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.

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/GettyImages

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