Analysis: Myanmar’s conflicting narratives

Human rights report denounces ethnic cleansing of Rohingya as the West congratulates Myanmar on democratic reforms.

On the same day that his government is accused of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, Myanmar President Thein Sein is being honoured at a fund-raising gala dinner in Manhattan, New York. 

VIPs have paid as much as $100,000 a table for the event “In Pursuit of Peace”, which was organised by the International Crisis Group think-tank, which receives some congressional funding. Thein Sein won’t be there, which is probably just as well, given that Human Right Watch’s new 153-page report is likely to cast a dark shadow over the proceedings.

According to the report by the New York-based rights group, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya people.

More than 125,000 ethnic Rohingya have been forcibly displaced since two waves of violence in May and October 2012 between the ethnic minority and Buddhist Rakhines left at least 110 dead.

Myanmar’s government has done nothing to prevent the violence, alleges the report, and at times government forces are believed to have joined in the attacks on the Rohingya.

The report, released today, comes on the day the European Union plans to lift all remaining sanctions against the country formerly known as Burma.

Two narratives

HRW’s accusations come as a sharp rebuttal to the governments and groups that have hailed Myanmar’s “golden promise”, a phrase that has frequently been used to describe the country’s potential if its much touted political and economic reforms continue.

That a positive narrative of Myanmar’s current situation can co-exist with the current violence is frightening, according to analysts, because of what some see as the state’s “seething hatred” against Muslims. They say the possible regional implications of anti-Muslim violence have so far been ignored by regional powers, and that the geo-strategically important position Myanmar has could cause the violence to continue without foreign action.

Most Rohingya who live in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state are denied citizenship by the Myanmar government, which claims they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

“The government perspective, which is unfortunately also the public’s perspective, is that the country’s western gate has been broken, the invaders are already here. That’s why there’s such overwhelming support for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya,” Dr Maung Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and exiled activist, told Al Jazeera.  

This is the best of bad scenarios, and there's a strategic dividend for Washington and its allies: however distant the regime moves away from Beijing is the West's gain.

by Dr Maung Zarni, exiled activist

The author of the Human Rights Watch report, Matthew Smith, also spoke of the “very high level of risk” of a third wave of anti-Muslim violence similar to those witnessed in May and October 2012. 

Dr Thitinan Pongsudirak of Chulalongkorn University said great measures needed to be taken if violence were to be curbed. “Leadership has to be very bold and willing to take some risks,” he said. “Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi should put aside election prospects and utilise whatever resources they have. Short of that, we will see more violence.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to take up the case for the Rohingya in public is probably the most obvious example of the limits of her role. 

There’s little doubt that if an election were held today she would win, but, in the larger scheme of things, it’s not evident that – even with her moral authority – her taking up the Rohingya’s fight would make much difference to the fundamental causes of the violence, or to the international community’s reluctance to rock the government’s reform boat.

“To be honest, Aung San Suu Kyi is a prop, not a strategic player,” said Dr Zarni.

The dissident leader has said that it remains up to the government to deal with the racial hatred and violence threatening the country. She has emphasised the importance of the rule of law, placing herself squarely in the establishment camp and seemingly sealing her transformation into a roving collector of international adulation, and a not-so-extraordinary politician.

Regional issues

Observers also say the violence is likely to spill over into the greater region. In early April, eight people were killed at an Indonesian refugee camp after clashes erupted between Buddhists and Muslims from Myanmar.  

The country is also due to chair the regional Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014. 

“It will reflect poorly on ASEAN if Myanmar has ethno-religious baggage when it chairs. There should be regional involvement – not regional intervention,” said Dr Thitinan. This is unlikely, he added, since ASEAN has a policy of non-interference in its members’ internal politics. 

“[ASEAN] doesn’t have a mechanism to deal with issues like this, that’s the reality” said Kavi Chongkittavorn, group editor of the Thai newspaper The Nation.

The campaign against Muslims in Myanmar also sheds light on the nature of the deal between Naypidaw and the US and its allies. Myanmar’s government believes the West will leave them alone in exchange for agreeing to placing Western military or strategic interests and corporations at China’s expense. As for the West, they seem to think this is probably the best chance of Myanmar moving forward without a full-scale armed revolution. 

“This is the best of bad scenarios, and there’s a strategic dividend for Washington and its allies: however distant the regime moves away from Beijing is the West’s gain,” explained Dr Zarni. “The common denominator between Burma and the non-Chinese world is China.”

And what of the 800,000 Rohingya themselves?

The events of the past year have meant some are kept in camps without the freedom to leave or the ability to earn a livelihood; children don’t have school, there’s not enough food or medical care, and they’re still living under tarpaulin even though the government promised it would move them in December. 

The rest live in areas surrounded by Rakhine, where relations are fraught. In one instance a Rakhine man was forced to wear a sign around his neck identifying him as a “traitor” for selling vegetables to a Rohingya. Nor can they rely on the security forces for help, according to the HRW report, which is based on more than a hundred interviews with victims of violence, witnesses to violence and perpetrators of abuses.

The report’s name stems from the testimony of an incident in which a police officer was asked by a Rohingya for help.

“All you can do is pray,” the officer replied.

Follow Veronica Pedrosa on Twitter: @Vpedrosa

Source: Al Jazeera