In one sense, this month’s admission by Myanmar’s military leadership that its soldiers had participated in the unlawful killing of Rohingya Muslims is unprecedented. This is the first time that the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s armed forces is known, has copped to any systematic wrongdoing in northern Rakhine State, until recently home to the bulk of the country’s long-suffering stateless Rohingya minority.
It’s a stunning reversal from the army’s own internal investigation, published last November, that exonerated soldiers in Rakhine from any wrongdoing whatsoever, in the face of damning testimony from refugees, satellite imagery chronicling the deliberate razing of Rohingya villages, and a Medecins Sans Frontieres report concluding that at least 6700 civilians were killed in the first month of the conflict alone.
Yet anyone daring to hope this concession represents a turning point after months of horrific violence in Rakhine should, as Myanmar’s history has shown time and again, keep their expectations firmly in check.
Briefly, the story is this: a few days after militant attacks on security posts last August triggered the exodus of some 650,000 refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh, an army detachment had entered the coastal fishing village of Inn Din, detaining and ultimately executing 10 Rohingya men at the local cemetery. The Tatmadaw’s statement alleged the men killed in Inn Din were members of a militant group, a claim indignantly denied by family members of the men who managed to escape to refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Here in Yangon, two Reuters journalists are facing 14-year prison terms after reportedly investigating the mass grave where the bodies of the 10 men were found; they were arrested last month in what appears to be a straightforward case of entrapment orchestrated by the police force, which operates under the command of the military. Elsewhere, the military has maintained its denial of similar atrocities in other locales, despite a wealth of credible evidence to the contrary — in the village of Tula Toli, for instance, soldiers are alleged to have lined up hundreds of civilians along a riverbank, shooting them and decapitating survivors with machetes.
Nothing has changed. In times of national crisis, Myanmar’s martial tradition of dissembling and deceit, often breathtaking in its audacity, stretches back to the army’s earliest forays into national politics. After decades of economic misrule forced the resignation of Ne Win, himself a former army chief, mass protests across the country in 1988 were subdued with bullets and bayonets, and a new junta took charge pledging free and fair elections by the end of 1990. It then walked the promise back, saying a poll would instead be held to elect delegates for a national convention responsible for drafting a democratic constitution.
The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party co-founded by Aung San Suu Kyi in the tumult of the 1988 protests, swept the 1990 vote in a landslide. But the results were irrelevant; the NLD’s founders, senior leadership and most of its elected candidates had been imprisoned the year before, while others were forced by the junta to either renounce their membership or flee the country.
More violence occasioned the so-called “Saffron Revolution” of 2007, the last mass protests against military rule, which were led by sections of the country’s Buddhist clergy. As monks lay dead in the streets, state broadcasters denounced reports of the clashes as a “skyful of lies” by foreign media outlets attempting to undermine the stability of the country — a line mirrored today by the military’s strident response to international criticism over the Rohingya crisis.
One of the most enduring moments of those weeks was the death of Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai, whose final moments were captured on film and shown in newspapers around the world. The then-deputy foreign minister of Japan, Mitoji Yabunaka, travelled to Yangon seeking answers from military leaders only to be palmed off to a low-ranking official, who suggested Nagai had been struck down by a ricocheting bullet. Yabunaka’s response was to present a photo showing the journalist being shot at point blank range by a uniformed soldier.
The following year, the junta finally held a referendum on the long-delayed democratic constitution. It passed with a 93% “yes” vote on a 98% turnout, an extraordinary feat rendered all the more implausible by the death of more than 140,000 people — and the displacement of many more — after Cyclone Nargis made landfall off the coast several days earlier.
This decade, with the Tatmadaw no longer at the helm of state, the junta’s constitution renders its ranks immune to criminal prosecution and enshrined a commanding role for the army, independent of civilian legislators. The myriad civil conflicts that have plagued the country for 70 years continue unabated, and jail or death awaits any serious challenge to military authority. One father in the country’s north, who watched his daughter bleed to death after she was shot by a soldier in 2012, was sued for “injuring the reputation of the military” after complaining to the National Human Rights Commission.
Suu Kyi, now the country’s leader, is made to wear all the blame for the carnage in Rakhine while the men who designed the architecture of military impunity live out their dotage in the compounds populating the languid resort town of Pyin Oo Lwin. Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.