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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2009

Burmese Perspective : The Rohingya Crisis

By Kanbawza Win

We fully support the UN taking a strong stand about ethnic cleansing by the Burmese army at the coming UN General Assembly but is quite perplexed of why it is only now, when the ethnic cleansing in Burma by the Army has been going on for more than half a century?

The UN has concurred with the theory that dictators can change the fair name of the country (Burma to Myanmar) without the consensus of the people, and turned its back on ethnic cleansing of the non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities.

To understand this complex Rohingya problem, a little knowledge of its history is helpful; it all started with the colonial British imported Indian laborers from Chittagong to cultivate the fertile land of northern Arakan where they eventually settled and became part of the population.

But in mid-1937 when Burma separated from the Indian Empire, the problems relating to racial identity started and continue to haunt the peace process up to this day. Colonial rule brought economic growth with its unregulated emigration, as Burma was then a prosperous land rivaling New York as the world's largest immigrant port, receiving 428,300 people in 1927 alone.

Europeans were at the top, while Indians dominated the professional class but with the Great Depression, tensions boiled over and there were several anti-Indian and anti-Chinese riots in the 30s. At the heart of the challenge is Burmese nationalism which sees the existential threat posed by its giant neighbors India and China, two nuclear armed states. So it is no wonder that the Burmese national anthem started with the phrase “this is our heritage land (Da Do Pye Da Do Mye)”.

It was in this context - when Burma gained independence in 1948, the Muslims of Northern Arakan at that time known as Mujahid tried to wrest a chunk of Burma to join with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) but were unsuccessful. They retaliated by not learning the lingua franca (Burmese language) and christened themselves as Rohingya, tantamount to migrants coming to US only refusing to learn the official English language but also claim citizenship with a province of their own. However in the 40s, the democratically elected civilian government gracefully allowed them to stay on. Soon after the Myanmar Junta took power and implemented its xenophobic policy of ethnic cleansing of not only the Rohingya but all the ethnic nationalities.

Unlike the former Yugoslavia, Burma has no ethnic problem because all the fighting is vertical (all the ethnic nationalities fight the central government dominated by the Myanmar army) and not horizontal (no ethnic group fights against another ethnic group). In 2004 when the Junta started persecuting the peaceful Burmese Muslims these started their own resistance (with the help of the Karen National Union). Yet, not a single Rohingya joined the Burmese Muslim army.

So it is no wonder that the United Nationalities Federal Council, which is an amalgamation of the all the ethnic nationalities of Burma, did not consider the Rohingya as one of the Burmese ethnic races, but only as citizens of Burma with a right to stay in the country. Besides, both the 1948 and 1982 citizenship laws stipulated that if three generations have lived in the country their descendants have the right to citizenship or permanent residence.

We have noted that in this world, in Islamic minority areas we often hear the word “Human Rights” but when the majority is Muslim, such words are rarely heard. Admittedly the Myanmar Tatmadaw is extremely brutal as I have witnessed with my own eyes having survived a decade in the malaria infested jungles of the Thai-Burma area with the resistance forces, before I was granted asylum here. I know fully well from personal experience their motto “falsifying the very concept of truth” (which they copied from Joseph Goebbels of the Nazi era that a sustained lie will eventually become accepted as the truth).

Even so, statements by the so called Rohingya are often uncorroborated, with zero independent media sources. Now that the ISIS is facing collapse, the jihadists are returning to their home countries and with the help of these, some Rohingya jihadists led by ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) are endeavouring to find a place in Southeast Asia. This is aggravated by the Myanmar army supported by many Burmese Buddhist extremists (Ma Ba Tha) including some Arakanese together with opposition ex-military party (USDP) that is bent on getting the power back; still, all of these groups have denounced the Kofi Anan Commission report as being one sided.

With the jihadist violence snowballing into an insurgency in Europe alongside the hopeless failure of the Arab Spring and the growing anti-Islamist sentiment across the globe it seems that liberals in the media and academia are on the lookout for another good global battle. One has to recollect that Eduard Benes of Czechoslovakia removed several million ethnic Germans from his country after World War II, based on what they had done before and during the war, and what he feared they might someday do again should Germany again become a threat; this was not considered to be “ethnic cleansing,” and the Benes Decree was accepted well by the West. In the same way, yesterday Aung San Suu Kyi pointed out that more than half of the Rohingya Muslim population are living peacefully. Why?

Nothing rejuvenates the interventionists and institutionalists more than another utopian noble cause, and these Rohingya provide another golden opportunity to signal virtues and bolster internationalist credentials that are under question following recent setbacks. I consider that this is also the same reason why Daw San Suu Kyi, a veritable hero of democracy, suddenly is a figure of villainy. But one tends to forget that she has finally managed to change Burma from a totalitarian junta to a fledgling democracy and understands what the liberal idealist Western elite refuse to accept. On this issue she has majority support within the country and is channeling the nationalist majority opinion of her countrymen in a positive fashion. It is about time the debate about Rohingya is more balanced even though sometimes realpolitik and buck-passing is not the easiest thing to do.

While the mainstream media is focusing exclusively on the religious context (oppression of Muslims) some of the media has deliberately avoided the potential role of the geopolitical U.S.-China tug of war, and Saudi Arabia’s subversive influence in Burma. Dubbed as the“last frontier,” mining corporations and oil/gas companies from all over the world have rushed into the country resulting in ruthless exploitation of laborers, destruction of environment, and mass eviction of people from their lands. The largest offshore gas production is the Shwe Project owned by Chinese and South Korean corporations near the Chinese deep sea port to pump oil from the Middle East to Kunming. When corporations build oil wells, offshore rigs, sea ports, railways, highways and fancy hotels the native poor people have to be evacuated. This happens all over the world and many people refuse to leave, especially farmers and fishermen whose livelihood depends on the land and the sea, creating political, financial, and legal nightmares and the corporations have to pay for people to be relocated.

So rather than paying these people and avoid any PR disaster, why not pay the bugger who will do away with all these peoples? That bugger happens to be the Myanmar Army that is now driving out not only the Muslims, but Hindus and Buddhists who are in the way. What more proof is needed when China has been selling billions of dollars of arms to the Myanmar Army for all these decades and prevents Burma issues from being debated at the Security Council? The Pauk Phaw (A Burmese word for Chinese) are now thinking to themselves now that through Burma they can create a shorter route for oil tankers and cargo ships from the Middle East and lessen their dependence on the sea lanes in South China Sea, especially the path through the narrow Strait of Malacca, which can be quickly blocked if there’s a conflict or war.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the country’s civilian head, but she is not Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese army which has complete control of all facets of defense, border control, and home affairs. In short the army is the real power behind the civilian façade. Lest we should forget, the generals still have constitutional authority which they have installed via fraudulent consensus and manipulated the 2008 Nargis Constitution which the West including the US has eulogised. The army can implement a legal coup as their whims may dictate or their fancies may please.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the only one seeking to walk a tightrope between providing a positive way forward for the persecuted Rohingya on the one hand, while not providing the military a pretext for ending Burma’s fledgling democracy on the other. The consequence of a stumble could be catastrophic for all. Our thoughts and actions must be thoughtful and calibrated so that it won’t become a tragedy. In short, blame the Burmese army and not Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and refrain from having any military to military relations which some of the US Senators are ploying.

- Asian Tribune -

Burmese Perspective : The Rohingya Crisis
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