India’s Responses to the Complex Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar


November 12, 2017

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Number 404 | November 9, 2017
ANALYSIS

India’s Responses to the Complex Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar

By Baladas Ghoshal

The recent massive refugee outflow of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar into Bangladesh has created a humanitarian crisis and international outrage. United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, accused Myanmar of carrying out “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya. Myanmar rejects the accusation,  saying its military was engaged in counter-insurgency operations against Rohingya militants  who conducted the August 25 attack by the Rohingya militant group ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) on police and military posts, resulting in the death of about 70 people. The provocation certainly led to the intensification of the crisis, which originates in a conflict dating back to the 19th century.

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The Rohingya are a Muslim minority ethnically related to those living in neighboring Bangladesh’s Chittagong District. They form 90 percent of the one million people living in the north of Rakhine State in Myanmar, where ethnic Rakhines – primarily Buddhist – are the majority of the state’s three million residents. Some Rohingya have been in Myanmar for centuries, while others arrived in recent decades. Burmese authorities consider the Rohingya – whether recent arrivals or long-time residents – undocumented immigrants and a source of instability in the country, and not as citizens or as an ethnic group. Burmese authorities are loathe to recognize the Rohingyas as a separate ethnic group which would automatically entitle them for a separate state, as Burmese states are formed on the basis of ethnicity. Moreover, given the concentration of the Rohingyas next to Bangladesh, where Islam is becoming increasingly radical, Myanmar – being a Buddhist majority country – will never accept them as an ethnic entity. If the Rohingyas self-identify as just a religious group, they could enjoy citizenship rights like other Muslims in the rest of Myanmar. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s recommendations in August are similar, and in September Myanmar leader Suu Kyi stated that her government was willing to take back the refugees after verification. Under the 1982 citizenship law, the Myanmar government recognized only about 40,000 Rohingyas as its citizens.
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The Dalai Lama has urged fellow Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a main opposition leader in Myanmar, to do more to help protect the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority in her country amid a worsening migration crisis.
While the response of the Myanmar military was brutal and disproportionate to the attack by the insurgents, the international community’s response, particularly the Western and Muslim countries and their intense criticisms of Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to stand up against the army crackdown and to protect the human rights of the Rohingyas, is also disproportionate. Critics fail to understand the military-civilian relations and other complexities of Myanmar politics where issues like ethnicity, history, and cultural identity are key ingredients of legitimacy. By condemning Suu Kyi, her critics have inadvertently not only provided a shield to the Army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, from responsibility for perpetrating atrocities against the Rohingyas, but also practically weakened her position vis-à-vis the powerful military of the country. While Suu Kyi’s popularity is still quite high, the political base of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is quite fragile. If she tries to take a critical attitude on the Rohingyas, the military can easily align with the Buddhist nationalists, who have nothing but scorn and hatred for the Rohingyas, and undermine her power. That would be a blow to the limited progress Myanmar has made in democratization under difficult constitutional constraints.
 India’s response to the Rohingya issue is calibrated on an understanding of the history and complexities of Myanmar politics of ethnicity and legitimacy. New Delhi has to balance between its security concerns and moralism on humanitarian issues. Initially, it was conditioned predominantly by its security concerns. India, through its consulate in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, has long been keeping tabs on the influence of foreign Islamist radical groups on the Rohingyas, and warned Myanmar of possible attacks by the ARSA prior to the August incident. In February, India had also warned of an increased presence of Pakistan-based and funded terror organizations like Lashkar-e-Toiba, seeking to exploit Rohingya resentments. Also the influence of Bangladeshi radical organizations such as the Jamaat-e- Islami initially, and then its youth wing, the Islamic Chatra Shabir, within the refugee camps is causing alarm in both Dhaka and New Delhi. Even organizations such as the Rohingya Students Organisation (RSO) were known to have links with “like-minded” groups such as the Harkat ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) along with Hizb-e- Islami of Afghanistan and the Hizbul Mujahideen. On India’s decision to deport 40,000 Rohingya refugees, the government, in its affidavit to the Supreme Court, said that some of the Rohingyas with militant background were found to be very active in Jammu, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mewat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Myanmar in September described India and Myanmar as “partners” in their concern over “extremist violence” in Rakhine State.
“Myanmar – being a Buddhist majority country – will never accept them as an ethnic entity. If the Rohingyas self-identify as just a religious group, they could enjoy citizenship rights like other Muslims in the rest of Myanmar.”
Even though the issue of terrorism dominates the security narrative on India’s approach to the Rohingya issue, India’s Act East Policy is linked to land connections with Myanmar. This policy, has two major planks – economic development in northeast India and balancing China’s influence. China has not only declared its open support for Myanmar’s “anti-terror” operations, but also expanded its economic and political influence in the country. In fact, it was the heavy-handed criticism by the West and call for sanctions for atrocities against Rohingyas that forced Myanmar again to rely on Beijing to offset any major backlash in the international fora. In such a situation, any open criticism of Myanmar could undermine India’s influence. India is also dependent on Myanmar military’s cooperation to deal with the insurgent groups in the Northeast, who in the past found sanctuary on the Myanmar side of the border. Geopolitics also drive India to take a soft approach to Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingyas, fearing the country might otherwise again grant safe havens to North-East insurgents.  China has set up a gas and oil pipeline running from the Rakhine port of Kyaukphyu to Kunming. Beijing has backed Myanmar’s violent crackdown, hoping it will bring security to a region important for China’s energy security. India, for its part, is working on the Kaladan transport project, linking Sittwe to Kolkata. New Delhi believes the best way to reduce tension in Rakhine is through such development efforts.

