WASHINGTON: Myanmar’s year was framed by the horrific residues of 2017 — the flight from death and destruction of over 700,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees, the largest tragic migration in modern Asian history, and Myanmar’s denial of responsibility for the situation.
The Rohingya exodus was fuelled internally by the rise of religious ethno-nationalism, which continues to hold back proposed solutions to the crisis and to the myriad of ethnic rebellions that have been the state’s hallmark since independence in 1948.
The international repercussions of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing and minority strife reach far beyond the Bay of Bengal.
The armed forces (known as the Tatmadaw) regard their sweep through Rohingya border townships as a justified security response to what was in fact the attacks of a few, poorly armed insurgents.
The civilian administration under State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, fearful of inciting the wrath of the Tatmadaw and the possibility that it may revert to a policy of pure control, continues to issue meaningless platitudes in response to foreign concerns.
A COMPLEX SITUATION
The complexities of the situation transcend a clear-cut Muslim–Buddhist disparity.
The Buddhist Rakhine (provincial) people were conquered in 1784 and have been treated as second-class citizens by the majority Buddhists ever since. They resent the outpouring of foreign assistance to the Rohingya, claiming with considerable accuracy that they, the Buddhists of Rakhine, are among the poorest people in Myanmar.
They consider themselves vulnerable, as do the other minorities that comprise one-third of the total population of the state. But minorities vary.
Those considered taing-yin-tha (sons of the country) are automatic citizens, while the Rohingya are denied that status. Even the use of the term “Rohingya” implies ethnic standing and thus is publicly decried by the government.
Although agreements have been reached between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the question of repatriation (supposedly to begin in 2019), this is more theatre than reality.
Most Rohingya are fearful of returning to what is, at best, second-class status — education, health services, occupational choices and even internal travel are either denied or restricted.
The United Nations has called the exodus "genocide". But it is "ethnic cleansing", which by definition indicates that the Myanmar government would be pleased if the Rohingya did not return.
Bangladesh is reluctant to have them remain. Some are advocating placing the Rohingya on an island in the Bay of Bengal subject to the annual devastating typhoons that blow in from the south.
Expressions of ethno-nationalism, both by Myanmar's majority and minorities themselves, produce both mythic histories and an existential fear of the loss of identity.
Although Buddhists make up 88 per cent of the country’s total population, some fear that this will not last and the majority religion may soon be replaced by another, as happened in Buddhism’s original home of India. The general population, clearly anti-Muslim but more virulently anti-Rohingya, is strongly supportive of both the Tatmadaw and the civilian administration’s position.
The previously strong Western support of the "quasi-civilian" government of Aung San Suu Kyi has eroded.
Her public responses to the crisis indicate either an incomprehensible lack of understanding of the atrocities that have occurred or her complicity in their internal cover-up.
RESURGENCE IN RELATIONS WITH CHINA
Criticism of the West by the Myanmar state has been widespread, and with it has come the resurgence of a closer relationship with China.
China effectively supports the Tatmadaw’s position on the Rohingya, perhaps to take advantage of the space opened up by the United States’ and the European Union’s declining domestic reputations. But perhaps also to decry any pro-Muslim sentiment that could impinge on China’s own attempts to quell Muslim discontent in its northwestern region of Xinjiang.
China also has major economic interests in the Rakhine region — oil and gas pipelines, and the development of a major port and industrial zone at Kyaukphyu (although these are not in Rohingya areas). The Chinese Belt and Road initiative in Myanmar will further solidify China’s national interests and its ties with Myanmar.
Although the Rohingya flight has dominated the news, fighting in the north along the Chinese frontier by Kachin, Shan and other minorities has stalled Suu Kyi’s efforts to resuscitate the country’s "Panglong peace process" — an attempt to solve the country’s long-festering majority-minority relations.
China wants a settlement of the border region rebellions for its own economic and political interests, but it does not want Western involvement or presence on its periphery.
The sterling possibilities for development in Myanmar — a potential beacon of investment and tourism — have been severely compromised by the Rohingya tragedy, and the state’s and Suu Kyi’s falling reputations.
For many in the West, Suu Kyi personified the country and its democratic ideals. Although popular at home, her stellar international reputation was built by the West. And it is now being destroyed by the West.
No solution is in sight. As the 2020 elections draw closer, there is no indication that either the Tatmadaw or Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy will temper their attitudes toward the Rohingya. These attitudes reflect prevailing, albeit prejudiced, internal winds in Myanmar.
David I Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus at Georgetown University. This commentary first appeared on East Asia Forum. Read it here.