A Final Hurdle for Aung San Suu Kyi? Recognising the Rohingya and Uniting Burma

In 1799, Francis Buchanan, a surgeon with the British East India Company, traveled to Myanmar and met members of a Muslim ethnic group “who have long settled in Arakan [Rakhine], and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.”

This statement is significant for it provides positive evidence that the Rohingya people were firmly established in Burma prior to 1823, the cut-off date for being officially recognised as one of the country’s minority ethnic groups. 135 groups currently qualify; oddly the Rohingya do not. They are branded as outcasts, ineligible for citizenship, their treatment by the government testament to such an unenviable status.

The lot of the Rohingya in Burma is an unhappy one. Constantly persecuted, their plight unrecognised by the powers in Naypyidaw, these Muslims are vulnerable to the Buddhist nationalism that pervades the country, open to abuse simply because of the exhortation of a zealous monk. Cries for help go unheeded, every minor act of protest deemed an insurrection. Attempts to flee to neighbouring Thailand and Bangladesh are rebuffed with casual brutality.

Rohingya populations are strong in Rakhine state and yet they are treated as illegal immigrants by the government
Rohingya populations are strong in Rakhine state and yet they are treated as illegal immigrants by the government

Given that the Rohingya make up some 4% of Burma’s population, such a state of affairs is both wholly unsatisfactory and frequently deadly, as a recent wave of forced evictions and murders in Rakhine state testify to. The Rohingya are linked to terrorist groups by the government; this may yet become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rohingya forced from their villages despite centuries of settlement within Burma
Rohingya forced from their villages despite centuries of settlement within Burma

At the same time, sanctions on the Burmese government are easing. The end of Junta rule and the rise to power of the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi have encouraged the international community, who identify the precursors to a genuinely democratic transition, not to mention lucrative economic opportunities in the underexploited country.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a darling of the West, famed for her stoic resistance during years of house arrest, her tolerance of her fellow human beings and propagation of forgiveness. That said, she has done little to help the Rohingya, even after the migrant boat crisis of last year. Desperate to maintain the loyalty of the population, championing the cause of a sizable Muslim minority is potentially an act of political suicide. Yet what better way to signal Burma’s miraculous change than to include the Rohingya in the nation, to strive to put an end to ethnic strife?

Aung San Suu Kyi is coming under international pressure to address the Rohingya problem
Aung San Suu Kyi is coming under international pressure to address the Rohingya problem

Parts of modern Burma (or Myanmar) were first united in the 11th century under a dynasty that succeeded the great states of Mon and Pyu. This was overthrown by the Mongols in the 13th century, breaking up into various statelets that from the 1600s saw an incursion of European traders, namely Portuguese, English and Dutch.

Burma was once more united in the 18th century under Alaungpaya, although the pervasive influence of the British in particular soon became ominously apparent. From their bases across the Indian border, the British fought a series of wars with Burma over the province of Assam before finally incorporating the nascent state into its Empire in 1885.

British forces arrive in Mandalay during the decisive Third Anglo-Burmese War
British forces arrive in Mandalay during the decisive Third Anglo-Burmese War

The British ruled Burma as a province of India until World War Two when the Japanese invaded, precipitating a period of jungle warfare that has passed into infamy for its tragic conditions and the unwillingness of Tokyo’s Imperial Army to surrender. After the eventual defeat of the invader, independence was secured from the British in 1948 before democracy was quashed by a succession of military regimes.

Through most of this history the Rohingya have been present, with Muslim settlement in Rakhine state recorded as early as the 16th century.

The official line is that the Rohingya arrived only after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826
The official line is that the Rohingya arrived only after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826

Aung San Suu Kyi should not be expected to solve all of Burma’s problems independently, yet she exercises the only unifying appeal in a country wrought by ethnic tension, still reeling from years of repressive military rule. A bold statement in support of the Rohingya, whilst in the short-term potentially damaging, could set a marker for communal tolerance, and a level of expectation that government representatives and the armed forces cannot continually dismiss these people as aliens to be trampled on.

History is always used selectively by those who rule, a political tool providing unity and exclusion in equal measure. Yet it is hard to doubt the legitimate claim for the Rohingya to receive recognition from Naypyidaw, to win their citizenship. Those who dismiss the term ‘Rohingya’ as a political construct nevertheless overlook the fact that these people are being persecuted simply for existing.