As the refugee and humanitarian crisis unfolded in the month of September, with Bangladesh bearing the economic and physical burden of more than 600,000 refugees,  Dhaka’s diplomatic overdrive made New Delhi modify its position on the Rohingya issue and acknowledge that there is now a refugee crisis. India also urged the Myanmar government to exercise “restraint and maturity” and stressed the need to focus on the “welfare of the civilian population.” Even while India’s government exercises caution and restraint in its approach to the Rohingya issue, civil society and human rights groups are quite critical of Myanmar’s handling of the Rohinyga issue, and wants New Delhi to take an active role in seeing the refugees back to their homeland with peace and dignity.

About the Author

Dr. Baladas Ghoshal is  Secretary General of the Society for Indian Ocean Studies and Former Professor and Chair in Southeast Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be contacted at profbala7228@gmail.com.
The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.
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Aung San Suu Kyi unveils relief plans for Rohingya Muslims


October 16, 2017

Aung San Suu Kyi unveils relief plans for Rohingya Muslims

Nobel laureate aims to restore reputation by setting up civilian-led agency in Myanmar to deliver aid and resettle refugees

Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech to the nation over the Rakhine and Rohingya situation in Naypyitaw in September
Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised for failing to denounce a brutal army crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine state. Photograph: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has announced plans to set up a civilian-led agency, with foreign assistance, to deliver aid and help resettle Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.

A close adviser, speaking with Aung San Suu Kyi’s knowledge, said the proposed body had been long planned, and was part of an attempt to show the civilian government she leads, rather than the Burmese military, can deliver humanitarian relief, resettlement and economic recovery.

The Nobel laureate has been criticised for failing to denounce a brutal army crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine state, which has forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Thousands of refugees have continued to arrive in recent days from across the Naf river separating the two countries, even though Myanmar insists military operations ceased on 5 September.

Aid agencies estimate that 536,000 people have arrived in Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh, straining scarce resources of aid groups and local communities.

About 200,000 Rohingya were already in Bangladesh after fleeing persecution in Myanmar, where they have long been denied citizenship and faced restrictions on their movements and access to basic services.

The adviser said Aung San Suu Kyi had been deeply affected by the crisis in her country, and was determined to fix it, but needed to be careful not to inflame the situation further.

“She is appalled by what she has seen. She does care deeply about this. I know that does not always come across. But she really does,” said the adviser, who asked not to be named. “What was not clear to her [before now] was how to fix it, and how to give the civilian government the powers it needed”.

In a speech carried by state TV late on Thursday, Aung San Suu Kyi said: “There has been a lot of criticisms against our country. We need to understand international opinion. However, just as no one can fully understand the situation of our country the way we do, no one can desire peace and development for our country more than us.”

