Democracy Lab

Burma's Misled Righteous

How Burma’s pro-democracy movement betrayed its own ideals and rehabilitated the military

Sectarian rioting in western Burma has pitted the majority Buddhist population against a small Muslim minority group. Dozens of people on both sides have been killed, and countless homes destroyed. Thousands of refugees have taken flight.

This ethnic conflict has also had other, less conspicuous effects. Most importantly, it has triggered a dramatic realignment of political allegiances in the country. In a spectacular volte-face, a number of prominent members of Burma's pro-democracy opposition have begun calling for collaboration between civilians and the military in a bid to drive out what they claim are illegal Muslim immigrants who threaten the delicate fabric of Burmese society.

This recasting of the armed forces as protectors of the nation amounts to something of a coup for the quasi-military government that came to power a little over a year ago. Numbers of parliamentarians and exiled activists consider the Rohingya, an 800,000-strong Muslim group of South Asian descent who inhabit a pocket of Arakan state, to be a greater threat to the overall health of the country than a reinvigorated military. Yet this is the very same military that has spent decades persecuting the political opposition, forcing tens of thousands into prison or exile. It also happens to be one of the few institutions in Burma not touched by the reform program, as demonstrated by the army's continuing war against some of the country's restive ethnic minorities.

The government will see the flood of nationalist sentiment as a gift. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that officials may have had a role in whipping it up, as they did prior to the anti-Chinese riots of 1967 and the bouts of communal unrest involving Rohingya in 1978 and 1992. According to a Human Rights Watch report, security forces are actively persecuting ethnic Rohingya during this most recent bout of violence. The current riots serve to distract from ongoing ethnic conflicts in the north, public anger at rising electricity prices, and industrial workers' strikes in Rangoon, all of which have threatened the government's standing in recent months. The conflict also puts Aung San Suu Kyi in an awkward position, forcing her to choose between the morally unassailable but politically unpalatable high ground (since defending the Rohingya likely entails losing a large number of votes), or a more populist stand that yields to widespread bigotry. In the event, she has chosen to split the difference, speaking vaguely of a need to reform Burma's citizenship law as a way of resolving the conflict.

Currently leading the anti-Rohingya charge is the Rakhine [Arakan] Nationalities Development Party, which came in second in the province in the last general election of November 2010. They released a statement last week warning that the population of the Rohingya -- whom they label "Bengali immigrants" -- has reached "very alarming" levels, and called for swift action to segregate them from Arakanese and eventually resettle them overseas. Party Head Dr. Aye Maung, who had welcomed Suu Kyi's win in parliamentary by-elections in April "as a great chance for all of us to change Burma to a democratic country," recently called for Burma "to be like Israel" -- apparently a reference to the oppressive controls placed on Palestinians to ‘protect' Israelis. He urged civilians to work with the government to craft a policy to "defend this region" against the Rohingya, who "will be repeatedly trespassing on our territory."

Aye Maung is not alone. Religious figures and veterans of the pro-democracy movement have played a firm hand in stirring tensions, using language reminiscent of that which accompanied the Nazi pogroms. Ko Ko Gyi, a dissident who spent years behind bars for his leading role in the 1988 student uprising against military rule, has referred to the Rohingya as terrorists, and asserted that they are not an ethnic Burmese group but rather "[infringe] on our sovereignty." Such comments provide succor to the likes of Htay Oo, the powerful agriculture minister and a leading political hardliner. He has mooted the re-launch of Operation Dragon King, which was deployed under the guise of an anti-mujahideen campaign in the late 1970s to round up, arrest, and torture thousands of Rohingya, eventually forcing more than 200,000 into Bangladesh.

Playing the "terrorism" card conveniently separates the Rohingya, whose armed struggle ended a decade ago, from the ethnic "freedom fighters" elsewhere in the country. Few have asked how this distinction was reached, although unsubstantiated claims that Rohingya had been recruited by Al Qaeda gathered steam in the wake of 9/11, helping to cast the group as a malevolent force without needing to showcase evidence.

