Contrary to much international and local opinion, the critical issue for Myanmar since independence has been neither the articulated need for democracy nor economic development. It has rather been some form of peaceful, consensual distribution of power and resources between the majority Burman, or Bamar, population and the diverse ethnic minority peoples. That dilemma has yet to be resolved along the state's northern and eastern peripheries where fighting continues.
Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi recognized this need with the convening of peace talks with ethnic armed groups in 2016 and 2017 under the banner of the Second Panglong Conference -- perhaps because her father, independence hero General Aung San, convened the first round on Feb. 12, 1947. The talks were intended to provide the rationale for a "Union of Burma" ahead of independence from Britain. Both were commendable, if unfulfilled, forums to resolve these relationships.
But recent developments along the country's western border with Bangladesh have further called into question the issue of national unity, with the advent of armed militancy among some of the minority Muslim Rohingya. So, too, has the massive and disproportionate response of Myanmar's military, or Tatmadaw; the flight of some 480,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh (which does not want them); and the remarkably naive and misleading performance of Suu Kyi, who also acts as Myanmar's foreign minister, in front of the foreign diplomatic community on Sept. 19 in Naypyitaw that downplayed the evolving tragedy.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority of an estimated million or so people who have been reviled by the Burman population, have not been recognized as an ethnic group by the government. Otherwise, they would have been made citizens under the 1982 citizenship law that provides automatic citizenship to members of a supposed 135 ethnic/minority groups -- an unscientific number based on linguistic variations. Even the name Rohingya is anathema to the Burmese, who describe them as Bengali interlopers.
Both sides engaged in half-true myths. The Rohingya claim they have been in the area of northern Rakhine State for centuries, and indeed some Muslims have been in that region for at least half a millennium. But the Burmese government claims that most are illegal immigrants. Population movements in the region have long and complex histories. Burma, as it was then known, was governed as a province of India until 1937 and immigration into its underpopulated northwest region was legal. Fighting during World War II and the Bangladesh war for independence in the early 1970s exacerbated the population movements.
Root of troubles
The growing militarization of the Rohingya dispute began last October with a a raid by a crudely armed Muslim militant group on police border posts. But in August, far more serious attacks, which some claim were inspired and supported by Saudi Arabian and Pakistani elements, led to extensive Tatmadaw reprisals that resulted in killings and the destruction of more than 200 villages. The military campaign was launched the day after a special commission led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented productive recommendations to help address the Rohingya question, recommendations that Suu Kyi unrealistically promised to implement. Some Burmese protested foreign involvement in Myanmar's internal affairs and sporadic efforts were made by local groups to prevent assistance from reaching the Rohingya.
The international community, appalled by the events, turned to Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and titular head of what amounts to a dual civilian-military government, to solve the problem or at least denounce the violence. Instead of attending the U.N. General Assembly's annual session which opened on Sept. 12 in New York, where she would have been subject to much criticism, Suu Kyi delivered a speech in English at a formal ceremony in Naypyitaw for the diplomatic community. In her speech she sidestepped the issue in a manner either indicating her extreme naivete (which seems unlikely given her position as being, in effect, the country's prime minister as well as foreign minister) or was mendacious in her public statement. She effectively protected the military from any criticism. There were sins of omission in her speech -- omissions of the extreme violence and oppression that cannot be denied by aerial photography and extensive refugee interviews. There was also misstatement of facts. Whatever positive effect the speech may have had on domestic audience, which read it in a Burmese version, it in effect ignored the intelligence of its diplomatic audience.
Suu Kyi does not run the government. It is in fact a dual administration. The legislature is controlled by her National League for Democracy, the former civilian opposition to the previous military governments. But the NLD lacks the power to amend the constitution since the military essentially has veto power in this regard.
The coercive powers of the state, which include the military, police and the intelligence services, as well as the national administration down to the local level are under military command. There is little, if any, trust between Suu Kyi and the military. Military representatives hold six of 11 seats on the influential National Defense and Security Council which is the supreme body on national security matters. Since the NLD came to power in April 2016, the president, Htin Kyaw, has not used his authority to convene the council. If, however, he succumbed to growing pressure from conservative elements to call a meeting, one could assume that the military would prevail and declare a state of emergency in any case. This would enable the Tatmadaw to take control of parts of -- or even the whole - country, should it deem it necessary.
Although Suu Kyi claims she is a politician and not a democratic icon, her international image has been severely tarnished. As a politician, she has exhibited contrasting positions. She has displayed extreme awareness of the anti-Muslim sentiment of the military and the public. This has damaged her relations with the foreign community. But since her inauguration in 2016, she has also shown insensitivity in her relations with the military, which she has attempted to confront and outflank instead of building needed trust with them.
Relations with minority ethnic groups along the China frontier remain tense and there has been a lack of significant progress in arranging ceasefires with some armed groups and political settlements with others. The ethnic groups themselves are split over the shape and form of federalism that is demanded by all and which was agreed to by the previous Thein Sein government. The constitution would have to be revised to implement any decisions reached in negotiations, but a solution still seems quite distant. China wants a tranquil situation on its southern frontier and has tried to assist the process, but it wishes to exclude U.S. involvement in any settlement.
The prognosis, then, is not good. Myanmar's northern border issues remain intractable with sporadic fighting and little political progress. Anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim prejudice is virtually ubiquitous. It is important to remember that a generation ago Osama bin Laden complained of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar. In contrast with Thailand, where a commander-in-chief was a Muslim, there are no colonels or generals in the Myanmar military who are Muslim or, for that matter, Christian. Glass ceilings for Muslims prevail throughout the higher ranks of government, a condition not true during the civilian period before the 1962 coup.
U.S. contemplates curbs
But now the Rohingya tragedy has prompted calls in the U.S. for the reintroduction of selected sanctions against the Myanmar military. These sanctions would set back development and exacerbate mutual distrust and tensions between Suu Kyi and the military since she has been a strong advocate of them in the past. The U.K. has severed military training ties with Myanmar and the U.S. has offered $32 million in aid to the refugees. Yet the Rakhine Buddhists claim that they have been ignored and are also very poor.
The persecution and flight of the Rohingya, which amounts to ethnic cleansing as noted by the U.N., has become a major issue among some member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and within the international community. This will negatively affect foreign investment.
Some Burmese believe the depredations of the Rohingya could become a factor in attempts by U.S. President Donald Trump to dismantle former President Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy as he has tried to do in the case of Cuba and Iran. Obama's improvement of ties with Myanmar is seen as his only "success" in Southeast Asia.
The Rohingya crisis has now become of worldwide importance and concern. Yet the Burmese majority has maintained that foreign interventions in the internal conflict are anathema. One can only hope that more constructive attitudes and actions prevail and that the Myanmar civilian government and military will recognize the dire consequences to the peoples and state of Myanmar if they continue their present course.
David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus at Georgetown University.