Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
This week marks the sixth anniversary of the onslaught of ruthless violence, rape and genocide by the military in Myanmar against the Rohingya of all ages. The genocidal conduct of the regime forces compelled a staggering three-quarters of a million Rohingya, men, women and children, to flee to Bangladesh, clutching their meager possessions.
Six years later, the situation of the Rohingya has shown minimal improvement. Their future remains grim, with little optimism about the prospect of being able to return to their homeland. Nevertheless, a thin silver lining exists, as a significant number of them have found safety in Bangladesh after escaping the clutches of a genocidal campaign.
For observers of Myanmar, including myself, none of these developments were a surprise as they unfolded. It was evident to many of us that the military, with the complicity of the civilian government, was orchestrating a comprehensive campaign of genocide.
What was not anticipated, however, was that following the genocide the military would overthrow the elected civilian administration and employ the same brutal tactics against the very citizens who had previously supported them. The underlying lesson was unmistakable: If you turn a blind eye to genocide, it simply means you will be next.
Civilians in Myanmar believed that the military would be satisfied with the expulsion of the Rohingya and never anticipated that the same military forces they supported would soon turn on them as well. After all, the Rohingya were different, ethnically, religiously and culturally, and had long been targeted for persecution by the Buddhist authorities in Myanmar.
Nonetheless, the widely publicized tragedy that befell them conceals a bleaker reality about Myanmar, which is that the nation is mired in one of the planet’s lengthiest and most intricate civil conflicts. Each facet of this strife is marked by ethnic or religious divisions. Often both.
The assault on the Rohingya constitutes merely one example of Myanmar’s ongoing military campaigns against minority factions. Once the Rohingya issue was ostensibly “resolved,” from the military’s point of view, it was at liberty to shift its resources to other fronts. At that point, Myanmar’s remaining minority groups were likely to face similar treatment. Some of these communities had been the targets of military oppression for more than half a century.
Nevertheless, the persecutions are poised to surpass all previous hardships. The campaign against the Rohingya dramatically expanded the military’s capability for ethnic cleansing and, possibly of greater significance, emboldened it, given that a substantial section of the population appeared to endorse the aggression.
To comprehend the enduring nature of these conflicts and their recent escalation, one must examine Myanmar’s demographic and political dynamics. About 68 percent of the nation’s population is Bamar (ethnic Burmese), primarily concentrated in the area around the Irrawaddy Valley, the nation’s core. The country is predominantly Buddhist, with 88 percent adhering to the conservative Theravada doctrine.
Bordering the Irrawaddy Valley there lie a number of regions inhabited by a diverse assortment of ethnic and religious minorities, nearly all of which have sought independence from the central government since Myanmar, then known as Burma, achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1948.
These secessionist movements emerged because, soon after independence, Bamar Theravada Buddhists gained a significant level of control over the government and the military, imposing their identity as the official state identity. In the years that followed, a series of military regimes systematically marginalized and suppressed religious and ethnic minorities through a range of oppressive tactics.
Various groups were denied citizenship, their villages were razed, and their marriage rights were curtailed. In Rakhine state, authorities imposed restrictions on the number of children Rohingya Muslims could have, generally limiting them to two, which was just below the population replacement rate.
Clashes between the army and secessionist movements have reignited in recent years as the federal army has reinvigorated its resolve. Battles between the Myanmar military and the separatist Kachin Independence Army displaced nearly 100,000 Kachin people in the north of the country in 2011. Many years later, these displaced persons continue to live in internal refugee camps, with scant prospect of rebuilding their lives.
In the past two years, the military has escalated its shelling of targets in or near civilian camps and villages. In the northern Shan state, hostilities have resumed between the military and the Taang National Liberation Army, an extension of a conflict that dates back to 1963. In the past nine years, battles with the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army have driven tens of thousands of refugees across the border into China. To the south, the army has targeted Christians among the Karen people, forcing over 100,000 refugees into Thailand in recent decades.
It is not solely the displacements of these peoples that mirror the predicament of the Rohingya. Kachin and Karen women have reported instances of rape by the military as a means of oppression, echoing the mass rapes recounted by Rohingya refugees.
Perhaps the most lamentable aspect of the recent turmoil in Myanmar is that it occurred during the nation’s journey toward democracy. When a civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, was elected in 2015, Western diplomats had aspirations that she would temper the excesses of the military. The opposite transpired, however. The violence escalated.
The crux of the matter lies in decades of government propaganda that instilled in the electorate deep biases against non-Buddhist and non-Bamar individuals.
Radical Buddhist monks and advocates of a supposedly pure Buddhist state wield considerable influence over social media in the country. Civil society groups advocating for the rights of the Rohingya or Christian minorities are virtually nonexistent in the Buddhist landscape.
This realization seems to have prompted the opposition’s humanitarian minister, Win Myat Aye, to now finally express remorse for the inability of authorities “to ensure justice for the Rohingya in the northern Rakhine State,” the region in which the military began to execute its brutal crackdown in August 2017.
Win’s apology represents a departure from his prior stance, which was evident in a 2017 BBC interview, during which he defended the military action as an essential response to counter terrorism. He responded with a “yes” when asked whether it was the Rohingya themselves who set fire to their own villages. Six years later, his views have changed. “We, as the civilian government, were incapable of delivering justice during that period,” Win said, alluding to the 2017 operation to eliminate insurgents among the Rohingya minority in Rakhine. “Reflecting on all of this brings me a deep sense of regret. We extend our apologies for this shortcoming. It is now clear why we were unable to dispense justice at that time.”