So what explains this apparent breakdown in the moral logic of Burma's internationally vaunted opposition force? There may be an issue with our perceptions of the pro-democracy movement. We have to ask ourselves whether we may have over-romanticized its battles against the junta as a broader quest to bring pure, universal human rights to Burma, when in fact we had little evidence of a wholesale commitment to the principle of tolerance. "Once the Burmese opposition no longer was confined to simply opposing (saying the right things), and actually had to suggest policies, what occurred was a sort of ‘return of the real,'" Elliott Prasse-Freeman, of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights, wrote in an email. "It became clear that ‘Human Rights' were just demands against power, and they didn't mean anything in terms of the kind of politics the opposition actually stood for."

What does the opposition then stand for? The picture has become somewhat clouded. To be sure, it is not the entire opposition that has taken this stance -- though many of its members, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, have assumed positions of ambivalence about whether the Rohingya should be granted equal rights.

But for those wanting heavy-handed treatment of the Rohingya, the traditional notions of equality and universal human rights have already been discarded, and replaced by a demagogic brand of democracy contaminated by xenophobia. This fear of "the other" within Burmese society, a fear that has reared its head sporadically in the anti-Chinese and anti-Indian riots of the past century, has largely been overlooked in black-and-white depictions of the past 50 years as a struggle between military and civilian forces.

At the far end of the spectrum, many so-called democrats have moved to vilify an entire minority group, employ apartheid-like segregationist measures, and forge reactionary ties with their traditional enemy, the Burmese military. This stance presumes that the Rohingya are a threat to the entire country without really explaining why. In fact, most Rohingya are essentially held in an open prison in northern Arakan state, subject to a system of travel permits that tightly controls their movements, and which leaves them little opportunity to mobilize should they have any intention of doing so. But such considerations appear to matter little.

It seems that the Burmese have combined a longstanding fear of outsiders -- aided by decades of isolation -- with an internalization of the regime's propaganda, which casts the Rohingya as jihadists, uncivilized, proselytizing, and of detestable appearance. In a now-infamous letter to heads of foreign missions in Hong Kong, Burma's former consul-general, Ye Myint Aung, described the minority group as "ugly as ogres" in comparison with the "fair and soft" complexion of the Burman majority.

Their statehood will always be debated. Opponents of the minority cite the 1960s as the date of their arrival in Burma, while Rohingya leaders claim a millennia-old lineage dating from the time Muslim traders arrived in Arakan. This discussion, however, is somewhat extraneous to the key issue, which is why they should have earned such brutal treatment by both the government and civil society. Even if one accepts the argument that the Rohingya are comparatively recent migrants, this hardly justifies subjecting them to the same sort of persecution that the "democrats" have been resisting for years when it was imposed on them by the government.

There are clear double standards at play here. Rohingya are not accorded the same rights as others living in Burma, including the country's Chinese population, most of whom came more recently (even if one accepts the most conservative estimates for the Rohingya's arrival), and whose population dwarfs the Rohingya in size. Is this Muslim minority more of a "threat" than the Chinese immigrants? We can't answer until someone can properly articulate what this "threat" actually consists of. Groups like the UK-based Burma Democratic Concern, however, have resorted to wild fear-mongering, alleging that the Rohingya have massacred "tens of thousands of Burmese Buddhist Arakanese in the past," while others argue that Burma cannot support a "refugee" population.

Burma's first dictator, Ne Win, engineered citizenship laws to justify the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya -- a policy he proposed in the wake of the mass expulsion of Indians in the 1960s and a ban on Muslims joining the army and government. This was an ideological crusade led by a notorious xenophobe who orchestrated Burma's retreat into isolation and economic ruin. That the pro-democracy forces now call for similar measures against the Rohingya has merely helped to rekindle his legacy.

