in vital parts of its administration.” The military must, of course, have widespread defence power to protect the evolving democracy. But it should not otherwise be involved in administration.

Father Mariano Soe Naing, director of social communication at the Catholic Bishops Conference of Myanmar said ‘sanctions will be a stumbling block for Suu Kyi’s reform agenda, especially economic growth and tackling poverty, so it is not a better option for Myanmar’s transition to democracy.” Again, he stressed that administrative assistance is also required to implement policies soon and effectively.

Daw Suu has given priority to health and education and reaching peace agreements with ethnic groups which her father was trying to do when he was assassinated. Social cohesion is vital As is economic growth. Consequently, she is now turning her attention to the languishing economy and has a skilled Australian economic adviser, Professor Sean Turnell of Macquarie University who is very close to her. As I wrote in my previous blog, international action to assist her is crucial. Daw Suu wants a federal constitution with national policies administered at village or town level. She has to unite 8 indigenous races with 135 clans. Recently, emphasis has been on the 135 different groups. Rohingya ethnicity is not officially recognised by the Myanmar government as one of the 135.

Despite Daw Suu’s focus on the unity of the 135, the Rohingya issue will continue to demand her attention. The slaughter deemed “ethnic cleansing” occurred at the very time that Daw Suu was considering recommendations from Kofi Annan whom she had asked to lead a team to investigate the border problem. All objective observers believe that the coordinated attacks by ARSA on multiple police posts in Myanmar were purposely coincided with the release of the report. Indeed, scholars whom I greatly respect assert that there is no doubt that the timing was perfectly calculated. But whether the provocation was solely by ARSA or there was a disguised role by the Myanmar military is unclear.

While international media has concentrated on criticising Daw Suu for not opposing the military, Daw Suu reached out to Bangladesh following the Kofi Annan report. On 24 October representatives of the two countries signed two agreements covering security and border cooperation. They agreed to form a working group to halt the outflow of refugees. They specifically agreed “to restore normalcy in Rakhine to enable displaced Myanmar residents to return from Bangladesh at the earliest opportunity.” 

A friend of mine in Myanmar emailed me “no global leader will understand this sensitive issue like our trusted leader Aung San Suu Kyi. We trust that she will allow back those who were genuinely living in Burma and who are willing to come back and live peacefully. That is what government leaders would do in any country, including Australia”. This is the great challenge for Daw Suu and her Parliament but it would be possible if neighbouring countries combine to place pressure on military to agree. Moreover, citizenship must be restored to those who return. Again, neighbours must insist on that because it was the military that removed that. 

China’s ambassador to Myanmar spoke just prior to the discussion at the UN Security Council and called for “the international community to create a good external environment so that Myanmar can solve its problems properly.”. As both China and India have huge infrastructure projects in Rakhine involving ports and railway links and an oil gas pipeline both fear possible Islamic attacks on their investment. The Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President have met “to work constructively for regional stability” with an emphasis on the Rohingya crisis. This should enable them to continue to compete for investment in Myanmar. But it is leading to a rise in Burmese nationalists who do not want to lose ownership of the ports especially.

An Australian professor with deep knowledge of Myanmar has told me that their concern is justified as over the last few years of the military junta government it entered into a number of questionable long term deals with China. Most Burmese oppose Chinese domination of their economy. 

On 12 October the World Bank said that it had delayed a US$200 million loan to Myanmar amid intensifying international pressure over the exodus of over 500,000 Rohingya from Rakhine state. Hence the need for regional action. Collective action must devise a way of persuading the military that it is in the best interests of Myanmar that Parliament operates without military restraint. The military must report to Parliament. The Irrawaddy News on 16 October reported that “China and other of Myanmar’s close neighbours watch the ongoing power play in Naypyitaw (the capital) knowing that relations between State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing are at a low point”. 

International media and leaders should understand the problems Daw Suu faces before they criticise her for not condemning the military. Several parliamentarians have criticised Oxford University and other bodies which withdrew tributes to Daw Suu. Yangon representative, Nay Phone Latt, stated that “they need to know that Myanmar is still in the young democratisation which they have praised. But what international governments are forgetting is that they are pressuring Myanmar as if it is an established democratic country. Politically it is in a really difficult situation. The civilian government does not have full executive power under the current constitution. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is severely restricted under the circumstances. Some international organisations don’t understand the conditions.” 

