I returned to Myanmar to find the country locked in yet another Rohingya crisis, one that is far more serious this time. Before I left I stated that military administration in Rakhine could be imminent. Then on 25 August there were fresh attacks and the situation blew up again. Security personnel as well as civilians have been killed. On Friday 1 September there was a press conference by the Defence Ministry where the spokesman said that the military had proposed that military administration be installed in north Rakhine but the government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had turned it down. If military rule had been established and the violence grew worse, the onus would have been on the military. But now she and the National League for Democracy (NLD) government have to bear the blame for not heeding this advice.
The fact of people getting killed and brutalized, whoever they are, is no longer a matter for explanation or blame, much less denial. The inadequacy of such responses stands out. There does not appear to be any well-thought-out approach to the Rohingya issue, much less a national security strategy. Since the beginning of this year there have been calls to convene a meeting of the National Defence and Security Council but the State Counselor was extremely reluctant to do so. More is the pity, I should say.
That independent institution, the Myanmar Armed Forces, has been engaged in counter-insurgency for seven decades now without any signs of adopting a new approach or new tactics. While our country has insurgents, guerillas and terrorists and there is no denying the destruction they may inflict; in almost all cases those combatants move among populations of their own kind. Counter-insurgency and anti-guerilla operations in such settings invariably incur a great deal of collateral damage—a military fact eloquently displayed in the Vietnam War and continuing still in Afghanistan and Iraq. The long conflict in Myanmar is no exception. Surely this classic lesson cannot be lost upon the Myanmar Armed Forces.
Furthermore, fighting such a conflict requires closely-coordinated political, military and development approaches. This applies to other regions and populations in Myanmar as well. And when you look at the critical early-warning and intelligence capabilities, how good are these in northern Rakhine?
Besides heavy and badly thought-out military action, the ‘props’ that the Myanmar government has are pretty thin on the ground. A Citizenship Law passed during the days of the dictatorship. A border fence. IDP camps which are really concentration camps. Well, the Kofi Annan Commission has released its Final Report, and it has a total of eighty-eight recommendations. I have made a representation to policy-making circles for just a quarter (twenty-two) to be immediately brought to bear.
Volumes have been written about whether the Rohingya ‘belong’ to Burma/Myanmar. This I would say is quite off the mark. The very issue of ‘belonging’ reeks of racism. (But a lot of people are happy with racism sadly.) It may have been acceptable in the Ne Win era but continuing it now—in a democratic revival under none other than the NLD—is a sad reflection upon shabby times and a shabbier leadership. The situation is popularly portrayed as an “alien influx” but the reality is that illegal immigration would make up only a small percentage of the present community living in northern Rakhine State. Using British colonialism as the root cause, not only the Rohingya but also other communities elsewhere in the country are seen as not part of Burma/Myanmar. Indeed, many of those people are stateless—a condition which the UN is beginning to look into. All in all, even if people are illegal immigrants they should not be treated this way.
It should be borne in mind that the direness of it all applies to the other ‘indigenous’ communities too. I don’t mean just the Rakhine and the unfortunate Mro, caught up in the deadly racial crossfire. If what we are witnessing is the instrument that the Myanmar state continues to apply, it doesn’t bode well for the other ethnic and religious minorities too, I regret to say.
Here I would have to mention the approaches and policies being used by Australia (although you will understand it can never be a direct comparison). The governments in both cases have their positions, or in Myanmar’s case there is supposed to be one. For quite some time, Australia has been under criticism for its policies on immigration, asylum-seekers and particularly the offshore processing centers. This censure comes from both within Australia and abroad. There is an ongoing debate on it, and Australians remark upon it publicly as well as privately. But what I am saying is not merely that Australia has better consultation and shaping of its policies, and better resources (both of which are true) but that a constructive public airing and debate is taking place. The levels of polarization and acrimony may vary with those in Myanmar, but everyone is given a chance and the right to contribute. Can we honestly say this is the case in Myanmar?
Coming to the over-riding issue of multiculturalism, both countries pride themselves on it. Australia is putting a lot of effort into pushing for it—and it is repeatedly mentioned that 85 percent of Australians think it is a good thing. Myanmar is vaguely, or should I say incompletely, multi-cultural. This means that diverse cultures are acknowledged but not fully integrated into a ‘multi-culture.’ In many cases integration is seen as assimilation into the majority Burman/Bamar culture, which has strong Buddhist overtones. The underlying culture upon which a genuine multiculturalism can be built has to be welcoming and tolerant. Burman/Bamar culture is not fully so, but it can (and has to) be transformed. Yes, it is a big task and the fact is that the present state is simply not up to it.
My expectation (and hope) for Myanmar is that as the violence and acrimoniousness dies down, people can engage in a national debate in a sober, serious and far-sighted manner. Without interference and prodding from politicians nursing their own agendas and eyeing the next elections. Yes, civil society is divided too, but voices of sanity and reason and courage are being heard. I tend to believe more in the qualities and strengths of society.
Khin Zaw Win is currently the Director of the Tampadipa Institute, working on policy advocacy and capacity building since 2006. His current engagement includes communal issues, nationalism and international relations. He is also an honorary advisor at the Myanmar Institute for Strategic and International Studies, the Foreign Ministry’s think tank. He served under the Department of Health, Myanmar, and the Ministry of Health, Sabah, Malaysia and did the Masters in Public Policy program at the National University of Singapore. He has held a fellowship with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (New York office) and was also a UK FCO Chevening Fellow at the University of Birmingham. He was also a prisoner of conscience in Myanmar for “seditious writings” and human rights work from 1994 –2005.
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.