Aung San Suu Kyi has made recent attempts to hold conference with the various ethnic groups that make up modern Burma. The Rohingya must be included and recognised if she is to truly cement her legacy. Those thinking of ending sanctions, on the other hand, would do well to think twice before becoming all misty-eyed about the great Burmese transformation.

Democracy and equality remain a million miles away.

Advertisements

The Decline of the ‘World Fair’: popular perception lags behind technological significance

‘Connecting minds, creating the future’; this is the motto of the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.

Artist's impression of Dubai Expo 2020
Artist’s impression of Dubai Expo 2020

‘How do we ensure safe and sustainable access to energy for all while reducing CO2 emissions?’; this  is the key question asked by the organisers ahead of Expo 2017 in Astana.

Both laudable statements that pose intriguing dilemmas for the future of the human race, dilemmas that hopefully we will go some way to resolving via the answers unveiled at the forthcoming Expos.

Yet such noble sentiments do not stir the heart in the same way that the original ‘World Fair’ did. The Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the sumptuous, albeit temporary, Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, was an extravaganza of enthusiasm and intellect. Opened by Queen Victoria herself – its organisation having been overseen by her Consort Prince Albert – the Great Exhibition:

became a festival of reconciliation and hope, a visible embodiment of commercial, technological and political Progress, with England consciously leading the world in an unprecedentedly international festival of amity and trade, with 15,000 exhibitors from round the world displaying their wares. (Tombs, 2014, p.466)

This truly international centrepiece was a novelty, a genuinely global phenomenon in the mid-19th century, oft-mimicked but never replicated.

Poster for the Great Exhibition, 1851
Poster for the Great Exhibition, 1851

Held within the astonishing Crystal Palace – a temporary structure four times as long as St Paul’s cathedral and designed by the Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener Joseph Paxton – the Great Exhibition attracted average daily crowds of 43,000 during its first six months. More than 6 million would pass beneath its beautiful transept facade before it closed.

It was written about in newspapers around the world, becoming the talk of many a conference, coffee-house and tavern, whilst introducing a breathtaking array of inventions to include the telegraph and vulcanised rubber.

What does one hear of today’s World Fairs? Has there been anything comparable to the enthusiasm surrounding the spectacle at Hyde Park more than a century ago?

Yes, the Expo’s of the 21st century are impressive in their scale and scope, their pavilions encompassing an array of modern architectural designs and engineering techniques. That said, they tend to lack character, staged in clinical, sanitised and nondescript settings, a far cry from the Crystal Palace.

The characterless pavilion at the 2010 Singapore World Expo
The characterless pavilion at the 2010 Singapore World Expo

This soullessness is a pity because the causes and challenges confronted are worthy ones that should receive more attention in the press. Yet going through a laborious bidding process comparable to the Olympics, selected and managed by the monotonously-titled Bureau of International Expositions, is unhelpful.

Why shouldn’t a country display the spontaneity and arrogance of the British Empire in its pomp? What benefit does the seal of officialdom have on the popular perception of such potentially significant events?

Unfortunately, it appears to be simply another testament to the over-bureaucratisation of the world we now live in.

The Great Exhibition was a roar of imperial grandeur that made tangible contributions to technological and scientific development, attracting some of the world’s greatest minds whilst remaining accessible to the common man. Indeed there is a reason why it has been granted the epitaph ‘Great’.

Inside the Great Exhibition
Inside the Great Exhibition

Of course the Crystal Palace is no longer with us. Moved to South London – to an area that now bears its name – it went on to host several other major events during the remainder of the 19th and early 20th century. It was destroyed in a massive fire in 1936, perhaps prophesising the imminent demise of the creature that had inspired it; the British Empire.

The death of the Crystal Palace, 1936
The death of the Crystal Palace, 1936

It is encouraging that these progressive global gatherings continue to be held in an era of international competition and tension.

However, if any of the future Expos – a term in itself far less glamorous than World Fair – intend to have a lasting legacy beyond the remit of the committed pioneers who help organise them, then a spark of originality must be reclaimed.

What we need is a defiant howl against conformity and modern stricture, against our sterilised and bookish world that will otherwise render the accomplishments of the few unattainable and unintelligible for the masses.

Source

Tombs, R (2014), The English & Their History