Many of Aung San Suu Kyi’s former allies have been exasperated by her failure to criticise the military, but the adviser said she was treading a fine line, knowing her government could become under threat of being overthrown by the military.

The adviser added her speech marked an attempt to wrestle Buddhism out of the hands of extremists.

Aung San Suu Kyi came to power ending years of military rule in a compromise that left the military with sweeping powers.

In her new proposal, she said she was setting up a new body to deliver relief and resettlement on the ground, as well as implement projects in all sectors of the region.

“It is going to be an implementation unit and will introduce a degree of transparency into the government that will allow the international community to participate and provide aid”, the adviser added.

The aim is for the body to be a vehicle through which recovery aid, including that delivered by the UK, can be funnelled.

Her adviser said Aung San Suu Kyi understood the moral priority of humanitarian assistance, the need to build new homes for those who had to flee as well as the need for economic development in the region.

“She has put herself front and centre of this and said ‘I will lead this’ ”. The adviser added: “She is someone who through her whole life has been committed to the values of human rights. That has not gone away, but she is very focused on fixing the problem, rather than identifying it.

“She recognises there have been particular tragedies amongst the Muslim communities, and amongst other small minority groups. But, yes, she does see this latest and most dreadful upsurge of violence as stemming from carefully timed political attacks on police stations.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech made no mention of the allegations levelled against security forces, over which she has no formal control under the military-drafted constitution. State media in recent weeks, however, has offered repeated denials of the human rights allegations, often blaming misreporting by the west.

In her speech, she said: “Rather than rebutting criticisms and allegations with words, we will show the world by our actions and our deeds. In the Rakhine state, there are so many things to be done.”

Her adviser said: “She is trying to move away from inflammatory and divisive remarks towards a coherent national solution that is civilian-led. The perilous state of the democratic transition in her country is understood.”

Aung San Suu Kyi listed repatriation of those who have fled to Bangladesh as a top priority, a task that faces political and practical hurdles, notably due to the fact that tens of thousands of Muslim refugees who fled to Bangladesh do not have the documentation likely to satisfy the military that they have a right of return.

However, detailed work remains on possible forms of new registration to allow the Rohingya to return.

In another attempt to respond to western criticisms, Myanmar’s military has launched an internal investigation into the conduct of soldiers during the army’s offensive in Rakhine, which was launched after attacks by Rohingya insurgents on security posts in late August.

 

The Rohingya Alarm


October 13, 2017

The Rohingya Alarm

by Bernard Henri-Levy

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/rohingya-myanmar-genocide-human-conscience-by-bernard-henri-levy-2017-09

The campaign of ethnic cleansing now being carried out against Myanmar’s Rohingya confronts the world with one of those moments that seem to arrive unannounced. In fact, we should by now be able to recognize in such episodes the accelerating pulse of genocide.

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PARIS – As is so often the case, it was an artist who sounded the warning. His name is Barbet Schroeder, and the alert that he issued came in the form of his fine, sober film The Venerable W., a portrait of Myanmar’s Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu. Known as “W,” Wirathu is the other face of a religion that is widely perceived as the archetype of peace, love, and harmony. And behind his racist visage lies a broader Buddhist embrace of violence that takes one’s breath away.

Shown at the 2017 Cannes Festival, Schroeder’s film attracted an impressive amount of media attention. And, in a subsequent television appearance, Schroeder warned that the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, lay in the sights of Wirathu’s bloodthirsty “969 Movement.”

That should come as no surprise. The Rohingya are a million men and women rendered stateless in their own country. Deprived of the right to vote, of political representation, and of access to hospitals and schools, they have faced pogroms whenever the military that has tyrannized Myanmar for a half-century has tired of starving them.

The Rohingya’s unique status is stunning in its calculated cruelty. They are simultaneously rootless (officially unrecognized in a country so obsessed with race that it counts 135 other “national ethnicities,” making them literally one race too many) and root-bound (legally barred from moving, working, or marrying outside their village of origin, and subject to restrictions on family size).

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So here we are, confronted with one of those moments that seem to arrive unannounced but that, by now, we should be able to recognize as the accelerating pulse of genocide.