These are sobering times indeed. Burma's opposition movement has won international admiration for its stoicism, and rightly so: After all, thousands have died or endured long prison terms in order to bring about a transition to democracy. The prospect of this delicate process being unraveled by the hypocrisy of those who fought for it is deeply saddening.



Blind in Baghdad

Mesopotamia is once again descending into sectarian violence. Too bad nobody in the United States understands what's happening on the ground.

Something is stirring in Iraq. On July 3, car bombs ripped through mainly Shiite neighborhoods across the country, killing 36 people. It was the latest tragedy in a bloody month -- a prolonged political crisis has weakened the government in Baghdad, giving insurgent groups an opening to expand their operations. The consequent surge in violence has led some to fear that the country could once again be descending into civil war.

But just as Iraqi politics heats up, the United States is rapidly losing its ability to decipher events in the country. "Half of our situational awareness is gone," an unnamed U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal in June. "More than half," a serving U.S. military officer told me when I asked about the accuracy of that statement.

To Iraq experts, these statements ring true: At the height of the "surge," the United States collected fine-grain data from the 166,000 U.S. troops and 700 CIA personnel in Iraq, as well as a network of 31 Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Now, U.S. embassy staff enjoy very limited freedom of movement -- hemmed in by a suspicious government in Baghdad and a still-dangerous security situation. According to the Journal, the CIA station in Iraq may be reduced to 40 percent of its peak levels because the Iraqi government is extremely sensitive about its intelligence work with the Iraqi security forces.

The information vacuum has led Iraq experts and officials in U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to increasingly argue over basic facts. Note the hot exchange in Foreign Affairs between Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken and veteran Los Angeles Times journalist Ned Parker -- two men who dedicated much of the last decade to Iraq's future -- on the stability of the country. The fact that Blinken and Parker cannot agree on the basics -- such as whether violence is increasing gradually, as Parker asserts, or sits at "historic lows," as Blinken claims -- bodes ill for an informed debate on Iraq.

What a dramatic reversal from just a few short years ago. When the U.S. presence was at its zenith, the U.S. government developed what the Germans call Fingerspitzengefühl -- fingertip feeling. Read the hundreds of cables from Provincial Reconstruction Teams released by WikiLeaks and you will be astounded by the granular knowledge the United States developed on Iraqi personalities and local conditions. Although such insight into a foreign nation can be intoxicating -- even addictive -- it is not the normal state of affairs, and it ebbed with the military's withdrawal.

U.S. awareness in Iraq began to decline as soon as the U.S.-Iraq security agreement that determined American troops' departure date was signed in November 2008, and it accelerated as the slow drawdown of forces commenced. By the summer of 2011, U.S.-collected Significant Activity (SIGACT) reports on militant attacks were becoming ragged -- lacking detail, containing erroneous geospatial data, and only partially covering key parts of the country and certain classes of activity. In fall 2011, whole provinces began to "go dark" as the last U.S. forces left. And at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2011, the U.S. military incident reporting system issued its last SIGACT report. As ordered by its political masters, the U.S. military turned off the lights and locked the doors behind them.

The truth is that the United States is now flying blind in Baghdad. Since the U.S. military exit, situational awareness has reached an all-time low. Despite the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, U.S. government personnel have minimal freedom of movement due to security concerns and skyrocketing Iraqi government suspicion of any foreign information-gathering activities, however benign. As the Journal article noted, U.S. intelligence agencies in Iraq have also found themselves unable to maintain relations with the prickly and increasingly powerful civilian intelligence agencies in the country.

The security metrics provided by the Iraqi government to the United States provide little help in deciphering what's happening on the ground. Baghdad's SIGACT data have more holes than Swiss cheese: They are incomplete, even compared with the incidents reported in the Iraqi press, and they systematically underreport violence in politically sensitive parts of the country. There is no system through which security incidents can be relayed by both the Iraqi military and the Ministry of Interior forces at ground level to a single headquarters.

