Hear any mention of Myanmar these days, and most often it’s about the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis. But as recently as 2015 – with 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi finally at the helm – the world was celebrating Myanmar’s transition from a military junta into a robust democracy.
Now, as Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) feels the glare of the international spotlight, The Hidden History of Burma – Race, Capitalism & the Crisis of Democracy, a book by former diplomat and first-ever non-European secretary-general of the United Nations Dr Thant Myint-U explains how his country found itself in the eye of a geopolitical storm.
From throwing off the colonial yoke for democracy in 1948, to being ruled by a military junta until 2010, and then having its revived democracy riven by violence and an exodus of Rohingya Muslims in 2016-17, Myanmar has variously been the subject of crippling economic sanctions and the democratic ‘darling’ of the West.
With a multi-ethnic, multicultural population, its social trajectory has not been unlike India's. In Thant Myint-U's telling, Myanmar is a country of enormous diversity. So when The Quint spoke with him, many of his comments came with the caveat 'It's a mixed picture' – it sounds like something else that is often said about India:
“Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”Joan Robinson, British economist
Myanmar is now almost synonymous with the Rohingya crisis in much of the world, but Thant Myint-U says this identity-focused reading of the country's internal strife misses the point. The root problem – Myanmar’s ‘hidden history’ – according to him, is something else:
“Issues of democracy and identity often mask far more powerful currents around money-making and racketeering. [...] Just the methamphetamine industry alone – believed to be controlled by an international syndicated under a single Chinese-Canadian kingpin – is today valued in the tens of billions of dollars. No one can say how much of this money is in Burma and where it goes.”Dr Thant Myint-U, Author & Ex-Diplomat
The Chinese-Canadian kingpin, known as Asia's El Chapo, is Tse Chi Lop, the leader of a gargantuan drug-trafficking syndicate known as 'The Company'.
“When you talk about the refugee crisis, you have to consider all refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs): 100,000 Rakhine Buddhists, 100,000 Kachin, 400,000 Karen; over 1 million others in addition to Rohingya.”Dr Thant Myint-U, Author & Former Diplomat
While those numbers have accumulated over decades, to put them in perspective, the UN Human Rights Commission estimates that since 2017, 742,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh.
A National Identity in Flux
While economic inequality is also a huge problem in India, a national identity in renewed flux is a striking parallel between the two countries, with the current Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) effort, which is currently underway in Assam.
In Myanmar, like in India, there is a renewed focus on ‘purity’ and an animosity towards ‘foreigners’ – a repeat of its much older racial animus against a different group as far back as the 1800s and again in the 1930s and 60s... Indians.
Myanmar has its own detention centres, much like Assam’s NRC with its nationwide aspirations. It has filled these camps with those dubbed ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘foreigners’ – and, in a twist of irony, most of the people considered foreign are of Indian descent.
In fact, the Buddhist majority Burmese do not call the Rohingya ‘Rohingya’, they call them ‘Indians’, Thant Myint-U says, to denote their foreigner status.
But what first prompted this conflict between Buddhists and the Rohingya? In his book, Thant Myint-U describes a single incident in 2012 as the catalyst – a rumour that a Rohingya man had raped and murdered a Buddhist woman working in his shop. A mob descended on the man, followed by rioting, in which 200 people were killed and thousands were displaced.
This communal tension continued to simmer until 2016, the beginning of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar. That event, in turn, was precipitated by attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya militia, on Burmese security forces.
Your book mentions that the current Rohingya crisis was precipitated by attacks by ARSA on security outposts in Rakhine. What was the reason for those attacks?
“ARSA (Arakan Rakhine Salvation Army, Rohingya militant group) emerged in 2016 with its attacks on security forces. They [ARSA] do not claim to be nor consider themselves Islamist. This happened after years of communal and politically motivated violence as well as decades of discrimination against Muslim communities in the north of Arakan (Rakhine state). It also had decades of the area being isolated and increasingly impoverished, with only minimal public education and healthcare, with no opportunity for communities to reconcile with one another. In 2012, communal clashes left hundreds dead and over a hundred thousand displaced. But it was already a fertile ground for anyone wanted to stoke race-based unrest.”
Different Country, Same Citizenship Law
Even before the conflict between the ARSA and security forces, and the brutal crackdown by the Myanmar army on Rohingyas and their settlements, communal tension had been brewing in Myanmar ever since the country began to grapple in earnest with its colonial past.
In 1982, the Myanmar government enacted the Burma Citizenship Law, stipulating a cut-off date – 1824 – before which, it said, those who could prove they had lived in Myanmar would be considered native or indigenous. Those who came into the country after that date, would be considered foreigners. Sounds familiar?
Thant Myint-U shed some light on how the implementation of this policy has fared – which may or may not be instructive in how the NRC in Assam could play out:
What was the practical fallout of the cut-off date of 1824, identifying some as natives and some as foreigners?
“There has been very random and ineffective implementation of this policy. The Burmese state is extremely weak and not even in control of large areas of the country. Many people have no documentation. The borders are porous. At the same time, over the past decades, notions of who belong and who doesn’t, who is indigenous and who is alien, have been reinforced. It’s not an issue of citizenship but of belonging, who is ‘really’ Burmese, as opposed to being of Indian or Chinese descent. You have people who have no documentation who are moving around freely, and you have some with documents who have been put in camps. But a lot of people also just don’t realise that this has happened, and are just going about their lives. ”
There are no official government figures on how many people are currently housed in Myanmar’s detention centres, nor was Amnesty International able to give ballpark figures, but a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch estimated there were 1,25,000 Rohingyas in the camps. A UNHCR refugee brief from September 2019 mentions some 6,00,000 Rohingya Muslims inside Myanmar who are facing the threat of genocide; the Burmese government has rejected this finding.
With Aung San Suu Kyi travelling to The Hague in December to defend the Myanmar government's actions in the Rohingya refugee crisis at the International Court of Justice, the country's descent from a hopeful democracy to a nation facing international disrepute has been swift.
India might learn some lessons.