Myanmar/Burma: Rohingya Lives Matter

Richard Abernethy

Summary: Genocide against the Rohingya – what can the international Left do to oppose it? – Editors

The armed forces of Myanmar (Burma) are carrying out the latest, perhaps final, phase of a genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Of a Rohingya population of about one million remaining in Rakhine state, Myanmar until August 2017, an estimated half a million – the number keeps rising – have fled to Bangladesh, where some 400,000 were already living as refugees in consequence of earlier persecutions. An unknown number have been massacred or perished while fleeing. The traumatised survivors have witnessed family members shot down, homes and villages burnt.

This is a massive, indiscriminate retaliation for attacks on army and police by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Counter-allegations have been made of Rohingya militants killing Buddhist and Hindu civilians. To date, no impartial body has been able to investigate these claims. Even if they turn out to be true, it is certain that the violence against the Rohingya is on a vastly greater scale.

Myanmar was ruled by an overt military dictatorship for half a century, from 1962. (The name of the country is itself controversial, as it was the military that changed it from Burma to Myanmar.) Today, it is a hybrid type of state in which an elected, civilian government is permitted to exist, but with no control in law or practice over the armed forces. Real, hard power remains in the grasp of the armed forces under their supreme commander, Min Aung Hliang.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the former dissident, political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was until recently held up as an icon of human rights, and who now holds the office of state counsellor (because the constitution was rigged so that she could not become president) has been widely criticised – outside the country – for her refusal to defend the Rohingya or criticise the military. We do not know whether her denials and evasions are made willingly or under duress. She may be accommodating her politics to the Buddhist-chauvinist organisations Ma Ba Tha and 969 that have gained ground in recent years. Whatever the reason, she has transformed from critic to apologist for the country’s military rulers.

However deplorable Suu Kyi’s complicity, primary culpability for the genocide rests with the military high command under Min Aung Hliang. In a period of change – from dictatorship to partial democracy and from relatively isolated state-capitalism to greater integration into the capitalist world system, Islamophobia provides an ideological prop for the military, and also for sections of the monkhood, allowing them to present themselves as protectors of the Buddhist nation against the supposed Muslim threat.

Myanmar’s western coastal state of Rakhine (Arakan) was historically an independent kingdom, and Muslims lived there for centuries before it was conquered by Burma in 1785. Around 800 CE, an Arab fleet was shipwrecked and the survivors were allowed to settle and allocated land by the local ruler. In the fifteenth century, Arakan became a tributary kingdom of Bengal. For about two centuries, the kings of Arakan took additional Muslim names, which appeared on the coinage. Muslims from Bengal entered the society at the top as government officials, in the middle as traders and artisans, and at the bottom as slaves taken by pirates. When the British colonised Arakan after 1825, they encouraged settlement by Muslim peasants from the region of Chittagong (now part of Bangladesh), regarding them as more efficient cultivators. In time this led to conflict with the Arakanese Buddhists. During the Second World War, many Rohingya sided with the British, while some Arakanese Buddhists supported the Japanese. Both sides committed atrocities against each other in this conflict. When Burma gained independence in 1948 the Rohingya became Burmese citizens. But even under the brief rule of the progressive nationalist Aung San in 1946-47, when many ethnic minorities gained autonomy and other rights, nothing specific was enacted in terms of the Rohingya. And the gains for all minorities were rolled back after the 1962 military coup. The military regime deprived the Rohingya of citizenship in 1982, since when their situation has deteriorated.

In part, the crisis stems from a local conflict between Rohingya Muslims, Arakanese Buddhists and Hindus. The dynamics of this conflict are little known to outsiders, but it is surely relevant that Rakhine is one of the poorest parts of Myanmar, itself one of the world’s poorest countries.

Superimposed on this is the policy of the national government, which far from seeking to keep the peace between the communities and mediate between them, has systematically victimised the Rohingya.

Previous outbreaks of persecution have been mainly conducted by armed groups of Rakhine Buddhists. In the present outbreak, such groups have acted as auxiliaries of the armed forces of Myanmar.

Faced with such horrors, anything we can say or do may seem inadequate, but despair is not an option. First, we must speak out against this atrocity, seek to mobilise world public opinion against the Myanmar regime. We can call for Min Aung Hliang and other high-ranking officers to be indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide. They should be liable to arrest if they travel outside Myanmar. Sooner or later, these people are going to fall from power, and when they do they should face trial for their crimes. When Aung San Suu Kyi or other representatives of the civilian government travel abroad, they should be met by demonstrations in support of the Rohingya. We can campaign for a total ban on arms sales to Myanmar, coupled with smart sanctions that target the elite, not the general population. Assets held abroad by the top brass should be tracked down, confiscated and used for the relief of refugees.

The return of the refugees and the reconstruction of their villages must be an eventual goal, but for that to happen the conditions for their safe return must first be in place. In the meantime, the conditions of their life in exile must be improved as much as possible. Bangladesh cannot be expected to carry this burden; there should be a generous international aid package.

The long view of the history of Arakan shows that Buddhists and Muslims co-existed for centuries in a pre-capitalist society. In a future society they may do so again, though that prospect looks very distant at present and would depend on real revolutionary change.



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