Myanmar Mystery

This post is a bit of a departure from my usual rather fluffy travel ones, but having spent some time in Burma/Myanmar – and just published a book about it, for goodness sake – I feel I can’t not address what is happening to the Rohingya.

The thing is that, while I accept completely that the Rohingya have suffered – and indeed are still suffering – dreadful, dreadful things, I just can’t understand why.

Once upon a time I would have seen the news images of refugees streaming across the border to Bangladesh and I would have thought: “The Burmese junta – what arseholes”.

But that was before I actually went to Burma. There, (as I relate in the book) I met a man who, while European rather than Burmese, had something like 30 years’ experience of visiting Burma and had formed personal relationships with local people, who told me about the amount of personal freedom enjoyed by people in Myanmar. “You can be gay, you can build a mosque, do anything, so long as you don’t question the authority of the government,” he said.

I didn’t hear anything about prejudice against Muslims from any other quarter while I was in Burma, and the travel guides I used to plan my trips, if they referred to Muslims at all, implied that they were viewed and treated no differently to other Burmese people.

The groups who did attract the ire of the authorities weren’t singled out because of their religion, but because of their ethnic background – or rather their attempts to liberate “their” people from the Burmese state; the Shan, say, or the Karen.

So is this the case with the Rohingya? Not as far as I can find out. I’ve found stuff about other Burmese/Myanmar people not accepting the Rohingya as Burmese, describing them as “Bengalis”, even though the Rohingya have lived in Rakhine state for generations. But if the Generals have a problem with ethnic groups trying to break free of the State, why wouldn’t they love the Rohingya, who, apparently, want to be Burmese?

OK, so there have been bouts of Rohingya insurgency over the past few years, and they’ve got worse this year (as predicted in January by intelligence, defence etc analysts Janes: There’s now, apparently, something called the “Arakhan Rohingya Salvation Army”, which may include Rohingyas who have returned from working in Saudi Arabia and may be linked to al-Qaeda or Daesh. (Sources for that information include, amongst others, Priscilla Clapp, who was US Chief of Mission in Burma in 1999-2002, speaking on the BBC World Service.) However, that doesn’t really explain why the army is either persecuting Rohingya itself or is standing back and allowing Buddhist nationalists to persecute them instead. Unless the army’s reasoning is that if you drive out all the Rohingya, they’ll take the insurgents with them – and sod how much the innocents suffer?

Otherwise, why would the generals want the Rohingya out? I can understand why Buddhist nationalists might want Muslims out of the country, but I can’t understand why the generals would care that much about keeping the Buddhist nationalists happy. After all, they weren’t that fussed about keeping anyone happy for decades, and now, as then, they have the means to suppress dissent, wherever it comes from.
If there’s a reason other than religion, what is it? It’s not like land is at a premium in Burma – it’s a big country with a relatively small population, and, also, I can’t find anything to suggest that the Rohingyas are sitting on some particularly valuable land; that it contains oil (how 20th Century!), say, or mineral deposits, precious stones or the like.

To muddy the Myanmar waters still further, just yesterday I found a podcast of the BBC World Service’s Business Matters dating from May 2015. I’d downloaded it for a completely different reason, but it just happens to include correspondent Jonah Fisher reporting from Sittwe on a(nother) Rohingya exodus happening at that time. In it he says that: “If a way of evacuating them to a third country could be found they would be in favour of it… Almost all the people you speak to here talk about wanting to leave, to start a new life somewhere, but where are they going to go to?…They would grab any opportunity, but no one wants to take them.” So why did the Rohingya (apparently) want to leave then, yet the people quoted in news reports this year talk about how much they want to return to their villages?

The simplest thing for me to get my head round is why Aung San Suu Kyi has been as quiet as she has. OK, so she may not want to upset Buddhist nationalists – apparently for fear of losing their vote – but surely her biggest problem is the military?

I don’t know about other people, but I was actually really shocked when the military opened up the country as much as it did in 2011; it seemed to happen just so quickly, and I wondered at the time whether it was just another way of smoking out NLD supporters and other “undesirables”, as had happened in the 1990 elections.

What people seem to have forgotten – or be blissfully ignoring – is the fact that while ASSK is now de facto head of state, it is still the military that holds pretty much all the power. It’s the military that controls the key ministries. And, let’s not forget, it’s the military that has all the guns and weapons. And, as we have seen so many times in the past, they’re not afraid to use them against the people of Burma – Rohingya, Shan, Karen, Buddhist, Bamar, whatever. So maybe I’m being naive here, and giving ASSK too much credit, but I can’t really see what she could actually do. Sure, she could denounce the military, but how would the Generals react? It is, after all, only a handful of years since they ceded even the tiniest bit of power.

Western media outlets are full of heart-rending images and accounts of refugees and the horrors they have been through, but I haven’t found one that has come even close to explaining why. Why is there (supposedly) such resistance to the Rohingyas in Burma? Why single them out over other Muslim groups? What do the insurgents/the ARSA want? A breakaway state? If so, how much support do they have, especially given that the Rohingyas seem so keen to be regarded as citizens of Burma/Myanmar? Would the generals be happy to see the Rohingya people go, so long as they left the land with Burma? If so, why is the land so important, unless as a buffer against Bangladesh?

I’ve tried so hard to find answers to my questions, but so far I’ve not got very far. If anyone who does have the answers should happen to read this, I’d love to hear from you…