Myanmar’s founding narrative continues to worsen the lives of Rohingya

Photo: Comune Parma/CC BY-SA 2.0
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Myanmar needs to tackle the problem at its roots before it can address the ensuing Rohingya crisis.

By Aung Zaw Min, Edited by Joelyn Chan                                

The recent bouts of violence in Western Myanmar have prompted a mass exodus of Rohingya towards neighbouring Bangladesh. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since the violence broke out in August.

“The humanitarian situation in parts of Bangladesh sheltering hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees continues to deteriorate, making the crisis one of the fastest growing refugee crises of recent years,” said the global organisation.

The international community’s initial outpour of sympathy has been in vain, and it now needs a louder call for action. As the scale of the crisis grew, the international community condemned the episodes of ethnoreligious violence and criticised the subsequent military clearance operations. However, it is merely addressing the problem’s symptoms and not the root cause. Deep down, the founding narrative – which excludes Rohingya as rightful citizens – continues to fuel Burmese’s growing apathy to the plights of unwanted Muslims.

An emerging challenge hinders Myanmar’s democratic reform process 

From the five decades of military rule to the ongoing democratic transition, Myanmar is struggling to address an emerging challenge – sectarian conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims. These conflicts are especially glaring in the western Rakhine state. The extreme Buddhist groups are propagating nationwide anti-Muslim sentiments and fueling the targeted violence against Rohingya Muslim minority. Based on the Myanmar Survey Research’s findings released in September 2017, 75% of the respondents surveyed in the 15 states believed the country to be heading in the right direction. From the looks of this survey, the extremist groups may have successfully influenced views and created distrustful attitudes towards the Muslim Rohingya.

Such strong sentiments towards Buddhism and the Burmese identity have intensified lately. The national founding narratives in Myanmar changes with its political leadership. Despite the changes, Buddhism has always underpinned these narratives.  ‘Burmese Ways to Socialism’ was the ideology of General Ne Win’s Socialist government in Burma, from 1962 to 1988. This political ideology was a mix of Humanism, Marxism and Buddhism.

In 2003, the military introduced the ‘Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy’ to safeguard their interpretations of democracy as well as to ensure the continuity of military control. Thus, both the Buddhist clergy and military continue to be the two most powerful groups in the country. Their disinclination towards the Rohingya hinders any reform or improvement to the nation’s divide.

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Wikimedia Commons

Is Buddhism a cornerstone of the nation-state?

Buddhism and politics in Myanmar have centred on two forces – the political authority of the monarch and moral authority of the dhamma (the Buddha’s teachings). Monastic institutions and political forces play a big role in the social, political and economic needs of the people. Rumours are frequently blown up to drive fears of Islamisation. These constant panic attacks polarise the public’s opinion on the Rohingya crisis.

The monk-led Buddhist nationalist movements were not a new phenomenon. Anti-Indian and anti-Muslim riots had taken place since the 1930s. Nowadays, ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups such as 969 are spearheading campaigns against Muslims. They positioned themselves as a social movement to preserve Buddhist traditions in Buddhist countries. They have also labelled Muslim populations as subversive elements that are tainting Buddhist culture and tradition in Myanmar. The 969 campaigns reinforce and justify mass violence to preserve Buddhism. They are at present receiving substantial support from the ruling political classes and broad backings from greater society.

Recently, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched an attack on 30 police outposts and an army base in the Rakhine state. These violent attacks successfully gained the attention of the international community and local citizens. Extremist Buddhist cults capitalised on this opportunity to propagate its beliefs and influence the greater public to regard Rohingya as possible terrorists. As a result, the Burmese’s mixed sentiments further complicate any attempts to resolve this humanitarian crisis and human right violations.

Social media echo chambers accelerate the sectarian conflict

Facebook, the most popular and widely used social media network in Myanmar is teeming with fake news and half-truths. Accusations of alleged crimes against Buddhist and Hindu populations are rampant in Facebook posts. Even State Counsellor’s Office spokesman, Zaw Htay uses his Facebook to dismiss the alleged atrocities as an exaggeration.

Furthermore, online instigators have been using social media as echo chambers of hatred. Their Facebook posts portray the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” who are somehow allied with “Islamic extremism”. The online commentators are also calling for their government to “make them disappear”. Other extreme comments include “We will genocide all the Muslims and feed them to the dogs”. Such ethnoreligious animosity in Myanmar is not healthy, as it generates more targeted violence against Rohingya.

The Rohingya crisis has been happening for decades, and the Rohingya are still politically and socially marginalised. Would leveraging on Rohingya-friendly political capitals and new legislation alleviate their plights? Or, would the mass indifference in the local community and limited interventions of the international communities allow the crime of genocide to happen? No one knows.

However, it is clear that the founding narrative based on religions and racial identity will perpetuate the Rohingya crisis. Unless the Aung San Suu Kyi led-government accepts and endorses the essential rights of minorities, there is little to expect.

Aung Zaw Min, writer, studied Governance and Development at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, with focus on conflict and development. His interests include media and communication, conflict resolution and political economy.