Nearly 400,000 people have now been transferred from the realm of subhumans to that of hunted animals, smoked out of the villages to which they had previously been confined, driven out on the roads, shot at, tortured for fun, and subjected to mass rape. Those who survive are arriving at makeshift camps just across the border in neighboring Bangladesh, which, as one of the world’s poorest countries, lacks the resources, though not the will, to offer proper shelter to the swelling ranks of refugees.

The United Nations, overcoming its customary pusillanimity, has drawn on what remains of its moral capital to condemn these crimes, declaring the Rohingya the world’s most persecuted minority. For those inclined to see and remember, the situation in Rakhine State recalls the ethnic cleansing that occurred in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the even worse massacres in Rwanda in the same decade.

But many are not inclined to see. Because the Rohingya’s persecutors, by restricting access to journalists and photographers, have denied their victims a face, and because the Rohingya are Muslims at a bad time to be Muslim, nearly the entire world is turning a blind eye.

Confronted with this tragedy foretold, the world should meditate on what my late friend, the philosopher Jean-François Revel, called unused knowledge and the passion for ignorance.

We should curse the naiveté that led many, including me, to sanctify the “Lady of Rangoon,” Aung San Suu Kyi, herself the subject of a film, this one intended to be hagiographic but, in hindsight, appalling. Since becoming Myanmar’s de facto leader last year, Suu Kyi has abandoned the Rohingya to their fate.

Suu Kyi seemed to deserve the Nobel Peace Prize that she won in 1991, when she appeared to be the reincarnation in one body of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama. But from the moment when she solemnly assured the world that she had seen nothing in Sittwe, that nothing had happened in the rest of Rakhine State, and that the string of alarming reports to the contrary was just the “tip of an iceberg of disinformation,” her Nobel Prize became an alibi.

The Rohingya are the latest cohort of the existentially naked: people dispossessed of everything (including their own death), shut out of the human community, and thus stripped of rights. They are the people Hannah Arendt predicted would become fixtures of humanity’s future, living (or living dead) reproaches to hollow declarations of human rights.

But, before that happens, I will make a wish. Tomorrow, a very different woman, Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, will appear before the UN to appeal for an international response to the Rohingya crisis. I have known Hasina for nearly 50 years, and I have had many opportunities to appreciate not only her nobility of spirit but also her deep and abiding attachment to a moderate and enlightened Islam that fully respects the rights of man – and of women.

My wish is that humanity’s conscience will be there to hear her address in New York City, and that, because she is heard, the alarm she raises will not have the ghastly resonance of a death knell.

International reaction to lambast Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar is unhelpful


October 13, 2017

International reaction to lambast Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar is unhelpful

by Kang Siew Keng

http://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/rsis/co17183-after-shaming-aung-san-suu-kyi-then-what/#.WeBukTBRPIW

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ASEAN should consider coordinating action to help Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar overcome the complex problem.–Kang Siew Keng

Synopsis

While the UN has described the latest atrocities in Myanmar on the Rohingya minority as textbook ethnic cleansing, the international reaction of shaming Aung San Suu Kyi for the Rohingya crisis is unhelpful to all parties. ASEAN should consider coordinating action to help Myanmar overcome the complex problem.

IN 1991, the international community honoured Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi with the Nobel Peace Prize while she was under house arrest. In 2015, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won power on a popular electoral mandate. Then, practically overnight, Ms Suu Kyi went from democracy icon to international pariah.

On 4 October 2017, the City of Oxford, where she studied as an undergraduate, decided to withdraw an honorary title it bestowed on her in 1997. This growing disillusionment comes from the sense that Ms Suu Kyi has been too silent too long on the Rohingya issue and not virulent enough when she finally spoke.

Competing Narratives

The scale of the humanitarian disaster is disturbing and haunting. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned the outbreak of violence in Myanmar that triggered the latest outflow of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh as “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Human rights advocates, however, seem to be engaged in a campaign to disparage Ms Suu Kyi and Myanmar.

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The New Yorker named her “the ignoble laureate”; Amnesty International accused her of “untruths.and victim blaming”. No less an icon than Desmond Tutu reportedly wrote her that “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep”.

