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This November Myanmar (formerly Burma) will go to the polls in elections which will see the participation of the main opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD). This is despite the current military-dominated government’s ruling that NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains ineligible due to her children holding British citizenship.
Suu Kyi has developed an ambivalent role in Myanmar politics since her release from house arrest in 2010. Earlier this year, she made a highly public visit to China — a move unthinkable without government approval — and she has been a guest of honour at official events to commemorate the centenary of her father, independence hero Aung San.
However, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been criticised for her continuing silence on the crisis of Myanmar’s Rohingya people, thousands of whom have been killed in clashes or lost at sea and hundreds of thousands forced into exile during the past decade.
Behind this humanitarian catastrophe lurk the familiar ghosts of colonialism as well as domestic agendas.
Precise estimates of the Rohingya population inside the country are impossible as the Myanmar government refuses to recognise the Rohingya ethnicity, instead referring to them as “Bengalis.”
A national census was conducted in 2014 but respondents were only able to choose their ethnicity from one of 135 officially recognised groups categorised in 1982.
Most of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities inhabit areas along the country’s mountainous frontiers.
Karen and Shan groups comprise about 10 per cent each, while Akha, Chin, Chinese, Danu, Indian, Kachin, Karenni, Kayan, Kokang, Lahu, Mon, Naga, Palaung, Pao, Rakhine, Rohingya, Tavoyan, and Wa peoples each constitute 5 per cent or less of the population.
Myanmar presidential spokesman Ye Htut said of the census procedure: “If we ask a family about their ethnicity and they say Rohingya, we will not accept it. If they say Bengali or any other ethnicity it’s fine, but if they say Rohingya we will not register it.”
Rohingyas, whose language is a branch of Bengali, are concentrated in the Myanmar state of Arakan (Rakhine) which borders Bangladesh.
Government data from 2010 put Arakan’s population at about 3.34 million people, of which the Muslim population accounted for 29 per cent. While not all of Arakan’s Muslims are Rohingyas, the figure chimes with most independent estimates that there are more than a million Rohingyas within Myanmar and perhaps another 250,000 outside, principally in neighbouring Bangladesh and Thailand.
Interviewed by Mishal Husein of the BBC in 2013, Suu Kyi framed her response to questions on the Rohingyas within a familiar Islamophobic agenda.
“I think we’ll accept that there is a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great, and certainly that’s a perception in many parts of the world and in our country, too…
“This is what the world needs to understand, that the fear isn’t just on the side of the Muslims but on the side of the Buddhists as well… There’s fear on both sides. And this is what is leading to all these troubles. And we would like the world to understand that the reaction of the Buddhists is also based on fear.”
However, this approach not only undermines the very idea of a Myanmar nation based on civic equality but effectively cleaves a country of 135 officially recognised national and ethnic groups into two neat and very unequal components.
Buddhists account for nearly 90 per cent of the country’s inhabitants but that hasn’t stopped the country’s military from conducting ethnically based pogroms against minority nationalities.
For several decades, successive military regimes have discriminated against non-Bamar minorities regardless of their religion.
These minorities are generally Buddhist but also comprise large numbers of Christians, especially among the Chin, Karen and Kachin communities. Islam was not a factor in the army’s onslaughts against these peoples.
One key historical factor fueling the crisis stems from Britain’s colonial legacy in the region.
Burma’s value to British imperialism was in its forests, especially teak and oil. Burmah Oil dominated the latter industry for more than eight decades until nationalisation in 1962. Energy resources continue to draw international attention although today gas production far outstrips oil.
Arakan was an independent state until 1785 when it fell to the Burmese. Britain subsequently annexed Arakan in 1824 in the first of three Anglo-Burmese wars that pushed the frontiers of the empire eastward from India. The third war in 1885 ended Burmese statehood and its remaining territories became part of British India. Burma only became a separately governed colony in 1937.
Estimates vary about the size of the pre-colonial Rohingya population in Arakan and that of subsequent migrations of Bengalis during the period prior to 1937 when Burma and Bengal were both regions of British India. Subseqent migrations of Bengalis during the partition of India in 1948 and the Pakistan-Bangladesh war of 1971 have been used by the Burmese government to discredit the idea that the Rohingya are indigenous to Burma.
Britain’s colonial rule is generally overlooked as a factor in exacerbating ethnic tensions. This is remarkable given the track record of British imperialism. As in almost every other case, British domination over subject peoples was based on the maxim of divide and rule to undermine the majority Burmese or Bamar people.
Until 1937, majority ethnic Bamar (Burmans) were prevented from serving in the British colonial forces in substantial numbers. Instead recruitment was centred on three of the country’s largest minority groups, Kachin, Karen and Chins.
When conflict between the British empire and Japan broke out in 1941, this ethnic division was deepened. During WWII against Japan, Rohingyas also served in British forces in some numbers.
Aung San, who had been a founder member of the Communist Party of Burma, broke with the party and established the Burmese Independence Army. Its membership was drawn largely from the Bamar majority group.
Towards the end of the WWII, the Aung San nationalists reunited in August 1944 with the communists in the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League. In 1947, while negotiating independence from Britain, a conference was held at Panglong to bring the major ethnic groups together to create the foundations of a multi-ethnic and democratic Burma.
However, within six months Aung San had been assassinated by right-wing rivals and the communists were driven underground or into rural bases where they fought an armed struggle against the Burmese state for four decades.
National minorities such as the Karen, Shan and Wa likewise established their own forces to resist Bamar domination.
Great hopes have therefore rested on Aung San Suu Kyi’s capacity for national reconciliation and renewal after decades of internal conflict.
There is little doubt that in fair and free elections, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy would win. However, her failure to stand up and speak for all Myanmar citizens regardless of language or faith is a worrying sign that, on this issue at least, little will change after November’s results.
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