The Republic of the Union of Myanmar is a country located in the south of the Asian continent, which borders Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. This variety of neighbors has provided Myanmar with extensive contact with different ethnic groups, allowing the inclusion of this diversity in its territory. At first, it looks good, right? In the case of Myanmar, this “cultural mix” did not occur peacefully, which resulted in conflicts between ethnic groups of ruling classes and minorities. These internal conflicts have been going on for decades and have not yet been resolved. Understand the reason in this article!
Worldwide, Myanmar has one of the greatest ethnic diversity, with 135 ethnic groups in its territory alone, with approximately 52 million inhabitants. As a result, since 1948, when he gained his independence the British, he was the scene of a series of conflicts between the central government and minority groups, which sought to form separate or autonomous states.
In South and Southeast Asia, religion forms a centerpiece of society, sometimes influencing political processes. Myanmar's main religion is Buddhism, represented by 87.9% of the population. Then there are Christians, who add up to 6.2%. Muslims, animists and Hindus make up 4.3%, 0.8% and 0.5% respectively, according to Myanmar's Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population.
The Buddhist population ‘bramá’ or ‘Burmese’, as the largest ethnic group in the country, dominates the political-economic field and has a number of benefits. Throughout the formation of the country, this group has exercised its influence numerous times to defend its interests. Thus, conflicts between the central government and less representative ethnic groups, such as the Muslim Rohingyas, have become common.
MYANMAR: A COUNTRY TOWARDS DEMOCRATIZATION
Since independence in 1948, separatist conflicts in what was then called Burma have been responsible for a great political instability that culminated in the installation and maintenance of a dictatorial regime. In 1962, a communist coup deposed the civilian government and installed a military government that remained in power until 2016.
In a context of precarious economic conditions, police violence and corruption scandals, a movement that would come to be known as Revolta 8888 took power, spearheading the struggle for the country's redemocratization. In response to the protests, the government began to apply Martial Law, using it to retaliate for the effects of the pro-democracy movement - which generated a total of 3,000 people killed.
In addition, the military government changed the name of the country Burma, as it was called by the English colonists before independence, to Myanmar. The change was intended to represent a 'liberation' the colonial past, but both names have the same origin: the name of the country's dominant ethnic group, Bramá.
We must highlight, however, the political effects of this change. To this day, supporters of the military regime use the name Myanmar, while those engaged in a pro-democracy struggle continue to use the name Burma, because they do not believe that an illegitimate government can make a change as big as that of the country's name.
As a result of national and international pressure, in 1990 the military held direct elections to form a Constituent Assembly. What they did not expect was that the NLD (National League for Democracy) party would get 475 of the 485 seats for the Assembly.
Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD, was an important figure in this achievement. The only daughter of General Aung San, hero of Burmese independence, Suu Kyi ended up getting involved in the struggle for the end of the military dictatorship by chance, as until then she lived in Oxford, England, and had returned to Myanmar to take care of her sick mother.
The military, revolted by the result, annulled the election and sentenced Suu Kyi to 20 years in prison. Because of her struggle and resistance, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Only in 2008, after the anti-government protests called the Saffron Revolution, did the country begin an alleged gradual opening, promising a new popular constitution to be approved through a referendum. However, the military stipulated a legal provision that prevented mothers of foreign or dual national children running for president. This was precisely the situation for Suu Kyi, the mother of two boys who were born in London.
In 2015, new elections elected the candidate Htin Kyaw, Suu Kyi's party. In contrast, Htin Kyaw took over Suu Kyi as Minister of Foreign Affairs, a position that is hierarchically above the President in Myanmar. Thus, the first civilian government in the country was installed after 54 years of military rule.
Despite the democratization process taking shape in the country, the situation has not improved for the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities. Since 2012, waves of violence orchestrated by extremist Buddhist groups in the state of Rakhine have left more than 10,000 dead, thousands of Muslim houses and buildings destroyed and thousands of refugees displaced to neighboring countries.
These persecutions are associated mainly with the nationalist groups Movimento 969 and Karen Democratic Buddhist Army, composed mainly by monks who call themselves 'radical Buddhists'. Although they say that they are absolutely opposed to violence and bear in their names references to the virtues of Buddha, their speeches have served as a basis for violent acts in defining Muslims as ‘the enemy’ against whom to fight for the protection of a Buddhist nation.
It is worth mentioning that the ethnicity and religion of these peoples are not historically conflicting. According to Juliane Schober, director of the Asian Research Center and professor of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona, what has led the relationship between them to a conflict of this proportion is the association of political privileges for a predominant group, in order to segregate the others.
BEHIND REFUGEES IN MYANMAR: WHO ARE THE ROHINGYAS?
In order to analyze recent events, it is necessary to understand that the Rohingyas have been marginalized since before Myanmar's independence and that they have never achieved the same rights as other citizens of the country.
The Rohingyas represent about 3 million of Myanmar's 60 million inhabitants and are predominantly found in the state of Rakhine, formerly known as Arakan, in the west of the country. Its origins are difficult to trace, as the events that led to the expansion of Islam to Myanmar are still unknown. There are, however, two main theories about their arrival: they are indigenous to the Rakhine State or they are Bengali who arrived through the expansion of Muslim trade dated around the 8th century AD.