Yet, against the backdrop of media images of what is an ongoing, overnight, crisis, the international community cannot summarily dismiss Ms Suu Kyi’s counter-narrative of an “iceberg of misinformation” or the wider dispute about ground realities.

One story that has emerged in Myanmar social media is that the attacks on the military posts on 25 August 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was timed to provoke precisely the kind of harshest possible response from the Tatmadaw military; the attacks came on the day before the release of the Report by Advisory Commission of Rakhine State.

According to this narrative, they were calculated to doom any prospects in the effort, commissioned by Ms Suu Kyi, to map “a peaceful, fair and prosperous future for the people of Rakhine”. For sure, no deemed past wrongs in history can justify present-day violence, but no present-day policy can bring about reconciliation until the old animosities have been addressed.

Complex and Complicated

The Rakhine situation is too complex for megaphone moral outrage. It is a particularly instructive example of bad communal dynamics, rooted in British colonial divide-and-rule strategy, reinforced by generations of politics and complicated by continuing poverty and economic deprivation that affect both the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine.

It is easy to forget that Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD was elected to power in 2015 amid a growing tide of nationalism and communal mistrust. Ironically democracy unleashed deep-seated grievances that were more restrained by the iron hand of military rule.

Many of Ms Suu Kyi’s electoral base regard the Rohingya as a late political construct, that many of them were transient migrants on a porous and troublesome border, and were now being used to legitimise old claims for greater autonomy and independence. Significantly, in Rakhine State, the NLD did not perform as well as it largely did in the rest of the country.

Impact of Public Shaming

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ASEAN must acknowledge that the Rohingya is no longer just a domestic problem, but has important implications for regional peace and stability. Left alone, the Rohingya will continue to be a festering wound and destabilise the entire operating environment and regional order in ASEAN.

The international reaction to lambast Ms Suu Kyi and Myanmar is unhelpful to all parties. First, what passes for international moral outrage makes the Myanmar angrily defensive. It serves only to dull the voices of those in Myanmar that are against demonisation of a minority. Instead, it feeds the ultra-nationalist rhetoric that a democratic Myanmar faces an existentialist crisis, which Ms Suu Kyi and her party are ill-disposed to address.

Second, the end of decades of isolation and sanctions has fanned expectations of the economic boom promised by democratic rule. But there are now signs that Myanmar’s economic growth has slowed. Reform has also been slow, not least because Ms Suu Kyi was trying to do too much in too little time. If international opprobrium ends in politically-motivated moves like re-sanctions, it could derail the already very late catch-up in a country that remains one of the poorest in ASEAN.

Third, Ms Suu Kyi has the unenviable task of leading with one hand tied, not possessing all the levers of power, as even her worst critics know. Ultimately her democratically-elected government must find a modus operandi with the military leaders. She needs all the help she can get, inside or outside Myanmar.

Administering a country faced with a multitude of challenges while bringing about national reconciliation is statecraft. It requires political savviness and immense energy for protracted negotiations in a country with a history of communal uprisings that involve not only the Rohingya.

A Role for ASEAN

ASEAN finally issued a predictably anodyne Chair statement on the Rakhine situation following an ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Not unexpectedly, Malaysia disassociated itself from the statement. Kuala Lumpur, in early 2017, had hosted a special session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that issued a strong rebuke to the Myanmar government. Malaysia is, after all, host to nearly 60,000 UN-registered Rohingya refugees.

Yet, ASEAN must acknowledge that the Rohingya is no longer just a domestic problem, but has important implications for regional peace and stability. Left alone, the Rohingya will continue to be a festering wound and destabilise the entire operating environment and regional order in ASEAN.

ASEAN’s dialogue partner, India, is already threatening to deport its Rohingya refugees on the grounds of growing security concerns. Even if one doubts the hand of terrorist elements using the Rohingya as shield, the chaos and scale of humanitarian disaster is fertile ground for radicalisation and recruitment, which is something all ASEAN countries must be concerned about.

Time for Coordinated Action

It is time for ASEAN to consider a coordinated course of action, and perhaps work with vested dialogue partners like China and India, which can also engage Bangladesh. Myanmar needs a regional solution. ASEAN would do well to engage in the kind of quiet diplomacy it is best equipped to do, across the spectrum of relations, including military diplomacy.

