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Burma: Rohingya Genocide

During the past 65 years of military rule in Burma, the army has killed thousands of people from almost every one of the country’s numerous minorities: Shans, Karens, Kachins, Karennis, Mon, Chin and many smaller groups. But the only ones who have faced a genocide are the Rohingya, and it is happening right now.

Only two-thirds of Burma’s 52 million people are ethnic Burmese, and almost all the other groups have rebelled from time to time because they have no autonomy. Indeed, the original military take-over in 1962 occurred to stop an elected civilian leader from creating a federal state where the minorities would have some control over their own affairs. But the 1.1 million Rohingya are special, because they are almost all Muslim.

The other minorities are all Buddhist, at least in theory, and the army only kills enough of them to quell their revolts. The Rohingya never revolted, but Muslims are feared and reviled by the Burmese majority. Now the army claims that the Rohingya are all recent immigrants from Bangladesh, and is trying to drive them out of the country.

The ancestors of the Rohingya migrated from what is now Bangladesh between the 14th and 18th centuries and settled in the Rakhine (Arakan) region of Burma. They were mostly poor farmers, just like their Buddhist neighbours, and their right to Burmese citizenship was unquestioned until the Burmese military seized power in 1962. Since then, they have been treated as aliens and enemies.

The ultra-nationalist military regime launched its first open attacks on the Rohingya in 1978 and drove some 200,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh, in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape and the destruction of mosques. Even then, their civilian Buddhist neighbours in Rakhine helped in the attacks.

The Rohingyas’ citizenship was revoked in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly married couples to sign a commitment to have no more than two children. Another military campaign drove a further quarter-million Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1990-91. Then things went relatively quiet until 2013.

The trouble this time started with anti-Muslim riots in Burma’s cities, where there are around a million other Muslims, mostly descended from people who immigrated from British-ruled India after Burma was conquered and incorporated into the empire in the mid-19th century.

These urban Muslims, many of whom owned shops or other small businesses, attracted the envy and resentment of poorer Burmese, and have been the targets of sporadic rioting and looting throughout the past century. Since independence, the Burmese army has often supported these riots, or even incited them.

What lies behind all this hostility is a deep-seated fear that Islam is going to displace Buddhism in Burma as it has done in other once-Buddhist countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia. It is a completely unfounded fear – Muslims are just four percent of Burma’s population – but many Buddhist Burmese are obsessed by it.

When the Taliban blew up the giant 6th-century statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, the Burmese army ‘retaliated’ by bulldozing the ancient Han Tha Mosque in the city of Taungoo. In the same year Burmese monks began distributing an anti-Muslim pamphlet called “The Fear of Losing One’s Race”, and since then Buddhist monks have been in the forefront of the attacks on Muslims – including in Rakhine.

The poor Rohingya farmers of Rakhine have little in common with the Muslim merchants of Burma’s big cities, but they are now the main target of the army’s wrath. This is probably because Rakhine is the only province of Burma where Muslims are – or more precisely were until recently – almost half the population.

The attacks on the Rohingya, initially explained as part of intercommunal rioting between them and the local Buddhist population, have escalated until this year they have become straightforward ethnic cleansing. The army does not aim to kill them all, just enough of them to force the rest to flee across the border into Bangladesh – but that is still genocide.

It’s now well on the way to accomplishing its goal, thanks to a small group of misguided young Rohingya men who formed a ramshackle resistance group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and attacked several police posts on 25 August, killing twelve people.

They were armed with home-made black powder muskets and swords, but the Burmese government has proclaimed that it is under “terrorist” attack and launched a “counter-offensive” that is the local version of a final solution.

About 300,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh in the past couple of weeks, leaving behind an unknown number of dead in their burned-out villages. The remaining Rohingyas in Burma, probably still more than half a million, are almost all in refugee camps that the regime carefully does not call “concentration camps”.

And what about Burma’s secular saint, Aung San Suu Kyi, now in practice the head of a democratically elected government (although one still subject to a military veto on security matters)? She denies that there is anything wrong going on.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. “These urban…them”; and “When…Rakhine”)

Burma’s (Not) Mother Teresa

12 April 2017

Burma’s (Not) Mother Teresa
By Gwynne Dyer

“I’m just a politician,” said Burma’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in a BBC interview last week; “I’m no Mother Teresa.” Fair enough: she has a country to run, and an army to hold at bay. But she’s no Nelson Mandela either, and that has deeply disappointed some people (including fellow holders of the Nobel Peace Prize) who expected better of her.

The issue that most upsets them is her refusal to take a firm stand on the mistreatment of the Rohingya minority, Muslims of Bengali descent who live in Rakhine state in south-western Burma. Since an outbreak of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the state in 2013, the army has treated the Rohingyas with great brutality, and at least a hundred thousand have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh for safety.

The repression has been particularly bad in the past year, with many Rohingyas in the northern part of the state raped or murdered by the army, and foreign critics have begun to describe the events in Rakhine state as “ethnic cleansing”. “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening,” she said in the BBC interview, and a new wave of (foreign) outrage swept over her.

