The Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state in Myanmar (formerly Burma), one of the most unknown situations in the world, is now dominating daily news worldwide. Many commentators have rushed to judgment about the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi without understanding the challenges she faces.
From the age of ten I have been fascinated by Burma and always wished to write a history of the British era from the Burmese perspective. Burma was one of the most literate and numerate nations in the world and kept records on bark in villages, towns and at the capital. Because of forces of nature and bombings by Japanese and British in the Second World War many such records were lost. Hence, after extensive research, I could not find sufficient sources to write a history that corrected some of the assumptions made in histories written from a British perspective. I, therefore, wrote an historical novel, based on facts but which needed some imagination to make the characters real.
While doing my research I became absorbed in the breadth and depth of the culture that spread across the country. There was essentially a gender equality. Boys were educated in Buddhist schools but girls mostly received similar education in towns and villages. Buddhism was a profound unifying force throughout the Kingdom comprising many diverse ethnic clans.
That is why, in the current world, the Rohingya Muslims are seen as a threat, especially as ISIS seeks to expand its activities in the Southeast Asian region and is perceived to have had a role in the brutal raids on Buddhists prior to the Myanmar military’s savage response. ISIS is now active in the Phillipines and Indonesia and is planning to expand to other countries in the region.
Rohingya apparently occupied both sides of the border from the 12th Century and more were brought by the British to Burma to cultivate. When Burma gained independence in 1948 from Britain the Rohingya were residents but when more came from impoverished Bangladesh the military deemed them “illegal immigrants” in 1977 causing the first mass exodus to Bangladesh. Rohingya resident status was removed in 1982 and their quality of life has diminished ever since.
On August 25, 2017 the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), a Rohingya insurgent group, attacked police and army posts in Rakhine, killing 12 officers. Arsa had made a similar attack the previous October and had been declared by the Myanmar government to be a terrorist group. From then the military made deadly “clearance operations” in Rakhine. Since then we have seen the Rohingya streaming across the border to Bangladesh while others paid people smugglers. This led the UNHCR to accuse Myanmar of carrying out ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims.
However the brutality is classified it seems clear that the military did not want to be dealing with the counter insurgency in Rakhine with prolonged casualties over many years. Now that Bangladesh cannot really settle them without international assistance it is imperative for the UN and ASEAN to assist Bangladesh in this challenge.
The challenge facing the Myanmar government is how to curb Islamic rebels while ensuring that the other ethnic groups are unified and provided with education and health services. As almost all are Buddhist, religious differences will not compound any problems stemming from different ethnic or clan customs elsewhere in Myanmar unless Islamic attacks extend beyond Rakhine to reach the few small Islamic groups elsewhere in Myanmar. This is what the military is determined to avoid.
Hence, the best solution to the Rohingya crisis would be for the United Nations and nearby countries to cooperate to relocate Rohingya. Ideally this would be in Bangladesh but that impoverished nation would need profound assistance from other countries. Instead, those nations have been content to accuse the Myanmar government of ethnic cleansing.
It is true that the Myanmar military acted savagely against unarmed Rohingya villagers but it is unfair to blame Daw Suu Kyi for not renouncing the Army’s action. It was the former President of Muslim Indonesia who made it clear to the Myanmar military that Myanmar could not again share the rotating presidency of the ASEAN states unless it released Aung San Suu Kyi from detention and restored democracy. The current Indonesian President should join with the Malaysian Prime Minister in helping to resettle Rohingya and pressure the Myanmar military to liberate Myanmar further.
If that and other international pressure is not enforced Daw Suu Kyi could be removed from the de facto role she has. It was that fear that led her not to attend the UN General Assembly where Myanmar military action would have been condemned. She would not have defended such action and the military might have refused her permission to return to Myanmar.
The truth is that the military still has effective control in Myanmar despite the widespread use of Facebook and Twitter and other communication. Most of the people of Myanmar would be devastated by the loss of The Lady, as many call her. This would lead to movements against the military that would destabilise Myanmar and harm its people. Daw Suu Kyi is committed to avoiding that.
Hence her lack of condemnation of the military for its actions in Rakhine. In her speech on 19 September she stressed that her government was committed to democratic transition, peace and stability but also stressed that it had been difficult to make such progress in only 18 months in office. She said she was aware that the world’s attention was focused on Rakhine state but said that Myanmar was not afraid of international scrutiny. Increasingly citizens in Rakhine state and throughout the rest of Myanmar are gaining access to education, health care and jobs without discrimination.
Muslims (including Rohingya) comprise only 4.3 percent of Myanmar’s population according to the most recent national census in March 2014. It seems that there is little contact between Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in Myanmar. Over 20 million citizens use Facebook in Myanmar and it is impossible to trace the source when fear of Muslims is amplified. But, increasingly, Rohingya are being termed Bengali, hence Daw Suu Kyi could not challenge the use of that term. Cartoonists and commentators in widespread newspapers and television reveal fear that the Muslim population will increase if Rohingya are allowed to return and that this could threaten the stability of Myanmar. Facebook is such a factor in Myanmar now that fake news spreads widely, making it impossible to trace the source when fear of Muslims is amplified.
