Myanmar's army has great political, economic and strategic interests in keeping the ethnic conflict alive in Rakhine and carrying out the purge of Rohingyas from their homeland
In an exclusive interview with the Dhaka Tribune’s Syed Zainul Abedin, Maung Zarni, a Burmese academic exiled in the UK, says the Myanmar army has great political, economic and strategic interests in keeping the ethnic conflict alive in Rakhine and carrying out the purge of Rohingya from their homeland.
Maung Zarni is an academic, activist, commentator and expert on Myanmar. He is currently a London-based scholar with the Documentation Centre of Cambodia at the Sleuk Rith Institute.
“My own late great-uncle was deputy chief of Rohingya district and deputy commander of all Armed Forces in Rakhine Division in 1961. That was at the time when the Burmese military embraced Rohingyas as an ethnic group in Burma (Myanmar) as full citizens. They were fighting the Rakhine secessionists at the time,” he says.
What is happening in northern Rakhine state?
Using the pretext of fighting terrorism, Myanmar Tatmadaw (the armed forces) are engaged in the largest wave of systematic killings and destruction of the Rohingya population. They are using air force, navy and army units, as well as police and urban riot control special units in these attacks, which have resulted in 370,000 Rohingya fleeing their villages.
What is the official line from the Myanmar government?
The Aung San Suu Kyi-led civilian government in partnership with the armed forces are selling this large scale scorched earth operation as national defence in the face of a Rohingya “terrorist” attack which killed 12 police officers and soldiers. This narrative is false: Myanmar is not fighting terrorism, it is speeding up what its commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, reportedly told the armed forces was the pursuit of “the unfinished business” of World War II (1942).
Are there any historical comparisons to the Rohingya insurgency?
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s attacks against Burmese border guard posts in Oct 2016 and Aug 2017 more closely resemble the Nazi victims’ uprising at Auschwitz in Oct 1944 than a properly organised and armed “insurgency.” In October 1944, the Jewish inmates killed four SS officers in one barrack at a concentration camp and the SS responded by killing about 500 Jewish and Polish prisoners. Similar large scale terror campaigns were launched by the Burmese military in 1978 and 1991-92, expelling upwards of 260,000 people in each wave.
Why is the Rohingya community being targeted?
The Burmese military took an anti-Muslim turn when Ne Win came to power in a coup in 1962. The generals have purged the entire armed forces of all Muslim officers in the last 50 years, painted the Rohingya as having cross-border cultural, linguistic and historical ties to the populous Muslim nation of the then East Pakistan, and framed this as a threat to national security as early as the mid-1960s.
There are other binational communities along the Sino-Burmese, Indo-Burmese, Thai-Burmese borders – such as Kachin, Chin, Shan, Karen, Kokant, Mon – as well as Buddhist Rakhine (with ties to Chittagong). But none of these communities are Muslims. So despite the historical Rohingya presence in Rakhine or Arakan dating back to pre-British colonial days, the military hatched an institutionalised policy of cleansing Western Burma (Myanmar) of Rohingyas. Myanmar is engaged in the destruction of the Rohingya using national laws tailored to exclude, disenfranchise and strip them of any basic rights. There are other Muslims throughout Burma (Myanmar) but only the Rohingya have their own geographic pocket.
Can the persecution of the Rohingyas be called a genocide?
Yes, absolutely. Myanmar can be proven to be engaged in the fully fledged crime of genocide, in terms of both the Genocide Convention of 1948. Of the five acts of genocide stated in the Geneva Convention, Myanmar is guilty of every crime except the last, which concerns the transfer of victim children to a different group to change the character of the population. Myanmar does not even bother doing that: the troops and the Rakhine burn and kill infants and children, according to eyewitness survivors. As Professor Amartya Sen put it – this is “institutionalised killing” by the state of Myanmar. He based that assertion on the three-year research work done by me and my researcher colleague in London, called “The Slow Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya.”
What is the history of communal divide in Myanmar?