The Myanmar who only see the Rohingya as a political construct must eventually get past the prison of history, be persuaded to put behind real and perceived historical injustices, and acknowledge the ground realities of generations of people who call Myanmar home.

Yet this conversation cannot happen with the world heaping such derision on, and threats of new economic sanctions against, Myanmar and its popularly elected leader. ASEAN can work to counter the potential international isolation of Myanmar that helps neither Myanmar nor the Rohingya.

About the Author

Kang Siew Kheng is Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She was formerly Singapore’s Ambassador to Laos.

 

Myanmar’s resurgent nationalism shapes new political landscape


October 6, 2017

Myanmar’s resurgent nationalism shapes new political landscape

by Thant Myint-U

https://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints/Thant-Myint-U/Myanmar-s-resurgent-nationalism-shapes-new-political-landscape?page=1

Extreme sentiments fueled by social media highlight external, internal disconnect

Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalists shout slogans against the government during a protest in Yangon on Aug. 3, for neglecting the national interest by failing to hold off Muslim insurgency. © AP 

The United Nations Security Council in recent weeks has placed new focus on Myanmar through discussions about violence in the country’s western Rakhine state, allegations of “ethnic cleansing” and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.

Missing though was the bigger picture in Myanmar, beyond Rakhine, which will not only shape future options for refugee return, but also regional stability, and any possibility of a better life for all the country’s peoples.

Aside from Rakhine, there are at least another half million internally displaced persons, around 20 ethnic-based armed groups (the largest with more than 20,000 soldiers), hundreds of militias in the rest of the country and no real peace in sight.

In addition, the economy is far from healthy, with the stability of the banking sector in question, investor confidence in decline, and prospects for millions of the poorest people in Asia in the balance. Meanwhile, Beijing is offering major infrastructure projects that would tie the country more closely with China’s interior provinces and essentially make Myanmar China’s bridge to the Indian Ocean.

The current constitution gives the Armed Forces crucial powers over security while allowing the elected civilian government free reign over economic issues and foreign relations. It has been a tense cohabitation and the success of the next elections in 2020 and further democratic reforms are far from guaranteed.

For Myanmar’s people, this is a time of anxiety. Millions are worried that the fast pace of change will leave them and their families destitute and without opportunity. These same millions are now on the internet. Over the past five years the proportion of people with mobile phones has gone from a few percent to more than 70%. A population that still largely lacks access to electricity, clean water or health care is now on Facebook, widely regarded as Myanmar’s only social media platform.

New dark currents

In this time of national anxiety, a neo-nationalism is taking shape, enabled by social media and fueled both by the unfolding crisis in Rakhine state and a sense that the outside world, in particular the U.N. and the West, are siding with Myanmar’s mortal enemies.

While world opinion is focused on the humanitarian tragedy along the border with Bangladesh and allegations of horrific human rights abuses mainly against the minority Rohingya, the view inside the country is not only different but diametrically opposite.

In Myanmar the overwhelming focus among not only by the government but also the general public has been on the threat from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and fears of Islamic extremism. Since ARSA’s attacks on Aug. 25, Myanmar social media has been brimming with reports of alleged ARSA atrocities against Buddhist and Hindu minorities, tens of thousands of whom have fled south away from the country’s Muslim majority areas.

Rohingya people escape from Myanmar to Teknaf, Bangladesh, on Sept. 8 after violence erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. © Sipa/AP Images

In late September, both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group called for action in Myanmar, heightening fears of impending terrorist attacks in Yangon or Mandalay. Eyewitness accounts from refugees are often dismissed as fabrications, and what is seen from outside as a Rohingya human rights tragedy is portrayed within Myanmar — especially by Rakhine Buddhists — as a foreign invasion by illegal immigrants turned terrorists.

 

Myanmar’s new regime flounders over Rohingya crisis


September 30, 2017

The Big Read Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar’s new regime flounders over Rohingya crisis

 

https://www.ft.com/content/36542620-a2ad-11e7-b797-b61809486fe2

Critics say an unwillingness to deal with the refugee crisis fits a broader pattern of faltering reforms and indecisive leadership

 by John Reed in Naypyidaw

A year ago this month, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, was welcomed to The White House on the slipstream of a historic election victory and an outpouring of international goodwill.

