Reporters describe babies being ripped out of mothers’ arms and burned alive, men and young boys being executed in front of their families, and women being raped and left to die in the ashes of their villages by Myanmar’s military forces. Six hundred twenty thousand people have been displaced, and two hundred eighty-eight villages have been burnt down in only three months in Myanmar. The Rohingya crisis has escalated to an unprecedented level since late August 2017 and conditions only seem to be getting worse.
Despite the extent of these atrocities, Myanmar’s State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, has done almost nothing to denounce the military’s central role in this situation. Moreover, the response from across the international community has been fairly limited. How can all this chaos be explained? How can a former Nobel Peace Prize winner sit idle as her country falls apart?
The answer to these critical questions requires an extensive analysis of the ethnic tensions, institutional changes, and politically-incentivized behavior. The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim group living in the northeast state of Rakhine in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar. As defined by the nation’s former military junta, they are one of 135 officially recognized national races, or taingyintha, and they represented about 4% of the Myanmar population at the beginning of this year.
Historians claim that an anti-Islamic prejudice has always defined Buddhist-Rohingya relationships in Myanmar, but the situation has only escalated to what the UN calls a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” relatively recently. Violence peaked to a level of full-fledged ethnic conflict in 2012, and the most recent crisis emerged only a few months ago. The violence transcends a simplistic, primordialist explanation of ancient tensions between Rohingya Muslims and the Buddhist majority of Myanmar, and instead warrants a more nuanced institutional, historical, and political explanation.
Even though the ethnic tensions between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist majorities in Myanmar are fairly deep-seated, these divisions only gained political salience through the development of a nationalist spirit during colonial rule and the resultant institutionalization of ethnic differences. As the government became more democratic, residual political incentives from the past and increased anxieties from majority groups coincided to produce a harsh response to recent Rohingya threats to Burmese supremacy. Therefore, the Rohingya crisis did not just come; it was made.
The Influence of British Colonialism
The influence of British colonial rule and institutionalization of ethnic differences between the Rohingya minority and Burmese majority laid the foundation for increased aggression by making a nationalist, Burmese identity in the country that excluded the Rohingya and tolerated their persecution.
The British colonization of Myanmar in the late nineteenth century came at a time when Myanmar (then Burma) promised vast resources and a highly exploitable labor force. Upon arrival, the British instituted an era of so-called “cultural pluralism” by importing Indian laborers and other diverse groups to the area in order to maximize economic gains.
The British found these groups more “naturally commercial,” a favoritism that drove the Burmese people—the ethnic majority of the nation who were predominantly Buddhist and whose ancestry was based in the region—to become prejudiced against foreigners, specifically the Bengali-speaking Rohingya. In essence, intensified tensions between the Rohingya and the rest of the country resulted from an institutional, man-made construct more than anything else.
The Post-Independence Rise of Nationalism
British colonial policy augmented preexisting Burmese prejudices and a nationalist sentiment that erupted across the country in the years leading up to independence. This fostered a particularly anti-British sentiment that motivated post-independence leaders in the late 1940s and 1950s to break from the legal norms previously imposed upon them.
In 1962, a military coup overthrew the government, ushering in “the near destruction of Burma’s plural society” and “a disastrous communist-style nationalized government” according to Richard Cockett, a prominent British historian and journalist. Because the Burmese majority felt perpetually entrenched in a seemingly alien society, “the region felt obliged to confront what they saw as the twin evils of European colonial rule and the imposition of the plural society.”
The predominantly Burmese military ruled Myanmar for the next five decades despite economic struggles and an increasing divergence from the West. The nationalist spirit that resulted from the British imposition of “cultural pluralism” fostered a political environment in which fervent, anti-minority sentiment was permissible. In doing so, this colonial institution bred long-lasting political incentives to evade protection of minority groups and espouse the nationalist spirit of the Burmese majority.
The Constitutional Institutionalization of Ethnic Differences
Ultimately, the consequences of “cultural pluralism” transcended the political salience of ethnic issues. A backlash to cultural pluralism led to a series of reforms in Myanmar’s constitution that further institutionalized ethnic differences and increased tendencies towards their political exploitation.
Most importantly, Myanmar’s military junta excluded the Rohingya from citizenship in 1982. In doing so, the government both ignited and justified public contempt for the Rohingya. Additionally, this institutionalization of ethnic differences, and the concurrent defining of 135 national races (taingyintha), emboldened the fundamental incentives of political leaders to adopt more nationalist rhetoric and anti-minority policies. Such restriction of Rohingya rights persisted throughout the next three decades and culminated in the exclusion of this group in Myanmar’s 2014 census.
The Effects of Recent Governmental Changes
Recent governmental changes such as stripping the military junta of power and establishing a more civilian-led government have stranded Aung San Suu Kyi in a fragile political position where a choice between moralism and pragmatism is unavoidable.
Primarily, in 2011, the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar Armed Forces) finally acquiesced to widespread demands and instituted a nominally civilian government. Nevertheless, this new government still carries many vestiges of an authoritarian past, including the reservation of 25% of parliamentary seats for the military and the barring of Aung San Suu Kyi from holding the presidency.
Even with these undemocratic principles, the optics of these changes have been profoundly influential. According to Adam P. Macdonald, a published academic on this subject, “Despite the maintenance of authoritarian rule… the opening of the political realm and civil society creates avenues for new actors, identities, interests, and relationships to be constructed.” It is under these conditions that the underlying tensions between the Burmese majority and the Rohingya Muslim minority have been able to reach a boiling point.
Boiling Over… Yet Silence Still?
The democratization of the historically authoritarian Myanmar has heightened worries of the Rohingya consolidating power and annexing Rakhine, opening up the so-called “Western Gate.” Following an offensive by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25 of this year, fear-mongering by the country’s military and tacit silence on the part of Aung San Suu Kyi were able to set off the spark of chaos that has resulted in such massive Rohingya displacement, rape, and murder.
For Aung San Suu Kyi, the complicated and deep-seated roots of this conflict has made it hard for her condemn the current actions of the Tatmadaw and their leader, Sr. General Min Aung Hlaing. Doing so could provoke even more violence and disarray, and could potentially ignite more widespread, public involvement in this conflict.
Finally, as Aung San Suu Kyi tries to ensure the legitimacy and strength of the new provisionally civilian government, many say that she needs to avoid outright criticism of the military, which holds substantial power over the country.
Some say that finally speaking up against the military could bring this atrocity to the end. It is yet to be seen whether this is true or not, but what remains clear is that there is no easy way of contextualizing or, thus, solving the current crisis in Myanmar.
Image source: Tasnim News Agency