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.

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Ethnic Rebellion: the eternal conundrum for Burmese development

US Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has warned the Burmese government of Thein Sein not to intensify attacks on the ethnic rebel stronghold of Kachin state in the north of the country. This follows a series of government air strikes against insurgent positions.

Burma has been rightfully praised for its rapid political transformation in the past couple of years, since the military junta that had ruled the country with repressive force, finally ceded  control of the levers of power. Whilst many Western analysts questioned the genuineness of Burmese reforms, the release of prominent political prisoners (most notably Aung San Suu Kyi) has convinced the EU and the USA that normalising ties with the former pariah state is no bad thing.

The belated release from house arrest of Suu Kyi attested to the desire for Burmese reform
The belated release from house arrest of Suu Kyi attested to the desire for Burmese governmentreform

One perpetual barrier to continuing Burmese development remains and that is the myriad ethnic conflicts and insurgencies that plague large swathes of the country. Although many insurgent groups have negotiated ceasefires with Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, internal conflict is always just around the corner in Burma. In particular, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) continue to plague government outposts in the north and southeast of the country respectively.

KNLA rebels are well-organised militarily
KNLA rebels are well-organised militarily

Like many states brought into conception by the bonds of imperial rule, modern Burma is a mosaic of ethnic groups. In addition to the majority Bamar people (68% of the population), 134 ethnic minorities are recognised by the government. Many of these peoples descend from independent tribal polities that carved out a solitary niche of existence for centuries before being subsumed into the Chinese, British and Japanese empires. Whilst the various ethnic groups were united in opposition to imperialist rule, many were traditional foes. Thus, on the gaining of independence, internal conflict was quick to erupt.

Burma's ethnolinguistic map is a complex one
Burma’s ethnolinguistic map is a complex one

As with nearly every state in Africa, and countless others created by colonial overlords from disparate regional groupings, a majority ethnic group seized control in Burma and assigned its people the major positions in the military and political structure of the new state. Despite Burma’s ongoing reform process, the Kachin and Karen rebels continue to believe that their identity and ability to progress is being undermined by the Bamar.

With former junta generals maintaining vast economic control over Burma, it is understandable that the rebel insurgents do not respond to Burmese reform the same way the West has. Foreign investment and a lifting of sanctions may benefit the Bamar but not necessarily all Burmese. The resource-rich lands of ethnic minorities continue to be subsumed for the benefit of the “state”, which is often interpreted as the Bamar and their ominously invisible military benefactors.

Colonialism can be understood to have played a contradictory role in the history of internal ethnic conflict across the globe. Colonial power was such that it enabled physical and political control over vast populations and in many cases restricted ethnic conflict for the benefit of the imperial overlord. At the same time, colonial powers created multiethnic states from a variety of tribal polities that were for centuries never united under one flag. Additionally, through “divide and rule” tactics that weakened a concerted challenge to imperial rule, colonists created the conditions for increased ethnic resentment that naturally spilled over into the independence era (see my recent post on Sudan for another example).

Most of the world’s ethnic conflicts have their roots in the colonial era and for country’s such as Burma, whose leaders appear to possess a determined desire for change, they remain a major hurdle to development.