By any measure, what has happened in Burma since 2011 has been an impressive series of steps towards greater political openness and inclusiveness. Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-suffering democracy activist, has been released; her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has gone from an officially banned movement to winning a landslide in the 2012 parliamentary by-election, where a limited number of seats were contested.
These reforms have, in turn, sparked international approval, including a historic visit to Burma by President Obama and, more materially useful, the lifting of European Union sanctions. But the mood remains one of cautious optimism; Aung San Suu Kyi herself has exhorted more work to ‘ensure things are going in the right direction’. Reform may have become irreversible; but it remains an uncertain course.
Yet, even by the often uneven standards of far-ranging political reform – which are rarely as far-ranging as they appear initially – there remains a dark side to Burma which is gradually reaching crisis proportions. In the southwestern Rakhine State, long-simmering conflicts between the Buddhist Rakhines and Burmese and the Muslim Rohingyas burst into violence in 2012, killing scores and displacing tens of thousands, creating what several humanitarian groups are already warning will become a deadly crisis. This is especially so as the cyclone season begins in the Bay of Bengal; even a storm with a mere fraction of the power of Cyclone Nargis, which struck southern Burma and killed nearly 140,000 in 2010, could be devastating to a refugee population.
The Rohingya are hardly the only minority group in Burma to be embroiled in conflict with the Burmese majority. In the northern Kachin state, for instance, an insurgency by the Shan and Kachin minorities has been smouldering for five decades, defying recent hopes for a peaceful resolution as part of the reforms.
Nor are any of these conflicts new; the situation in Rakhine has its roots in British policy during the decades of colonial rule, and even before. Then known as Arakan, the area was depopulated owing to Buddhist-Muslim conflict in the 18th century and became a favoured destination for migration from Bengal in the 19th; the fact that Burma was a part of British India, with no barrier to migration, facilitated this process. But the resultant economic dispossession of Burmese farmers, prevalent throughout British Burma but especially in Rakhine, later became a key grievance of Burmese nationalists, who eventually compelled the British to leave.
The process of score-settling has proceeded ever since with the Rohingya, prompting the UN to declare them one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The heavy reliance on Theravada Buddhism by the military junta to bolster its legitimacy also makes the Rohingya, not unlike the Christian Shan and Kachin, beyond the pale in every sense. Denied Burmese citizenship, they were – indeed still are – being forced to change their nationality to ‘Bengali’, and are heavily discriminated against in all aspects of life.
They have also been the targets of military operations since the 1970s, and possibly incitements to violence as well; the disproportionate casualties suffered in recent riots would suggest that the security forces are not impartial. The most recent drive – which again has historical roots – has been to deport the Rohingya entirely to a third country; this has led not only to tensions with neighbouring Bangladesh, where a similar community of Rohingyas also resides, but also to yet more accusations involving not just Burma but its neighbour Thailand.
Given the backdrop of political progress in Burma, it seems easy to say that this progress will also touch the Rohingyas – that democracy and civilian rule will help them as it does everyone. But this argument is facile, for several reasons.
It is, of course, true that the military government has condoned and encouraged much of the mistreatment of the Rohingya community. But if the statements and attitudes of the pro-democracy movement, which mostly comprises Buddhist Burmese, is anything to go by, it is less clear that a civilian-led government would have led to much better outcomes. Aung San Suu Kyi has been conspicuously silent, for example, on the Rakhine issue. But more chilling still are the attitudes of some in the sangha – the Buddhist monastic community, which wields enormous influence in a devoutly Buddhist country. An example is this video from the Guardian, where an abbot lays out his attitudes towards the ‘crude and savage’ and ‘rapists’, as he calls the Muslim Rohingya.
Nor is this abbot an isolated case of incitement. While government plays a part, the severity of the 2012 riots suggests that hatred and suspicion of the Muslim community is a widespread phenomenon. These views reach even into the democracy movement itself; between her colleagues and the sangha, it might be no surprise that Suu Kyi is reluctant to speak up.
And yet the plight of the Rohingya is both a challenge and a major test for the pro-democracy movement. If the junta is merely espousing limited reform to legitimise its more brutal policies, a failure to speak up for the minorities provides exactly this sort of cover. The views currently adopted, though, portend nothing less than a common failure of democratic rule – that a legitimate, elected civilian government would take pretty much the same view of Burma’s minorities as its illegitimate predecessor.
The nobility of the NLD’s cause, and their sacrifices in achieving what they have, should not be disparaged. But one cannot help feeling that, in this case, the limitations of advocating ‘mere democracy’ are sharply visible. Even where people have a vote, there must be restraints – most importantly on those communities whose votes will never be enough to sway or create a government, but who nonetheless exist and cannot be discounted. Not having the wherewithal to outvote another community is no reason for one group to suffer mistreatment.
More ominously, as the prospects of a more open and democratic Burma become brighter, is the question of how the Rakhine conflict might evolve. A representative contrast is with the Kachin in the north, where in 2011 a ceasefire broke down, but the military government was quickly pressured into more negotiations with the Kachin just next year. If, for the Rohingya, there is no prospect for inclusion in the status quo, then surely a possible lesson provided by the Kachin is that only an armed insurgency might stand a chance. This would be a disastrous lesson for everyone involved.
Thus far the Rohingya issue has been seen mainly through humanitarian lenses, as well it might given that hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced. In the long run, however, to view the Rohingya as ‘merely’ needing humanitarian aid is unproductive. Aid in itself can only save so many people from so many cyclones and riots each year. What is needed is the recognition that this is also a political crisis – and that the internal costs to the democracy movement of making a principled stand on Rohingya rights and citizenship can be decreased, or counterbalanced, by the international community. Whatever Burma becomes, it will hopefully not remain a military dictatorship for very long. But it would be cold comfort for the Rohingya if a brutal dictatorship was replaced by a majoritarian, nationalist democracy.