Aung San Suu Kyi ’s civilian-led government is facing its most serious crisis since coming to office in March 2015. In the small hours of 9 October, as many as five hundred people, armed with knives, slingshots and pistols, launched a series of co-ordinated attacks on police outposts in Rakhine State in the north-west of Myanmar, close to the border with Bangladesh. Nine police officers were killed, and a small cache of weapons was stolen (around sixty guns, ten thousand rounds and some bayonets). Those responsible most likely come from Rakhine’s long-persecuted Rohingya community.
The army launched a counter-insurgency operation, effectively militarising the townships where the attacks occurred – Maungdaw and Rathedaung – and turning large parts of northern Rakhine into what they called ‘operational areas’. There have been disturbing reports of extrajudicial killings of Muslim men, alleged rapes of Rohingya women, the forced displacement of villagers and the torching of Muslim homes. Non-Muslim civilians in Rakhine have called to be armed and organised into a people’s militia; they would like to take matters into their own hands.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been almost entirely absent during these events, travelling to India and Japan on state visits. Since the late 1980s she has been a lodestar for democrats and human rights activists throughout the world, but her celestial image is waning. She has been criticised internationally for refusing to speak out about the plight of the Rohingyas, yet she continues to say nothing.
There are 800,000 Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. Denied citizenship since 1982, they are one of the world’s largest groups of stateless people and, according to the UN, the most persecuted. They are confined to three townships and sixty internment camps, and are denied food, work, medicine, legal protection, ID papers and education. They face arbitrary arrest, beatings and pogroms; their mosques are destroyed, their land confiscated. Laws restrict their movement, marriages and how many children they can have. Sexual assault and rape by soldiers is routine. People-smugglers operate in the camps. Between January and March 2015, according to the UNHCR, around 25,000 people, mostly Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, were trafficked across the Bay of Bengal. Others flee to Thailand or Indonesia: crammed onto rotting vessels, thousands drown in the Andaman. Those who survive are held in open-air prisons, or in wooden cages, before being ransomed back to their families. People whose families can’t afford to pay are sold to work as slaves on fishing boats, often with the knowledge and help of police and state officials. Women are forced into marriage or prostitution, and children disappear into the oblivion of undocumented labour.
Until the 11th century, Arakan (now called Rakhine) and central Burma had separate histories: a 600-mile mountain range, stretching from Cape Negrais to Manipur, hindered communication to the east, with the result that Arakan’s economic and ethnic ties were primarily with India, across the Bay of Bengal. This changed when the Rakhine ethnic group moved into Arakan sometime around 1000 ad and began to trade with Burma. After the collapse of the Pagan Empire in 1297, there were almost six centuries of conflict between the two regions, with periods of Burmese dominance followed by stretches of Arakan independence, and even the brief conquest of the region that now forms Bangladesh.
In 1784 the Burmese Konbaung Dynasty, emboldened by victories over Siam, annexed Arakan, resulting in a confrontation with the British and the East India Company. The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) secured British supremacy in the region. Thirty years later, the British occupied southern Burma, and seized the northern half in 1886. Arakan was administrated as part of the colonial state, and remained part of Burma following independence in 1948, when it was renamed Rakhine after the dominant ethnic group.
The persecution of Rohingyas rests on a belief that they are outsiders: Buddhist nationalists, the military and many Burmese believe that their arrival in the 19th century corrupted the nation’s homogeneous ethnic and religious composition. Azeem Ibrahim debunks these claims in his essential new book, claiming that Rohingyas were in Arakan well before 1784, and may even have arrived there before the Buddhist Rakhine. Ibrahim offers a credible genealogy that links Rohingyas to Indo-Aryan groups who arrived from the Ganges Valley as early as 3000 bc. He also charts the evolution of their language and script, which has Arabic, Persian and Bengali influences.
In his new biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, Peter Popham describes the claims of pre-1784 settlement as ‘specious and confusing’. He doesn’t deny the long presence of Muslims in Arakan, but points to the absence of Rohingya in the censuses conducted by the British from the 1820s. The only recorded use of the word before the 20th century, he says, was by the Scottish physician-explorer Francis Buchanan, who in 1799 noted one use of ‘Rooinga’. Ibrahim claims that other contemporary documents, including the Classical Journal of 1811 and an 1815 German compendium by J.S. Vateri, do name the Rohingya, and that the designation doesn’t appear in the British censuses because they classified on the basis of religion not ethnicity.