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The Lady and President Barack Obama in The White House

The former political prisoner, whose party had triumphed in a 2015 election, promised a fresh start built on the “true strength of our diversity”, for a country blighted by multiple ethnic insurgencies and decades of military rule.

Then President Barack Obama hailed “a new way of doing business and a new government”, as he lifted sanctions.

A year later, Myanmar’s international reputation, and that of its 72-year-old leader, are in tatters after a brutal military campaign by security forces in the western state of Rakhine that has made homeless nearly half a million mostly Muslim Rohingya over the space of a month.

The refugees streaming into Bangladesh have brought stories of mass killing, rape and torching of villages by security forces, which human rights campaigners say may amount to ethnic cleansing.

The most serious crisis since Myanmar began its transition to democracy in 2011, the conflict has left Aung San Suu Kyi caught between an international community demanding accountability and her own public, which is in a jingoistic and unforgiving mood.

It has also reinforced the fragile state of Myanmar’s incomplete democratic transition, which left the military with three key ministries, a quarter of seats in parliament and control over the army and police.

Burmese and foreign business people, diplomats and others interviewed by the Financial Times, some of whom spoke anonymously because of political sensitivities, are now voicing doubts as to whether Myanmar’s leader will be up to the task.

Worse, they fear that the Rohingya crisis could push Myanmar’s transition from five decades of military rule badly off course. For some of her critics, Aung San Suu Kyi had already proved to be a flawed leader on other counts before the Rohingya crisis erupted.

“In my view, Myanmar’s transition has birth defects — especially the constitutional arrangement of mixing elected government and the guardianship of the Tatmadaw [military],” says Ko Ye Myo Hein, executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies in Yangon. “If the elected civilian government cannot make attempts to change the game, the transition will die a slow death, in the graveyard of hybrid regimes.”

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In her first speech on the crisis , in an auditorium with many empty seats in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s golf resort-like capital city, Aung San Suu Kyi said her government deserved more time, pointing out it had been in office for just under 18 months.

“We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” she told diplomats and journalists in English, in a speech in which she sounded at times chiding, at others pleading. “We would like to talk to those who have fled, as well as those who have stayed.” The remarks gave the impression of a leader either out of touch with events in the western borderlands — which were being broadcast in real time on international news channels — or powerless to control them.

Amnesty International accused the Burmese leader of “burying her head in the sand”, while Human Rights Watch said her assertion that 50 per cent of Rakhine’s Muslim villages were intact after the violence amounted to a “failing grade”.

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In her speech, Myanmar’s leader likened her country to a human body, urging the international community to address it and its problems as a whole, and “not just little afflicted areas”. She said: “It is as a whole only that we can make progress.”

Taking Myanmar as a whole, there are signs that suggest the patient is in a poor state indeed — and some of this is due to factors within her control. Local and foreign observers of Myanmar’s leader, including some who have known her for years, say she is a centralising micromanager who is failing to deliver on several counts.

After a growth spurt that accompanied a surge of inward investment amid the initial steps to democracy, the economy has slowed.

“Either she’s not letting them [her advisers] do their jobs, or she’s not listening to them,” says Khin Zaw Win, an analyst and former political prisoner. “She is obstinate, very self-centred, and undemocratic, but people worship her.”

When Aung San Suu Kyi took power last year after a landslide victory for her National League for Democracy, her administration faced a daunting agenda: calls to reform the 2008 constitution that gives the military the upper hand over civilian governments; pressure for federalism from restive border regions; the need to retool an economy stunted by five decades of isolation.

She took office in the new role of state counsellor because her foreign family members bar her from the presidency. She took three other ministerial jobs, foreign affairs, education and energy, but has since relinquished control over the last two.

Myanmar’s leader put her primary emphasis on a peace process meant to continue the legacy of her father, the Independence leader Aung San, and resolve decades-old insurgencies with minority groups in states that fringe Myanmar’s largely Buddhist, Burmese-speaking heartland. The Rohingya issue is not part of that process.

