The Elephant in Myanmar’s Room

Rohingya for blog
BLEAK FUTURE–In which nation will these Rohingya children grow up? Will they grow up? (Associated Press – Gemunu Amarasinghe photo)

YANGON—Last week, Myanmar was officially handed the chairmanship of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a one-year term that begins on January 1. Myanmar waited longer than any other member state for this honour—the first seventeen years of its membership, to be precise. There are those who would argue that it should have waited even longer, given the slow pace of reform under the former military dictatorship. Still others would say that Myanmar should never have been invited to join the influential bloc in the first place.

Back in 1997, international human rights organizations, academics, and some Western states were appalled by the lobbying effort of Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad (hardly a human rights icon himself) to get the Myanmar approved for ASEAN membership at a time when the junta was being widely condemned for forced relocation, rape and extrajudicial killings in Shan State. Six years later, these critics were not surprised when ASEAN suffered international embarrassment over the Depayin massacre, in which a group of government-backed thugs intent on assassinating Aung San Suu Kyi killed scores of her followers instead. ASEAN’s policy of non-interference in its members’ internal affairs (which has been tested severely since Myanmar was admitted to the club) was widely ridiculed after that.

But since the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) was dissolved and the reins of power were handed over to a quasi-civilian government in 2011, Myanmar has taken some steps to walk the talk when it comes to reform. With the assistance of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and the Myanmar Peace Center—which is working directly with ethnic armed groups—the government of President Thein Sein, a former military prime minister, is showing more willingness to use dialogue to achieve a lasting peace in strife-ridden border areas. Political prisoners have been released in larger numbers than ever before—including more than 50 last week, mostly from ethnic armed groups. Activist “black lists” have been torn up, and media censorship is a thing of the past. With sanctions being lifted, increased foreign investment is bound to create wealth for more than just the usual junta cronies—although you’d be hard pressed to convince the majority of Myanmar people, who continue to grind out lives of quiet desperation and poverty.

Despite hopes for real and lasting change in Myanmar, there’s an elephant in the room and that is the government’s complicity in the repression of Muslim minorities near the western border—especially the Rohingya. Two weeks ago, as Thein Sein was making his first visit to Rakhine State in an attempt to defuse ethnic and religious tensions there, the strategy backfired. The day before his arrival, Buddhist mobs carrying swords and knives descended on several Muslim villages in Thandwe Township. When the mayhem was over, five Muslims (including a 94-year-old woman) were dead and more than 100 homes burned to the ground. The victims were Kaman, a Muslim minority whose citizenship rights are recognized—unlike the Rohingya.

In the last fifteen months, religious violence in Rakhine State has killed hundreds, destroyed entire villages, and displaced more than 140,000 people. Of that number, 110,000 are Rohingya. For decades, they lived beside the Rakhine Buddhists with little incident. Now, homeless and stateless, they are forced to live in squalid conditions in the unsanitary and overcrowded confines of camps for internally displaced people. By any measure, what is happening to them is ethnic cleansing—and you know where that can lead.


Any foreigner who lives in Myanmar and openly uses the word “genocide” with reference to the Rohingya (or indeed, who even dignifies this minority’s existence here by calling them “Rohingya” rather than the ostracizing term “Bengalis,” which some regard as hate speech) is courting serious trouble among those who belong to the ethnic Bamar (Burman) majority. In mainstream Myanmar society, criticism of nationalist sentiment can be regarded as an assault on the Buddhist religion (rather than a critique of its extremist elements); criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi, for refusing to describe the Rohingya’s plight as a humanitarian crisis, as an insult to the heroic pro-democracy icon (rather than merely a call for a more principled stance, regardless of the National League for Democracy’s electoral hopes for 2015); and criticism of the government and Rakhine Buddhists, for letting the situation get so out of hand, as an attack on the country: a misguided, pro-Muslim stance by the easily brainwashed, manufactured by the rights-obsessed West. So, one must tread lightly.

Last month, a colleague from Vancouver sent me a new report by a Toronto-based organization known as The Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention (SPGP). This human rights group, whose advisory council includes Genocide Watch president Gregory Stanton and former U.S. ambassador Jack Chow (once a special representative on global HIV/AIDS issues to former secretary of state Colin Powell), uses an early warning system to identify “situations of concern” for at-risk populations around the world. The SPGP’s research work is designed to deliver recommendations at an early enough stage to possibly prevent actual genocide from occurring.