Popham gives more attention than Ibrahim to the atrocities carried out by Muslims in Arakan. When Japan invaded Burma in 1942, the British armed its Christian allies on the country’s eastern and northern borders, and then, in Arakan, supplied weapons primarily to the Muslims Popham describes as ‘Chittagonians’ – from the area around Chittagong (now in Bangladesh). Drafted into a reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering unit, they proceeded to destroy Buddhist monasteries, and laid waste to Arakanese villages, killing their inhabitants. By the time Japan withdrew in 1945, Arakan was split between a Muslim north and a Buddhist south. Alarmed at the prospect of having to live under Burmese rule after independence, Muslims petitioned unsuccessfully for northern Arakan to be incorporated into East Pakistan.
By the 1950s, the Rohingyas were acknowledged as an ethnic group. The 1961 census, which referred to them by name, seemed to indicate attempts at integration. This changed with Ne Win’s coup a year later, and the beginning of military rule. As in Indonesia, Pakistan and Thailand, Burma’s generals saw themselves as the guardians of a union threatened by insurgencies in the resource-rich borderlands. Their vision of a self-supporting state, free from foreign intervention, was reified in the Burmese Road to Socialism, the blueprint for a command economy based on Buddhism, autarky and astrology that impoverished the country. The Rohingyas were ethnically identifiable, outnumbered by the Buddhist majority and easy to scapegoat. From the mid-1970s they were given Foreign Registration Cards instead of National Registration Certificates, and were ignored in censuses. Two hundred thousand of them fled to Bangladesh between February and May 1978 (proof, the authorities said, that they shouldn’t have been in Burma in the first place). New citizenship laws in the 1980s entrenched their status as foreigners, and in 1991-92 beatings, rapes, the use of forced labour and land seizures drove another 250,000 into Bangladesh. In the 2014 census, they were forced to choose between being described as ‘Bengali’, which carried the threat of deportation, or not being registered at all, which meant internment in a refugee camp. Amartya Sen has called the situation in Rakhine a ‘slow genocide’, while the Early Warning Project named Myanmar as the state where genocide was most likely to take place.
The tensions in Rakhine, as well as civil war in northern Kachin and the eastern states of Kayah, Kayin and Shan, have made it easy for the army, the Tatmadaw, to justify its continued presence in the political life of the nation even after the elections of 2015: the defence minister is a lieutenant general, appointed by the military. The military dictatorship asserted that only Buddhists were truly Burmese, and it is responsible for allowing extremist monks such as Ashin Wirathu, and those associated with the ultra-nationalist Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha), to exploit the country’s ethno-nationalism and incite violence against non-Buddhists.
In the West, Buddhism is associated more with yoga and meditation than with violent nationalism; some will remember the non-violent protesters in Myanmar who marched against the military regime in the Saffron Revolution of 2007. Buddhism did play a vital role in the move from military rule to democracy, but some forms of the religion, such as Theravada Buddhism, are characterised by intolerance, nationalism, racism, violence and a suspicion of mass politics. The monks of the Ma Ba Tha see other religions as threatening the existence of Buddhism. They campaign against inter-faith marriage, and for population control. In April they demonstrated against the US embassy merely for using the term ‘Rohingya’. Their current hero is Donald Trump, on account of his anti-Muslim invective. ‘As long as the Quran exists there will be terrorists,’ U Parmaukkha, a former senior monk in the Ma Ba Tha said, ‘and like Trump we are trying to protect our country and our religion from the threat of Islam.’
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and the party formed by the leaders of the military dictatorship, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, as well as the military itself, have all failed to confront this. They’re concerned about the monks’ influence on the Burmese electorate. But the deference towards the holy men has a long history. The relationship between Buddhism and state power was first forged in the Pagan Empire. The authority and legitimacy of the state derived from its entrenchment of Buddhism as the keystone of life: pagan rulers built and protected monasteries, spread Buddhist teachings, maintained religious practices and restricted non-Buddhist elements in society. The strong confessional nature of Burma’s anti-colonial movement during the 1930s and 1940s was partly owed to the fact that the British had done little to court organised Buddhism.
After military rule began in 1962, successive governments relied on the building and restoring of monasteries, and the award of financial grants to monks to help legitimise their rule. During the 2015 election, the USDP, the largest opposition party, cast itself as the natural choice for the Buddhist vote, and although it has no official affiliation with the Ma Ba Tha, deployed them to denounce and disrupt the NLD’s campaign. Yet the NLD, too, wants to govern in accordance with the Theravada theory of the just state, and has many anti-Muslim members. Suu Kyi’s foreign ministry recently asked embassies to stop using the word ‘Rohingya’, describing it as a ‘controversial term’ that does not support ‘the national reconciliation process and problem solving’.