It is not too strong an expression at all. There is great prejudice among Burmese Buddhists against the country’s 4 percent Muslim minority, and especially against the Rohingyas. It is the one issue on which the majority of the population agrees with the generals, not with Aung San Suu Kyi – and she has no control over how the army behaves.

After decades of house arrest and years of campaigning, “the lady” (as she is known in Burma) finally took power from the army last year. But the army-written constitution gives the solders complete control of all “security matters”, and indeed does not even permit her to be the president. (They wrote it specifically to ban Burmese citizens with foreign relatives, like her British-born sons, from becoming president.)

So the “state counsellor”, as she is officially known, is in power, but not very securely. The army could decide to take power back at any moment, alhough it would probably face massive popular resistance if it did. For that reason, she doesn’t go out of her way to pick fights with the generals.

Even when she was asked by the BBC whether the Burmese army’s actions in Rakhine were aggressive, she refused to agree. Instead she produced the kind of diversionary talk that the Sean Spicers of the world spout under pressure: “I think there’s a lot of hostility (in Rakhine). It’s Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think that they are collaborating with authorities … It’s people on different sides of a divide.”

No it’s not. It’s the army torturing and murdering Muslims almost at random in northern Rakhine in retaliation for a terrorist attack on police outposts that happened months ago, and that the victims had nothing to do with. Most of the local Buddhists support the attacks on Muslims, but it’s men in uniform who carry them out.

Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t order the soldiers to commit these crimes, and she can’t order them to stop. She can’t even publicly condemn them, because the army might turn against her – and because most Buddhists in Burma probably approve of the army’s actions too.

Burmese Buddhists are paranoid about the perils of a Muslim take-over. It’s ridiculous, given the tiny size of the Muslim minority, but there is real fear about what happened centuries ago to other once-Buddhist, now-Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia. If Suu Kyi ignores that ugly fact, she risks handing the country back to the army.

Nelson Mandela had it easy by comparison. Like her, he gained his status as a secular saint by steadfastly demanding democracy through decades of imprisonment, but when he became South Africa’s first freely elected president in 1994 he really had the power. There was no fear that the apartheid regime might come back and evict him. He made wise decisions, gave up the presidency after one term, and died still a saint.

Aung San Suu Kyi has no such luck. She has, miraculously, persuaded a clique of greedy, autocratic, hyper-nationalist generals to surrender most of their political power voluntarily. But it was a deal in which she had to guarantee them freedom of action in their own domain, although she intends to re-write that constitution when she can.

In the meantime, she is undoubtedly doing what she can to limit the army’s cruelty in Rakhine state, but she is not going to throw away Burma’s first chance of a real democracy after almost sixty years of military rule by going public about it. It’s not sainthood, but it does qualify as wise political leadership.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“No…too”)

Burma: “The Lady” Takes Power

Finally, after Aung San Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy in 1988, after she won the 1990 election by a landslide, after the military ignored the results and put her under house arrest for fifteen of the next twenty-one years, after a difficult five-year transition since 2011 where the return of democracy to Burma was often in doubt, after 54 years of military rule, the woman that Burmese just call “The Lady” is in power.

Sort of.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won 80 percent of the contested seats in parliament in last year’s election, the first really free election since 1990, but she was not the person sworn in as president on Wednesday. That honour went to her childhood friend Htin Kyaw, a senior figure in the NLD who has been at her side since her release from house arrest in 2010.

The Lady so frightened the generals who ran Burma that they wrote a special clause into the constitution that banned her from becoming president. It actually says that nobody whose immediate family included foreigners can hold the presidency, but Suu Kyi is the only prominent figure in Burmese politics who fits that description (her sons hold British passports).

Even as they retreated from absolute power, the military refused to budge on that law, and they still have a veto on constitutional changes, so it is Htin Kyaw who will actually take power on April 1st. But Suu Kyi has made it clear that she will be “above the president,” and Htin Kyaw agrees. “This is sister Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory,” he said after the parliament that was elected last year voted him in as president two weeks ago.

Suu Kyi herself made the position clear when she announced the members of the new cabinet in mid-March. She will take four of the eighteen cabinet posts, including the foreign ministry and, crucially, the newly created job of minister in the president’s office. And nobody in the NLD has any problem with the fact that she will effectively be using the 69-year-old president as a glove puppet.

“It doesn’t matter how many ministries she takes as she will run the whole government anyway,” said Win Htein, a senior NLD politician who is close to The Lady. Even the army has accepted this bizarre arrangement.

In December, after Suu Kyi met Than Shwe, the ex-general who ruled Burma with an iron hand for nineteen years before retiring in 2011, the general’s grandson wrote on Facebook: “After winning the election, it’s the reality that all have to accept: that Suu Kyi will be the country’s future leader.” It’s not exactly a public declaration that the military are letting go of the reins of power, but that’s how things are done in Burma.

