October 7, 2017
Tatamadaw soldiers patrol in Rohingya areas
In recent weeks, extreme violence perpetrated by the armed forces of Myanmar (the Tatmadaw), Buddhist nationalist militias and Buddhists generally against Muslim Rohingya in the state of Rakhine has killed an estimated 1000 Rohingya and displaced 430,000. The UN has described the violence as ethnic cleansing.
Everything is taking place against a background of sectarian violence that started during World War II with Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Major General Aung San, before what was then Burma’s independence from the British in 1947. The former British colony claimed its independence following World War II, during which time a significant number of Burmese served in the Bamar/Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF) in support of the Japanese. At the same time, other ethnic minorities — including the Muslim Rohingya — remained loyal to the British and were heavily persecuted by the PBF.
Burmese Vice President Aung San (second from left) with his delegation at 10 Downing Street on 13 January 1947 (Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, had joined the Japanese before the war, forming the Burma Independence Army and later training in Hainan Island before returning to lead the renamed Burma National Army (BNA). Early in 1945, Aung San had met with Lieutenant General Bill Slim, Commander of the British Fourteenth Army. Slim insisted that the BNA submit to being disarmed by British forces. The BNA was then renamed the Patriotic Burmese Forces. In Aung San’s eyes, the Rohingya were the arch enemy of the PBF, and to make things worse, they were Muslims.
Returning to the present, Aung San Suu Kyi would be conflicted by the dichotomy between the importance of her father’s legacy on Myanmar and her desire to bring Myanmar into a new age while facing the same actors and differences her father did 70 years ago. This significant conflict may explain — but not justify — her apparent lack of empathy for the Rohingya.
The success of Myanmar’s democratic transformation depends on economic conditions, the legal system, civil society, education, historical heritage and culture. It also depends on whether strong democratic actors can have an impact in the political power game against non-democratic players such as the military, militias and religious fundamentalists.
Since 1962, the Myanmar military has managed a parallel economy embedded in all aspects of business and social life. This is not a black economy. It is structural and cannot be changed unless a profound transformation occurs at all levels of Myanmar society.
Hence, it was unrealistic to expect rapid transformation in Myanmar’s complex environment marked by decades of structural and political violence and more recently by rising ethno-nationalism amid a rapidly changing socioeconomic landscape. To expect the powerful Tatmadaw to surrender its political influence was equally unrealistic.
Proponents for democracy in Myanmar have failed to understand the connections between the drug/resource/human economy and the local political economy. These connections encompass politics, councils, licensing authorities, the judiciary, the police, the financial sector, the military, schools, local companies, the private sector and organisations enabling assurance and trusts. Understanding these complex dynamics would aid the development process.
The linear model of democratisation proposed by some advocates cannot address this complexity, which makes installing a Western-style representative democracy an impossible task. This is especially true in a region in which weak democracies and autocracies are common and where wide-scale military participation in politics and the economy is unexceptional.
When Myanmar ‘opened’ to the world in 2012, optimism in Western democracies knew no limits. They claimed the military junta, the last autocratic regime in Southeast Asia, would soon be overwhelmed by democratisation. Buoyed by their illusions and unbounded euphoria, political observers, democratisation experts, constitutional lawyers and many civil society actors imagined that the democratisation process would take only a few years. Fresh from years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was elevated to a symbol for democracy conquering a seemingly totalitarian space.
But Aung San Suu Kyi knows that only a transformation within this ecology and its parallel economies may effect change over time and that she must resist international pressures. This explains her silence on several issues — including the Rohingya.
There is significant indication that a number of young people, especially Rohingyas, are vulnerable to recruitment into parallel existences (such as in terrorist movements) and parallel economies (such as in drugs). This suggests that Myanmar is living through a period of Keynesian ‘radical uncertainty’, which if not revolution per se, is a critical juncture whose impact could reach well beyond its borders.
To prevent more tragedies, understanding these changes by being more sophisticated in the approach to conflict and development is essential. In the meantime, little to nothing will happen to help the Rohingya. Western democracies are unwilling to be involved beyond the usual rhetoric, Asian countries will not interfere and the UN remains toothless.
Jonathan Bogais is an Associate Professor at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney and a senior fellow at the German–Southeast Asian Centre of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance in the Faculty of Law, Thammasat University. His website is www.jonathanbogais.net.