As early as 1948, the newly independent central government of the British approved a list of officially recognized ethnicities - a list that excluded the Rohingyas.
Beginning in the 1970s, the effects of the Burmese military government further intensified the wave of persecution of unrecognized minorities, radically affecting the Rohingya community. During the 1960s and 1970s, several rebellions broke out and tensions persisted between the majority Buddhist and Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities across the country. The central government (dominated by Brahmin Buddhists), perceiving diversity as a threat to their power, not only neglected the demarcation of new frontiers, but also restricted the ethnic, political and social expression of minority peoples.
Since then, the Rohingyas have suffered the gradual suppression of rights, such as access to citizenship (they are stateless), a ban on marriage, travel without permission the authorities, the right to own land or property and to teach and their ethnic languages. All of these factors generate a climate of complete abandonment by the State, which results in organized civil disobedience and violence. Currently, the state of Rakhine is one of the most miserable regions in the country, reaching levels of 78% poverty.
For Tun Khin, a human rights activist and president of Burkinabé Rohingya Organization UK, the cause of the exacerbated persecution of this ethnic group is due to the fact that they are an easy target for Myanmar's ultra-nationalists: “Rohingyas are a different ethnic group, they have a different appearance and religion ”.
These long decades of isolation have created prejudice and resentment in the state of Rakhine, which have fostered a climate of distrust and misinformation that has made such segregation not only physical, but intellectual.
RECENT INTERNATIONAL ACTIONS AND REACTIONS ON MYANMAR
In recent years, violent acts that have taken place in Myanmar have made news worldwide. In May 2012, a woman was raped and murdered by three Muslims. In the following month, 10 Muslim men were killed on a bus in retaliation for the crime committed against the young woman. The topic was discussed at the UN General Assembly and the leaders of Muslim countries, as well as the then UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, demanded more action to end the violence.
The violent acts did not end in 2012! In 2016, three Border Guard Police stations were looted by Muslims. More events like this occurred in the following days, triggering a state of increasing violence. The government of Myanmar has created new commissions to monitor and investigate allegations of human rights abuse, however, there have been no satisfactory results, since central issues of Rohingya identity and citizenship are not addressed.
Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to discuss the matter in depth, which has earned him harsh criticism the international community, including fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners. In January 2017, 23 activists expressed their disapproval of the measures taken by the Suu Kyi government in a letter. Despite criticism, its popularity has been little undermined nationally.
Since August 2017, when the conflicts intensified, the UN estimates that approximately 655,000 Rohingyas have moved in search of refuge. In addition to this large number of refugees, it is estimated that more than 300 thousand am on the border due to previous exodus. The United Nations considers the refugee crisis in Myanmar to be the worst since the 1990s, when the genocide took place in Rwanda.
In November 2017, the UN Security Council asked the Government to reduce the use of military force and violence in the region. The UN considers that the conflicts constitute an ethnic cleansing, an accusation that continues to be denied by the government. International organizations have little power to act on the country, but the pressure for an effective adoption of human rights continues.
WHAT DOES THE GOVERNMENT OF MYANMAR SAY ABOUT THE ROHINGYAS GENOCIDE?
The Government of Myanmar has a difficult task: reconciling the demands of 135 ethnic groups. Not only the Rohingyas, but other minority groups are also discriminated against. Marginalization affects not only the political and economic field, but also includes the deprivation of rights to religion, language and culture.
In 2017, during the Pope's visit to the country, the head of the Armed Forces stated that "there is no discrimination in Myanmar", and congratulated the military for the "maintenance of human rights organizations". The government - which repeatedly denies accusations of genocide - argues that the recent attacks are a response to the crimes committed against Burmese soldiers. Regarding the Rohingyas killed, the government claims that they were terrorists, and is also responsible for the destruction of their own homes and villages.
For the Government of Myanmar, the act of giving rights to minorities would be 'disadvantageous and dangerous', since they would become a 'threat' to the Brahmin Buddhist population. Some of the reasons that, for them, support the persecution of Rohingyas are:
The rising birth rate of this ethnic group;
The incompatibility of Rohingya and Buddhist Brahmin culture;
The increasing Rohingya participation in local economic activities;
The security threat in the state of Rakhine due to recent conflicts in the region.
It is important to note that such arguments are based on racist and prejudiced motivations, used by the government to justify its actions, strongly influencing the Burmese population.
AND HOW ARE ROHINGYAS NOW?
The main destination for Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh, has struggled to accommodate the huge influx of people arriving in the country every day. Because of this situation, Myanmar and Bangladesh established, in 2018, a timetable for repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas. The government agreed to receive 1500 people a week, but the number is still small, with an estimated 10 years to repatriate all refugees. As agreed between the two countries, repatriation must always be voluntary.
Even so, many families still feel insecure about being repatriated, since their rights to citizenship continue to be denied, without any guarantee of security or reserved rights. In this way, UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) argues that the return should happen only when refugees feel safe and protected.