A boat carrying Rohingya people from Myanmar sits off the coast of East Aceh
It has been just over a year since Myanmar went to its historic elections, replacing its military-based government with one elected by the people. Yet in that time, little has changed in Myanmar — and for the country’s ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority, the situation has become worse.
In what a UN spokesman claims is ethnic cleansing, the populations of whole Rohingya villages are being forced to flee, with their villages being burned behind them. Myanmar’s army has been identified as co-ordinating attacks on the Rohingya villages and their subsequent destruction.
Men and boys, as young as 10, have been abducted and killed, and women raped in the co-ordinated attacks. However, as tens of thousands of Rohingya flee towards the Bangladesh border, Bangladeshi authorities have closed the crossings, for fear of encouraging further ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar is home to a little over a million Rohingya, who the Myanmar government claims are Bangladeshi migrants and whose citizenship status has been withdrawn by the previous military government. However, Rohingya Muslims have been living on Myanmar’s western-most Rakhine coast for at least five centuries.
Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists had lived relatively peacefully together in Rakhine state until 2012, when communal violence erupted between the two groups. The violence, which later spread to include anti-Muslim violence in other parts of Myanmar, appeared to reflect tensions within the army over the easing of its grip on power in Myanmar and the expected hand-over of power to an elected government.
The civilian National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won last November’s elections in a massive landslide. To the surprise of many, the army peacefully conceded the election result and handed over power to a new civilian government.
However, Suu Kyi has been roundly criticised internationally for failing to protect the Muslim minority. Instead, she has supported an earlier government position that the term “Rohingya” not be allowed to be used, also claiming the Rohingya are Bangladeshi migrants.
The latest round of violence started after a militant Rohingya group killed nine Buddhist border police in three co-ordinated attacks on border posts in October. The border police, which act under the autonomous authority of the army, have since engaged in “collective punishment” against the Rohingyas.
As well as the Rohingya issue, Myanmar’s attempts to end conflict with seven armed ethnic groups have comprehensively failed, with an escalation in fighting last week spilling over the Myanmar-China border, putting China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army on high alert.
Representatives of armed ethnic groups say that while they have entered into negotiations with government officials in good faith, seeking autonomy for Myanmar’s remote but resource-rich border regions, the army has undermined that process. The army appears to be using its attacks against the ethnic groups in order to force them to accept the army’s terms that they turn themselves into border guards, under the army’s control.
While Suu Kyi has been criticised for her inaction over the issue, she has been engaged in a delicate balancing act with the army since the elections. However, Suu Kyi is also an ethnic Burmese nationalist, within the context of what has been described by one senior diplomat in Myanmar as “Burman exceptionalism”.
That is, while Suu Kyi and the NLD have been pushing for democratic elections and she, herself, has promised “peace and development”, this appears intended to apply to the country’s ethnic Burmese population. Myanmar’s numerous minorities, which make up around 40% of the population, remain in a separate and often excluded category.
In Myanmar’s Burman heartland, there is peace, and some signs of development. But, in the ethnic border areas, the situation has deteriorated as the army continues to demonstrate that it remains a power to be reckoned with in Myanmarese politics.
*Damien Kingsbury is a professor of international politics at Deakin University, and author of Politics in Contemporary Southeast Asia: Authority, Democracy and Political Change, just published by Routledge.