Sadly, not least because of modern social communication, most citizens of Myanmar seem very concerned that the Rohingya wish to be treated as an ethnic group of Myanmar and reject that despite the fact that Rohingya have lived on the Myanmar side of the border for at least eight centuries but not always peacefully. They are viewed as taking land and fishing resources from other ethnic groups.

A friend of mine is a former UK Ambassador and Director of Prospect Burma, an organisation established by Daw Suu with money she received for the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s goal was to educate Burmese who had fled the military but wished to return to Burma to contribute to its democratic recovery. Hundreds of people donated to the project and it was very successful. Many of the students have now returned home to contribute in any way they can.

That former director and ambassador recently summarised Daw Suu’s dilemma: “if she is to retain influence with the military she cannot advocate a softer approach. Yet her reputation abroad has been permanently damaged by all adverse publicity and comment and there is little she can say that will restore it.” 

On 13 October in southasian monitor.com the Grand Mufti Ahmed Bader Eddin Mohammad Adib Hassoun, Syria’s highest religious authority, supported some Indian suspicions that an international terrorist network had a major role in triggering the latest bout of violence in Myanmar. He recently visited New Delhi and spoke to several Indian ministers and senior security officials. Some blame for the Islamic raids upon Rakhine was attributed to Saudi Arabian individuals suspected of funding Wahabi terrorists. But this fear is far from clear. 

The main international media coverage does not examine such issues. My Burmese friend emailed me on 19 October that he was depressed about the Rohingya situation and international media coverage of it. He continued: “This is not good for the current very young democracy in Myanmar. If Suu Kyi does not have international support the military will take over any time. There is a real threat of ISIS entry. I cannot understand why the EU is so pro Muslim Rohingya while they have such problems in Europe.” 

Cardinal Charles Bo, head of the Catholic Church in Myanmar, has announced that Pope Francis will visit Myanmar from 27 November until 2 December and said “this nation celebrates its vibrancy and diversity. Myanmar is at the crossroads of history. We are led by a great leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She has sacrificed her life for the good of the nation. With thousands of others she ensured that our pilgrimage to democracy resulted in more rights and our nation is accepted as one of the future success stories. We need to tell the world that we have sought non-violent solutions to our struggle for democracy and we are a nation soaked in the great Teachings of the Buddha who taught compassion for everyone”. 

The Cardinal continued: “We affirm the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She has sacrificed so much for this nation. She has sailed over personal tragedies to stand firm to bring peace and prosperity to this nation. …In her fragile hands she holds the dreams of millions. She has achieved a lot in a short time. She has brought the warring groups under one roof through the Pang Long Conferences. Peace is her priority. Even with Rakhine state she restarted the verification process that the military leader Thein Sein started a year or two before her. Muslims resist it. She appointed Kofi Annan’s commission and an implementation committee to execute the recommendations. She cannot turn history in eighteen months of rule. The world needs to understand and support her government. Compassion is the common religion of the Myanmar people. After every natural disaster our people give everything to the suffering. No religion speaks of hatred. Those who speak of hatred in the name of religion are the real enemies of that religion.” 

As the current Pope has won respect from both Catholics and non-Catholics one must hope that his visit will extend the spirit and practicality of the words of the Cardinal. If the Pope gains insights such as the Cardinal has he might help world leaders and the media to gain a more balanced view of the massive problems confronting Daw Suu. Pope Francis wants to foster reconciliation, forgiveness and peace. Yet Catholics are 700,000 of over 51 million people in Myanmar.

The external media coverage of the Myanmar military’s atrocities towards Rohingya has rightly shocked the world. All caring people in Myanmar are similarly disgusted. None doubt that Daw Suu is as horrified. But all knowledgeable citizens of Myanmar know that Daw Suu cannot oppose the military as they respond to ISIS organised attacks and that she needs the military’s continued support to extend and improve the economy, health, education and unity throughout a potentially divided nation.

Ian Macphee was a Minister in the Fraser governments, including portfolios in Productivity, Immigration and Industrial Relations.  At university, he specialised in Burma as part of his MA.

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