In its 47-page report, entitled “Burma Risk Assessment,” the SPGP applies internationally recognized criteria to determine whether this morally loaded word, “genocide,” with all of its emotional baggage, can truly be applied to the Rohingya. On every count except for wholesale extermination (which never occurs without some combination of other risk factors present), the report concludes that the Rohingya are, indeed, at high risk for genocide.

Among the multiple signs the report cites, the following are the top ten (taken verbatim from the SPGP website):

  1. Continued periodic outbreaks of organized violence, regularly accompanied by either inaction or participation by government security forces, and agents provocateurs of unknown government affiliation;
  2. An attempt by local governments within Rakhine to limit Rohingya reproduction by enforcing a two-child limit;
  3. A proposed ban on interfaith marriage is supported by extreme nationalist Buddhist monks and is being considered as legislation;
  4. The continued denial of aid to squalid camps and continuing movement restrictions, expropriation, displacement, and ghettoization of Rohingya;
  5. An attempt to perform a census of Rohingya, violently coercing them to register as “Bengali,” which may facilitate the creation of “death lists”;
  6. The continuing arrest of political prisoners despite presidential assurances to the contrary;
  7. Official government support for the ultra-nationalist 969 movement, which alienates Muslims and casts them as a threat;
  8. Burmese president Thein Sein’s proposed plan to resettle the Rohingya population abroad;
  9. Thein Sein’s proclamation to continue denying citizenship to the Rohingya; and
  10. The official denial of the existence of the Rohingya and institutionalized usage of hate speech even among moderates.

The report’s authors add an eleventh factor: The silence of political moderates on the plight of the Rohingya.

Apart from Number 7, every one of these risk factors is credible with regard to the Rohingya. (Last month, the government committee that oversees the Buddhist monkhood issued a directive prohibiting the creation of formal organizations associated with 969, an explicitly xenophobic group of nationalist Buddhist monks who fear Islamic expansion in Myanmar.)

So, what can a foreigner in Myanmar actually say about all this? I think it is safe to say the following:

Whatever the Rakhine majority’s hopes are for their state, the current situation is unsustainable. Violence has not only solved nothing; it has made matters much, much worse for everyone, including Buddhists. As long as interreligious hatred continues, there will be no healing. Affected communities also run the risk of fomenting anti-Buddhist violence in Indonesia and other Muslim countries. For the Myanmar people at large, and for the Thein Sein government, there is great risk in allowing religious violence to continue unchecked while an entire racial minority is treated as non-human beings. Not only is this a blight on the country’s international reputation; it makes a travesty of Myanmar’s transition to democracy, which is still in its infancy. The violence might not have been enough to scotch Myanmar’s chairmanship of ASEAN next year, but the high profile this new role guarantees should certainly put added pressure on Myanmar’s leaders to reverse the trend.

It is not only the majority USDP government and its retired military officer MPs who need to recognize this; it’s also the opposition who fought for democracy, including the NLD leader whose house arrest was opposed by many Rohingyas who joined international calls for her release. These activists are heartbroken by Suu Kyi’s failure to risk political damage by speaking up for their people. During a lecture on leadership at Singapore Management University on September 22, the Nobel laureate appeared to be addressing her own government when she said that leaders should work to gain the people’s support by fulfilling their needs.  “If you believe that what you are doing is good for your country,” she said, “you must be prepared to lose the next election.” One can only hope she was also referring to herself.


Notwithstanding the above, those of us who are visitors to Myanmar are wise to keep our mouths shut. A few weeks ago, a young Burman colleague e-mailed me a link to a hysterical rant, posted on CNN’s website, about the “manipulations” of an Al Jazeera documentary about the Rohingya, entitled “The Hidden Genocide.” He sent me the link in support of the rant, I think, because of the one brief chat we had had about the issue. (During our conversation, I had gently suggested that perhaps, just maybe, there were better ways of responding to historical grievances than killing the people you don’t like.)

In response to his e-mail, I told my colleague that, having not yet seen the Al Jazeera video, I could hardly offer a well-informed comment on his link.

Very lame, I agree. But sometimes, an office argument just isn’t worth the trouble.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Keith Reynolds

    Very informative Dan, thanks for writing.

  2. Dale Fuller

    Thank you for your very carefully parsed words, Daniel. They provide a window into a situation about which I know almost nothing. Having lived in Chile while Pinochet was still in action, and in Spain under Franco, I know that you have to be very careful. You don’t want to put others in danger. It occurred to be that the metaphor of an elephant in the room might not work here — as I assume the odd elephant actually does wander around over there. Maybe I am wrong. You and yours take care. Dale

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