International discussion of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar often lacks a necessary broader historical understanding.
The UN Human Rights Council’s Report published August 27, 2018 presented the strongest evidence of genocide and represents a necessary but possibly incomplete and insufficient step toward resolving the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. As expected, journalists and NGOs have seized upon the report to further push for greater measures of humanitarian relief and demand governments to apply pressure upon the quasi-democratic regime in Myanmar. Activism and political action grounded on the legitimacy of this report are indeed critical to preventing the crisis from escalating, but media and NGOs framing the challenge as simply one of an oppressive government persecuting a religious minority greatly miss the forest for the trees.
The public has a greater appetite for conflicts of clarity, but simplification may ultimately hinder an effective response. A quick LexisNexis search of articles from established sources of news such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and others within the past year reveal the reporting provides little information about the broader context of how the state apparatus of “Myanmar” or “Burma” is contested by an almost Game of Thrones-esque battle royale of ethnic or national groups, each backed by private militias holding territory within Myanmar’s internationally recognized borders. Analysis frequently neglects to mention that the conflict between the Burmese and Rohingya represents just one piece in a complex puzzle that began almost at independence.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) formed in Rakhine state in 2016 to defend against persecution from the Burmese majority and government forces is by no means a unique group in Myanmar’s modern history. The government’s disproportionate response also finds precedence tracing back through the past half century since independence. As part of the British Empire, the British Burma Army skillfully deployed a divide and conquer strategy by arming different ethnic minorities and incorporating them into their armed forces. The Karen and Kachin Rifles were regiments of the British Burma Army in World War II and following independence in 1945 these military units retained their command and built their own territorial jurisdictions. The Karen National Union originally propped up the newly independent Burmese regime, but by 1948, they had formed the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) in response to Buddhist Burmese attack on the largely Christian Karen populations and later marched on Mandalay.
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Not to be outdone, Naw Sang, an ethnic Kachin and veteran of the British Burma Army, declared his own flag with the First Kachin Rifles militia and began marching on Mandalay, overrunning it in March 1949. With the Burmese government momentarily on the run and regrouping in Rangoon (Yangon), battalions of the Chin, an upland peoples from the northern hills loyal to the Burmese government, concluded the chain of command had been broken and returned with their forces to the uplands, setting up another jurisdiction patrolled by forces formerly of the central government. The KNDO and First Kachin Rifles were driven back in their siege of Rangoon and the Burmese military was able to establish order, but to this day has not been able to fully disarm or eliminate the militias. The groups’ grievances and aspirations also remain unfulfilled.
In 1950, the lost army of the Chinese Nationalists, having been routed in battle by Mao Zedong’s Communists, spilled across the borders to regroup and counterattack, but also in the process recruited members of the ethnic Shan minority to build out military bases within Myanmar’s borders. By 1954, the Nationalists effectively took over the region and armed the Shan states and integrated them within the command. As the Burmese civilian government proved ineffective at maintaining territorial integrity, the Burmese military began filling a power vacuum to restore order. The bulk of Nationalists were driven out in late 1954, but the Shan Army formed soon after in 1958 along the Thai border, adding yet another territory of military administration. Three years later in 1961, the Kachin Independence Army formed in response to the establishment of Buddhism as the national religion. The remnants of the Nationalist army and the forces that have absorbed them evolved into major players on the Opium Triangle Trade. Each group’s tentative hold on power and hopes for statehood or some form of autonomy persist to this day.
Following a military coup overthrowing Prime Minister U Nu’s civilian government in 1962, local warlord Jimmy Yang formed the Kokang Militia, carving out a personal fiefdom on the border regions with China’s Yunnan province in the aftermath. Resourcefully, U Nu, on his part, spearheaded a newly formed and Thailand-sponsored Shan State Army across the Thai border. Faced with this patchwork of militias, the military junta of Burma desperately held the national fabric together with force and oppression. The Burmese, for their part, just barely tolerated the military government until partial political liberalization in 2012. Democracy and partially free elections unleashed all the apprehensions of a Burmese people aware of the fragility of their territorial integrity; unsurprisingly, the military government constitutionally mandated to share power with the civilian government has seen an increase in popularity, notwithstanding half a century of oppression.
The story of the Rohingya is a chapter in this broader conundrum of statehood and should contextualize reporting and current understanding and analysis of what the Rohingya and their own militia face today. The territorial issues with the aforementioned players in this fractured history remain unresolved. Persecution of the Rohngya minority by the democratically empowered political majority Burmese is just one of the many symptoms of a fundamentally flawed political maturation process that has been endemic to Myanmar since decolonization.
Decolonization throughout the world brought self-determination in newly decolonized states, but left open the question of what populations are (or are permitted to be) contained within the notions of the “self.” In the instance of Myanmar, the Rohingya, along the Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Wei, and a host of others, are heirs to a five-decade civil war barely stabilized by a military junta of ethnic Burmese. The failure to coalesce around an imagined community of nation or rejection of a supranational umbrella as described Professor Benedict Anderson is not tragedy unique to Myanmar but a systematic bug inherent to the Westphalia nation-state sovereignty system, exacerbated by Wilsonian self-determinism in societies without the luxury of a single unified ethnicity or sense of shared history. The systemic flow would be the open-ended question as to who is a member of a nation and who has the right to decide.
International law surrendered the answer to international politics as evidenced by the UN response to Yugoslavia’s balkanization in the 1990s. As Professor Amy Chua made clear in Political Tribes, democracy and popular sovereignty unleash forces of tribalism in these unresolved political maturation processes and when backed by the power of the state, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and crimes against humanity become plausible realities. Without NGO or media acknowledgment of the ethno-nationalist and unresolved political maturation of the Myanmar “nation” as critical elements of this conflict, proposed measures to address the humanitarian crisis may prove inadequate and fail.
NGOs such as the Burma Task Force or Human Rights Watch are correct in advocating for an end to the systemic violence and persecution faced by the Rohingya, but a lasting solution will require considerable political will and nuance from policymakers to wrestle with more fundamental issues of international law. Censure and political pressure should be highly encouraged to stop the violence, but it merely treats a symptom and not the overall cause. Policymakers should be ready to confront a reality where an ethnic majority simply does not want an ethnic minority incorporated into their political community. Should democracy and sovereignty override the humanitarian concerns of an ethnic minority? Along the same lines policymakers may be compelled to accept the possibility that ethnic minorities have a legitimate right to self-determination that overrides the will of the majority. Fully contextualizing the Rohingya persecution within an ongoing multilayer conflict should help advocates, policymakers, and the all-important public deliberate for a lasting solution.
Mark Du is administrative judge in the City of New York with an interest in international human rights law and international humanitarian law.