Within Myanmar many people believe that their de facto leader believes that the military would retake sole control if she provoked them. Hence, ASEAN countries in particular should reassert influence on the military in the interest of stability in the region.
It is imperative that Daw Suu Kyi is not distracted from her objective of re-writing Myanmar’s constitution to expand civilian control. The constitution written by the military in 2008 grants it control of the defence and interior ministries crucial to overall administration. Soldiers are guaranteed 25 percent of seats in parliament and have the power to veto constitutional amendments. Daw Suu Kyi also wants to bring lasting peace by providing more autonomy to ethnic groups whose armies have fought for decades along Myanmar’s frontiers with China, India and Thailand, a goal embraced by her father.
On April 15 in The Age former President of East Timor, Jose Ramos Horta and former Labor MP, Janelle Saffin, said: “we should identify the right targets for criticism. Suu Kyi has been hung out to dry while Myanmar’s generals – who misruled the country for decades – have been allowed to step back as the conflict escalates”.
When Julie and I were last in Myanmar, in January 2016, we found cautious optimism about the prospects that The Lady had in returning their nation to freedom and equality after so many years. They knew her obstacles but welcomed the reforms to their parliament and administration that had been accepted by the military under the advice of the German government. This work continues and could be crucial to the freedom and stability of the renewed Myanmar. Yet massive challenges lie ahead and the leadership of Suu Kyi is critical to that. While the working of the free parliament is being funded by the German Foreign Office it is being implemented by the European Partnership for Democracy. The fact that such work was debated in the free media was most encouraging.
Julie and I learned that there was widespread support for Daw Suu Kyi’s wish to have a federal constitution with over – reaching national policies administered at the grass roots. They can then be administered in ways that take account of ethnic culture and assessment of needs. This should ensure the delivery of policies in a just and practical manner and assist unification. That is why the Rohingya issue must be resolved soon.
Daw Suu Kyi could then consolidate the education, health and economic reforms her government endeavours to implement. International media has made judgements without understanding Myanmar’s internal problems. This has been clearly assessed by a friend of mine in Myanmar when he emailed me regarding international news coverage the problem: “the news focuses more on the Rohingya than on other affected people in Rakhine. There are a lot of humiliating comments on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi without digging into the causes of the conflict. Media are quick to criticise and condemn her leadership. She is not the same as other leaders and she has her principles, standards and integrity. We trust her. Condemning will make more polarisation. We all in Burma feel that humiliating Daw Suu is humiliating all the Burmese people and the country, which will polarise more. Maybe some groups want this polarisation.”
My friend’s wise comments lead me to outline the depth of the problem facing Daw Suu Kyi. The Barma people comprise 68 percent of the population. There are seven other indigenous races: Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. These are divided into 135 distinct groups or clans. Rohingya are not included among the 135 and do not have a right to be declared an indigenous ethnic group. The challenge for unification has always been great but the threat of Islamic terrorism in Rakhine could imperil unification and the many essential reforms that Daw Suu Kyi is trying to implement.
In interviews Daw Suu Kyi has said that she would rather be judged as an effective politician rather than an idealist or a human rights icon. As a former idealistic politician I agree with her, in view of the fact that she is the only person who can begin to achieve what Myanmar desperately needs. She would certainly be appalled by the disgusting military treatment of innocent Rohingya but she could not halt it without jeopardising progress in the entire country. If the UN and ASEAN combine, the foreign investment in Myanmar should rise again and Daw Suu Kyi could make more progress.
If the Rohingya issue is not resolved soon a deeper problem is likely to emerge. Anyone who has studied Burma knows how crucial to its culture is Buddhism. The apparent decline in the application of the ethics of Theravada Buddhism is tragic in view of the centuries of its ethical tradition. So is the corresponding decline in the Sangha, the organisation of monks administering the application of the Teachings of the Buddha. This has led to Islamic phobia instead of a reaching out to all people to consider the cause and effect of their conduct as the Buddha urged everyone to do. Instead, having been attacked by Muslims recently, many monks now support military intervention against Muslims whose families have resided in Rakhine for centuries. Some Buddhists support these interventions but not violence. Yet they cannot alter the outcome.
International action is vital. Scholars have revealed that the so-called Rohingya have a huge diversity of ethnic origins and social values. Only international action can remove the threat of an Islamic invasion of other parts of Myanmar. Until this happens international aid groups will not be able to meet the needs of the desperate people. When this happens and media balance emerges Daw Suu Kyi will be able to advance the progress needed in Myanmar.
Anyone interested in the culture and history of this wonderful country might gain some insight by reading my recently published e-book entitled The White Heron Descends and The Peacock is Stricken. It covers the first British war to conquer Burma, 1810-1826. It can be accessed online through Apple, Barnes and Noble and many other e-retailers. It is also on Amazon.
Ian Macphee was a minister in the Fraser Governments. His portfolios included Productivity, Immigration and Industrial Relations. At university he specialised in Burma as part of his M.A.