Burma (Myanmar) is a multi-ethnic country of about one or two dozen distinct ethnic communities. The official list of 135 national races, from which Rohingyas are excluded, is really a fiction. But in this multi-ethnic web of people with different faiths, there have been many divisions, prejudices and ethno-racism. The military employs the international, colonial “divide and rule” principle that the British used. So in Arakan (Rakhine), Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists have been divided and there has been mutual distrust and hostilities since WWII. But that is not unique to Rakhine; there were divisions and armed conflicts between the majority Buddhist Bama and Karens with 20% Christian population, or Bama and predominantly Buddhist Shan, or Bama and predominantly Christian Kachins and Chins. Virtually every non-Bama minority group attempted to seek independence from the Union of Burma. Rohingyas and the Rakhine had their own armed secessionist movements as well.
But other communal tensions are no longer stoked by the Burmese military. But it has systematically made sure that Rakhine and Rohingya do not seek or achieve communal reconciliation like the rest. One major reason is Rakhine nationalists still maintain the dream of restoring their sovereignty. The military has pitted the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists, who have long shared Arakan as their common birthplace, in order to maintain its colonial domination over Rakhine.
Yes, there are communal aspects to Rakhine and the Rohingya conflict. But it is the Burmese central armed forces which is the primary player in keeping this conflict alive.
Does the minority and majority issue play a role in this situation?
The non-Rohingya minorities have been brainwashed through a systematic campaign of misinformation to think about the Rohingya as “illegal Bengali migrants,” although many Rohingyas have been in western Burma since decades before British colonial rule. These minorities and the Bama majority are brainwashed to think that only they are the true indigenous peoples of Burma, despite the fact that they too migrated to Burma during pre-colonial times in various waves of migration from Southern China, Tibet, and the Indian subcontinent. So this thinking fuels deep racism towards Rohingyas and, to a lesser extent, towards Chinese and Christians. But China is too powerful for the military to try to stoke anti-Chinese racism. So, the military diverts public discontent and frustration over hardships of life under failed military leaders towards the Rohingya – making them a scapegoat.
How is geopolitics playing a role in this?
Rakhine is rich in natural resources, especially in the predominantly Rohingya north of the state. It has off-shore natural gas, fertile agricultural land, untapped titanium, rare earth materials, aluminum, natural deep sea harbours for deep sea port, and land for a tax-free Special Economic Zone. Just last week Myanmar announced that today’s killing fields of North Rakhine will be turned into a vast Special Economic Zone near the Bangladeshi borders.
Also, the coastline is strategic for China, which wants to have an alternative to the narrow Straits of Mallaca near Singapore for fear of future conflicts with the US and her allies. Rakhine is that alternative. Because it is important to China, it becomes important to players with anti-Chinese strategic visions, namely the US, India, Japan and South Korea, who are all allies and friends.
How would you explain the stance of Aung San Suu Kyi on the military crackdown?
Aung San Suu Kyi is a well-documented and widely reported anti-Muslim racist and a Buddhist nationalist. She is utterly misinformed about the Rohingya situation – their identity, history, politics in Burma – by her ex-military senior colleagues and Rakhine supporters. The army has cleansed its ranks of any Muslims, and she has cleansed the NLD party of all Muslims.
Both the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi sing from the same Buddhist nationalist hymn book and their vision of Burma does not have much space for Muslims – and no space for Rohingyas. Her stance is nothing less than 100% genocidal. The generals view Western Burma (Myanmar) as an originally Muslim-free region and part of the kingdom of Burma – despite all evidence to the contrary that Rakhine was a rich, cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-faith kingdom.
What does Myanmar stand to gain from all this?
The army is regaining popularity even among the Buddhist monks who were the historical threat to the army’s rule as evident in the Saffron Revolt of 2007. The army is now making the traditionally hostile Rakhine nationalists who are anti-Burmese and pro-independence dependent on the army for their safety. And it has derailed Suu Kyi’s majoritarian democratic transition. Economically, the army has the lion’s share of all commercial and development projects in Rakhine.
How do you see the situation developing?
But the major losers are the people of Burma (Myanmar) at large. The society is now moving into the terrorism-obsessed mental space. The public will continue to be reliant on the army and the army’s whims because it is afraid of “jihad.” The military and Suu Kyi are unable to find a Big Tent vision for every ethnic group in Burma (Myanmar). They will continue to work together in the wrong policy framework of preempting “terrorism” from Muslims at large inside Burma (Myanmar) and the Rohingya. That will become self-fulfilling as their anti-Muslim racist policies and the genocidal violence against Rohingyas has stoked deep rage within 1.7 billion Muslims around the world.
Ultimately, Burma (Myanmar) is going to become a site of major conflicts and terrorism.