On the economy, the government claims to have notched up some achievements: bringing down inflation and the budget deficit, and taking a tough line on official graft that was rampant under the former military regime.

“They have been absolutely serious about corruption, especially at the high levels,” says Sean Turnell, an Australian academic who is advising the state counsellor’s administration.

At the central and state government level, however, Aung San Suu Kyi was saddled with a legacy of bureaucrats who served the old regime. In choosing her own ministers, businesspeople and diplomats say she has prioritised loyalty and opposition credentials over fresh blood or real-world experience in areas such as business or law.

“The average age of the executive leadership is pretty high, which means they come with a socialist mindset,” says one international banker active in Myanmar. “She has gone for people who she believes are loyal to her and not corrupt, but the pace of economic reform has suffered because the executive leadership is weak and the bureaucracy is loyal to the former government.”

Because of her long exile, then 15 years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi is herself strikingly short on basic work experience — apart from a junior UN job she held as a young woman.

The new administration’s limited skills base, combined with the tough line the “Lady” is taking on corruption, has made some ministers either unequipped to tackle spending projects or loath to promote them for fear of accusations of being on the take.

“They don’t have any data sources to evolve policy, so they aren’t very confident making decisions,” says Aung Tun, a consultant to international development agencies in Yangon.

Meanwhile, civil society groups and Myanmar’s Muslim community, who make up about 4 per cent of the population, have criticised Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration for doing little to calm the country’s sectarian tensions.

Myanmar saw deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2013, before her administration took power, and some worry that violence could recur in the event of a bombing or other attack inside the country by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the militant group whose attacks on police posts and an army base last month prompted the brutal crackdown.

The Burma Human Rights Network this month published research saying that conditions for the Rohingya had worsened in the four years since, and alleged “ongoing systematic persecution” of Muslims well into the current period of pseudo-civilian rule, including a sharp rise in villages erecting signs declaring themselves “Muslim-free”.

“They need some kind of action against ultranationalist groups, who are very dangerous for the transition process,” says Aung Ko Ko, head of Mosaic Myanmar, a civil society group that promotes tolerance between Buddhists and minority Muslims and Christians.

The de facto leader has called for tolerance but in last week’s speech (as in past ones) used cautious language that did not refer to specific religious or ethnic groups, presumably to avoid estranging ethnic Bamar Buddhists, who form the core of her support.

Some observers of Aung San Suu Kyi say the assumptions underpinning western support were flawed from the beginning: the outside world put too much faith in a figure with the instincts of an old-school Asian dynastic leader.

Even so, they say she is Myanmar’s best hope for now. “We’d be really dumb to throw away the democratic transition in Burma over the situation in Rakhine, over which she has very little control,” says a senior diplomat in Yangon.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters believe she is being judged too harshly given her lack of influence over the military. “The context of our country’s situation is different from other countries around the world,” says U Nyan Win, a senior official with the NLD in Yangon. “We can’t control what’s happening on the ground, especially in battle zones.”

Members of the leader’s circle, speaking privately, say the outside world — in pressuring her to speak out more forcefully on Rakhine — is underestimating the fragility of the democratic transition in Myanmar, where the military could still retake power.

However, others discount this, pointing out that the military already has enough real power, not to mention the economic benefits from companies they control. The question is whether the crisis will deliver a blow to investor confidence, already shaky to start with.

Aung Tun Lin, chair of the Myanmar Tourist Guides Association, says foreign tour groups have cancelled roughly 15-20 per cent of pre-booked tours due to what he describes as “fake news” about Rakhine. His group says tourism brings more than $2bn annually in revenues, or 3 per cent of gross domestic product.

Business people say the crisis could also dent foreign investment. “You wanted to make a $100m investment in Myanmar?” says a western executive in Yangon. “In your annual report, you’re going to have to defend that position.”However, most multinationals were steering clear of Myanmar. The biggest foreign investors have been from China, Japan and other Asian countries, most of which have hesitated to criticise the military campaign.

“In terms of economics, the effects won’t be as great as people expect,” says Mr Turnell, the adviser. “Western investment mostly hasn’t been here anyway.”