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Michael Jansen: The crisis in Myanmar
September 22, 2017
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Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stands accused of failing to halt the ethnic cleansing of more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims from her country by using her moral authority to pressure the military to halt operations against this largely poor farming community. Indeed, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said Suu Kyi has a “last chance” to end the army offensive so the Rohingya can return home to their towns  and villages in Rakhine state. This is unlikely as the military has burned nearly 200 villages in a bid to put an end to the longstanding “Rohingya problem.”

 Guterres admitted, however, that Myanmar’s military “have the upper hand.” Indeed, under the constitution, the generals wield power while Suu Kyi can only recommend a course of action and use moral suasion to influence the generals. She should have been in a strong position to exert pressure as the daughter of General Aung San, the father of modern Myanmar, and the country’s national hero, but she all too clearly does not.   

 Nevertheless, she is accused of letting down her country, her party, and the international community by failing to halt the persecution of Rohingyas and their expulsion from Myanmar. She initially argued “terrorists” had precipitated the current crisis and castigated global media for issuing fake news. While the focus has been on Rakhine Muslims, some 30,000 Buddhists and Hindus have been displaced by the violence.

 Her stance angered and baffled longstanding admirers and undermined her image as one of the few moral figures on the world scene. Until the Rohingya crisis, Suu Kyi had been compared to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela for standing up against her country’s brutal military dictatorship.

 Last week Suu Kyi belatedly expressed concern over the plight of the Rohingyas and pledged to “take action” once “solid evidence” had been gathered on what has been happening. She warned steps would be taken against anyone “regardless of race or political position who [goes] against the laws of the land or violates human rights.” 

 On who initiated the violence she was correct. On August 25th, insurgents from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) armed with knives and homemade bombs attacked more than 30 police posts in the north of Rakhine state, killing 12 officers. The army and Buddhist gangs responded by routing Rohingya civilians and torching their villages. At least 1,000 people have been killed. 

 ARSA, a militia of 15,000 funded by wealthy individuals in Pakistan and a Gulf country, is the latest manifestation of Rohingya separatism, a movement that began during World War II when Myanmar (formerly Burma) was the largest of the major provinces of British India. The Burmans, under the leadership of nationalist Aung San, sided with the Japanese who promised liberation, while Muslim Rohingya, whose province was the called “Arakan,” chose Britain. In 1944, alienated by the harsh Japanese occupation, Aung San — who headed the Burmese Liberation Army — contacted the British and offered to mount a revolt against the Japanese. Following the war, Aung San served as de facto prime minister and negotiated the terms of Burma’s independence. He was assassinated in July 1947, before Burma attained freedom.

  Born in Yangon in 1945, Suu Kyi was raised by her mother, educated in international schools in Yangon and New Delhi where her mother was posted as ambassador. In 1964 Suu Kyi won a place at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics (PPE). While at university she met Michael Aris, a British scholar whom she married. They settled in Oxford where she continued her academic studies and raised two sons until 1988 when she returned to Myanmar to nurse her dying mother.

Suu Kyi joined forces with dissidents protesting the country’s military dictatorship and co-founded the National League for Democracy. She was put under house arrest during 1989 and remained in detention for 15 of the 21 subsequent years. She was held in her crumbling family home, deprived of food, and refused visits from her husband and sons even when he was dying of cancer. The military said she could leave but not return. She remained in Yangon and became the icon of the democracy movement. In 1990 she was awarded the Nobel Prize but was unable to collect it until 2010 when she was released from house arrest. 

 After her party won a sweeping victory in the 2015 parliamentary election, Suu Kyi was excluded from the presidency by a constitutional clause banning from office anyone who had a foreign spouse or foreign children. She became state counsellor and foreign minister. She nominated a president and ministers in a government with limited authority in domestic and foreign affairs and no role in security. 

 Rohingya are the third largest of Myanmar’s restive minorities, after the Karen and the Shan. Rohingya, who numbered 1.1 million out of a population of 53 million, differ from the 65 per cent Burman (Bamar) majority in three ways: ethnicity, language, and religion. 

 While a Rohingya presence in Myanmar predates that of the Burmans, the majority of Rohingyas were Bengali farmers settled in Rakhine state by the British during the colonial period. The Rohingyas are Indo-Aryans, ethnically diverse peoples who speak Indo-European languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Rajastani, Bengali, Sinhalese, and Romani. A billion people belong to this grouping, including the Kurds. Burmans (Bamar) are a mixture of Southeast Asian, East Asian and Indian ethnicities and speak a language related to Tibetan. The Rohingyas’ language is similar to that of Chittagong in Banglasesh. Rohingya are largely Muslims. Burmans are mainly Buddhists. Burman ultra-nationalists and fanatic Buddhists have fanned the flames of racism, anti-Muslim, and anti-Rohingya feeling for decades.

 When Myanmar became independent, Rohingyas were permitted to apply for identity cards if they could prove their families had lived there before independence and could speak Burmese. Most were denied citizenship and after the 1962 army coup they were regarded as foreigners and received foreign identity cards. They were denied political rights, education, and employment and considered stateless. Human rights organisations accuse the military of imposing apartheid on the Rohingya although the term does not quite fit as it does to Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
 
___________________________________________
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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