The Twin Tragedies of Myanmar

Bradley Babson

Bradley Babson joins the Bowdoin faculty next month as a distinguished lecturer in the Department of Government and Legal Studies. He’s a consultant on Asian affairs, specializing in Myanmar and North Korea. Much of that expertise was gained during twenty-six years spent with the World Bank, where from 1997 to 2000 he supervised the bank’s relations with Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

In the spring semester Babson is planning to teach a course on the two Koreas and the geopolitics of northeast Asia. Babson shares his insight into the current crisis in Myanmar, where the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority faces a situation described by the United Nations as ethnic cleansing:

“Recent headlines point to two rapidly developing tragedies in Myanmar. International human rights watchers and the UN are reporting ‘ethnic cleansing’ operations by the Myanmar military and local population against the Muslim minority Rohingya. Foreign-trained Muslim insurgents have been infiltrating to spearhead attacks on local security forces and seeking to exploit a new opportunity to sow conflict in Myanmar.

Some 400,000 refugees are estimated to have fled to the neighboring country of Bangladesh, and many of their villages have been burned. This represents a new phase in the tragedy facing the Rohingya community in Myanmar that has been unfolding for years, with many seeking asylum in other countries, including as far as Indonesia. The Rohingya, who have called Myanmar their home for centuries, are denigrated by the Buddhist majority and do not have full citizenship status.

On August 23, 2017, a special advisory commission, led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, issued its final report into the plight of the Rohingya community in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, where they are based. This commission had been requested in 2016 by State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader at the moment, to give international legitimacy to efforts by the newly elected democratic government to come to grips with the intractable issues raised by the Rohingya problem. She has faced increasing criticism for not speaking out more forcefully on the injustices faced by this community as a respected advocate for human rights, both internationally and domestically.

This reluctance has to be viewed from the perspective of her choice to be a politician and not the human rights icon that many expected her to be. As a politician, Suu Kyi has been responsive to her primary constituency, acting as the hereditary anchor of Burman Buddhist ethnic identity. From taxicab drivers to elite, well-educated Burman families, there resides a deep distrust and antagonism toward Muslim minorities throughout the country and the Rohingya in particular. This antagonism was fueled by the destruction of the sacred, historical and huge Buddhist Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001.

As a politician, Suu Kyi has to be sensitive to such feelings, and her outreach to Kofi Anan was a courageous effort to try to bridge that dilemma and address these deeply rooted problems. The final report did offer specific and sensitive recommendations to address political, socioeconomic, and humanitarian aspects of the challenges facing the peoples who live in the Rakhine State. This initiative, however, encountered resistance in both the National Assembly and the Rakhine State Assembly, reflecting the deeply held feelings of the Buddhist parliamentary majorities in both levels of national government.

Suu Kyi’s inability to mobilize parliamentary and domestic public support for a reasonable approach to the Rohingya issue is rooted in the limits of her constitutional authority, which gives the military control over both the ministries of Home Affairs and Border Affairs. Aside from her domestic predicament, Suu Kyi also faces mounting international criticism for her recent decision not to attend the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly this week. This represents the second tragedy facing Myanmar today.

International condemnations are unlikely to consider the historical context, or the complex internal changes underway as Myanmar undergoes its fragile transition to democracy. The constitution continues to give decisive political and economic power to a military elite that pursues its own interests, as the plight of the Rohingya chillingly demonstrates.”

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