Does Suu Kyi’s own Buddhism explain her refusal to acknowledge the Rohingya’s plight? In 1985 she wrote an essay, ‘Intellectual Life in Burma and India under Colonialism’, in which she argued that central to the Burmese ‘racial psyche’ is the belief that Buddhism ‘represents the perfect philosophy’, and that there is ‘no need to either develop it further or to consider other philosophies’. Ibrahim suggests that her silence may reflect a loyalty to this belief. That’s unlikely. Suu Kyi’s faith, which is central to her politics and has long troubled her compatriots, is a synthesis of Buddhism and Western liberal philosophy, accompanied by an admiration for the dissidents of the Eastern Bloc. The opening reference in her 2011 Reith Lecture on ‘Liberty’ is to Edith Bone’s Seven Years Solitary, a memoir about the purges in 1950s Hungary, which is followed by references to Max Weber on politicians, Václav Havel on dissent, Isaiah Berlin on the perils of ‘spiritual freedom’, a verse from Rudyard Kipling’s The Fairies’ Siege and a passage from Anna Akhmatova, which Suu Kyi says gave her the strength to endure house arrest in solidarity with other political prisoners: ‘No, this is not me. This is somebody else that suffers. I could never face that and all that happened.’ Her essays and speeches are full of references to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the philosophy of non-violence and the inherent dignity of humankind.
Popham, whose The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi chronicled her life until 2010 in admiring tones, is now less generous. He writes that since being released from house arrest late in 2010, she ‘has become an object lesson in the slipperiness of the concept of heroism, and the folly of hero-worship’. Unlike Benazir Bhutto, say, or Havel, Suu Kyi has never been a natural politician with an eye for strategy. She has never been very interested in politics. As the daughter of General Aung San, she had public life thrust upon her in 1988 when seasoned activists like U Win Tin recognised the dynastic force of her name.
Popham describes her as ‘recklessly brusque’, ‘cavalier’ with other people’s feelings, and ‘morally upright to the point of priggishness’; she is, he says, ‘increasingly detached from her own party, and governs with ‘a strong sense of entitlement’. In 2013 she offended Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, moments after he had agreed to write off $1.74 billion of debt. George Soros, who’d supported the opposition to military rule via the Open Society Foundation, was given short shrift in a meeting with her, while letters sent by the Dalai Lama on the violence in Rakhine have gone unanswered. The president of Mongolia, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, once phoned her office himself in an attempt to arrange a meeting only to be told by a functionary, ‘Please send in your CV.’
Suu Kyi can’t solve the Rohingya crisis single-handed. She is part of a complex power-sharing government in which the military controls defence, home and border affairs. The latest crisis has revealed the extent of her powerlessness to hold the military to account. Scratch the surface of Myanmar’s infant ‘democracy’ and the pistachio-green of old-guard fatigues comes quickly into view. There is a wide, and currently unbridgeable, divide between the government that wields power in parliament, and the military that is untouchable outside it.
As non-citizens, Rohingyas were barred from voting in the 2015 elections, while the Arakan National Party (ANP), whose campaign slogans included ‘Love your nationality, keep pure blood, be Rakhine and vote ANP,’ won seats in both houses of parliament. In May, the president, Htin Kyaw, a member of Suu Kyi’s NLD (she is barred from the presidency because she married a foreigner), announced the establishment of the Rakhine State Peace, Stability and Development Committee. Its purpose and powers are unknown, but it’s unlikely that the ANP will agree to any proposal to ameliorate the Muslims’ position, given that, according to its secretary, U Tun Aung Kyaw, it ‘cannot accept the name “Rohingya”’. The reaction was the same after Suu Kyi asked the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to head an advisory commission to find a solution to the violence in Rakhine. The ANP and other nationalists described this as an affront to Myanmar’s sovereignty.
The public, meanwhile, remains indifferent. Years of misinformation about Muslims and Islam have had their effect. You’ll see no student demonstrations in support of the Rohingyas, nor will writers, poets or scholars defend their rights. Any filmmaker attempting to document what is going on will have their work censored by the Ministry of Information – an illiberal relic from the old regime. Four people are currently serving a year in prison for producing a calendar with the word ‘Rohingya’ on it.
It is a tragedy that Suu Kyi refuses to exercise the power she has as head of the NLD, state counsellor (a role created for her) and daughter of General Aung San. She has failed to act, as she put it herself in Freedom from Fear: And Other Writings, ‘in accordance with the dictum that the ruler is the strength of the helpless’. Suu Kyi argued then that governance is about influencing ‘those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development’. But that was in 1990. It seems that all she cares about now is securing the alteration to the constitution that would allow her to assume the presidency. There is no room for the Rohingyas here, no political or personal benefit to be gained by talking about the crisis in Rakhine. They can stay in their camps, or die in the sea.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.