How, then, is it possible to gauge trends in levels of violence within Iraq? The method used by most interested parties -- including the U.S. government -- is to track Iraqi press reporting of violence, which has been fairly detailed in many parts of the country throughout the U.S. drawdown. Yet this method has its drawbacks. For instance, press reporting in the vital city of Baghdad has been notoriously poor for years, in part due to the proximity to the government and the city's dangerous sectarian divisions.

The murkiness of assessing violence levels in Iraq leaves plenty of room for politics to enter the process. Analysts can count data differently according to whether they are under pressure to show improvement or deterioration in Iraqi security. An excessive focus on quantitative bean counting also sucks much of the marrow out of the analysis of Iraqi violence data, where the devil is in the details. It may be true, for instance, that today's car bombs are significantly less destructive than in previous years and that greater numbers of roadside bombs are found before detonation -- data that analysts often tout when they want to make the case that security is returning to Iraq. However, the fastest-growing class of violence comprises the "intimidation and murder" categories, including close-quarters shootings, under-vehicle bombs, fatal stabbings, punitive demolition of property, and the kidnap of children.

These are the categories of violence that are least noticed and least often counted by the Iraqi press or by foreign government agencies, yet they may be the most vital indicators of where Iraq is headed. Fewer people may be dying each month, but they are increasingly the right people -- in other words, illustrative violence against community leaders that has broad impact within communities and helps insurgents regain freedom of movement. This high-impact, low-visibility violence typifies the insurgency of today and tomorrow in Iraq. If we don't count such incidents, then of course Iraq will appear more stable.

So what is really happening in Iraq? Starting with the caveat that all violence statistics in Iraq are wrong -- because they do not capture all incidents -- it appears that Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence has essentially replaced attacks on U.S. forces. A Washington Institute for Near East Policy dataset that relies primarily on Iraqi press reporting shows that the overall number of incidents has stayed remarkably flat since fall 2011, a period that saw the final U.S. military withdrawal, political crises at the national level and in several north-central provinces, and the Shiite religious festivals of Ashura and Arbaeen. Yet although there was no meltdown, there was also no drop in violence as U.S. targets disappeared.

The reason for this is clear: Average monthly reported Iraqi-on-Iraqi attack events were 18 percent higher from March to May 2012 than June to August 2011. If other categories of violence (such as the aforementioned militant-related murders and kidnaps) were counted for both sampling periods, the growth rate in Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence would be higher -- probably around 20 to 25 percent.

The sky is not falling in Iraq, but the country is also not truly stabilizing. The toxic political environment is functioning as a life support machine for militant groups that should be on the verge of extinction by now. The numbers of incidents have gone down but nowhere near as fast as anyone would like them to. Iraq is stuck on a plateau of insecurity, particularly in western Baghdad and in the predominately Sunni Arab provinces of Nineveh, Salah al-Din, Diyala, and Anbar, as well as in multi-ethnic Kirkuk.

In Iraq, everything is about momentum: You are either going forward or going backward. Iraq's politics and security are inseparable; security stagnation has occurred because sectarian reconciliation has stalled, the Iraqi security forces have given up on population-focused counter-insurgency, and the political crisis has tempted politicians to use toxic sectarian and ethnic identity-politics to solidify their followings. If current trends continue, the predominately Sunni Arab provinces could ossify into sullen, violent regions that are perpetually under armed government occupation. Stagnation is not a win. It is not even a draw. In fact, it could establish the preconditions for a major surge in violence, and start slowly edging Iraq toward the loss column.

The time to get Iraq back on track is now -- before the bottom falls out of the security situation. A first step to resetting post-occupation U.S. policy on Iraq is to rebuild some of the situational awareness that has been lost in the last year. Arguing the facts about Iraq and relitigating the past is an analytical and political cul-de-sac. To take some heat out of the issue, all parties involved in the debate should try to look at 2012 as "Year Zero": A moment when Iraq policy is viewed afresh, setting aside, as much as possible, the political debates of the past. Iraq should once again be viewed as one part of a broader U.S. strategy in the Middle East -- just like any other country.