The question remains, however: Are the generals really letting go? They have got very rich over the past half-century of military rule, and the Burmese army’s corporate domination of the economy leaves even the Egyptian army in the shade. They are certainly not going to let any new democratic government investigate how they got so rich, or do anything to cut off the cash flow that sustains them.

They are also going to watch very closely how Suu Kyi’s government handles the tricky question of negotiating ceasefires in the many military confrontations with Burma’s numerous minority peoples.

The last military president, Thein Sein, tried very hard to get a “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement”, but failed. Now it is Suu Kyi’s turn to try, but the army won’t let her make a deal that will “damage national unity”. Just what that means is unclear, but the original military takeover in 1962 was triggered by an elected civilian president’s attempt to give Burma what it desperately needs: a federal system of government. The army still won’t allow that.

The constitution the generals wrote gives the army a quarter of the seats in parliament, which is enough to block any constitutional change. It also created a National Defense and Security Council that can declare an emergency and suspend the elected government – and six of the eleven members of the Council are military officers.

If the army really wants to take back power, therefore, it still can do so quite legally, but it would face massive popular resistance. Moreover, it was patriotic generals who finally allowed the democratic transition to begin, because they recognised that half a century of military rule had turned Burma from the richest country in Southeast Asia into the poorest. If they go back into politics, they condemn their country to even more isolation and poverty.

Burma’s transition still has a long way to go before, and nothing is safe yet. Even in next-door Thailand, which is far richer and became a democracy a quarter-century ago, the generals are back in power. But for the moment the Burmese media are free, the elections are honest, and the investment is flowing in.

With care and some good luck, this transformation could really succeed.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“It doesn’t…Burma”)

Burma: The Lady, the General, and the Future

There are good generals in Burma – that is, generals who are not too corrupt, not too brutal, and not absolutely determined to maintain military control of the country forever. One such general is Thura Shwe Mann.

Shwe Mann retired from the army in 2010 to lead the newly created Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a civilian front for the generals who still really control the country. Since that election was boycotted by the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi (known simply as “the Lady” to most Burmese), the USDP ended up with a majority and Shwe Mann became the speaker of parliament.

There was nothing in his past to suggest that he would ever jump the fence: he fought three successful campaigns against various minority ethnic groups featuring the usual human rights violations, and he was number three in the military hierarchy by the time he retired. But Shwe Mann is now Suu Kyi’s best hope for a peaceful transition to a real democratic government after next Sunday’s national election.

Something happened to Shwe Mann on the way to this election. Maybe it was just the realisation that he might end up as president if he played his cards rights, but he certainly talks differently these days: “Now we are in a democracy, a different form of government that requires total dedication….Our people are living below the poverty line. We have to change everything.”

That’s also what Aung San Suu Kyi wants to do: change everything. She wants to end the army’s control of 25 percent of the seats in parliament. She wants to get it out of the economy (the military now directly or indirectly control half the Burmese economy.) And above all she wants to stand for the presidency (the constitution written by the army forbids her to run).

Could the Lady and the General actually cooperate? It looked like that to the current president, ex-general Thein Sein, because Shwe Mann was openly talking about a possible post-election coalition that would include both his own USDP and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). So in September troops surrounded the USDP’s headquarters – and when they left Shwe Mann was no longer the party’s leader.

Suu Kyi will still probably need Shwe Mann, because this election is not going to be like the last free election in 1990, when the NLD swept the board. (Of course, the military just ignored the outcome and Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of the intervening quarter-century in jail or under house arrest, so there is no foolproof formula for political success in Burma.)

But the military clearly don’t want to go back to that style of rule now, because the facade of democracy has ended sanctions, foreign investment is rolling in, and army officers are getting rich. So much better if you can sabotage the actual democracy without destroying the facade.
Athough the NLD will probably get a big win in this election, it will have trouble turning that into a government. It hasn’t managed to attract the support of the ethnic minorities, who see it as an ethnic Burmese party with the usual centralising instincts. It must also face the fact that 25 percent of the members of parliament will be military officers appointed by the high command.

And the USDP, although tainted by its military origin, will gain votes because of a shamelessly Islamophobic campaign by ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks who paint Suu Kyi’s NLD as a pro-Muslim party. Suu Kyi should defend Burma’s beleaguered Muslim minority (only 4 percent), but she dares not do so publicly because that would lose her even more votes.

So here’s the deal. The NLD will win more than 50 percent of the seats, but it probably won’t get 67 percent, which is what it would need to elect a president over the opposition of the military bloc in parliament. Suu Kyi can’t run for the presidency anyway, because the constitution, written especially with her in mind, says the president must not have foreign relatives. (Suu Kyi’s husband was English, so her two sons have British passports.)

But if Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann form a coalition – although he is no longer the USDP’s leader, he could probably bring a large chunk of his party with him – then that coalition could elect a new president and form a government. The president would have to be Shwe Mann (for constitutional reasons), but Suu Kyi could be the most powerful member of his cabinet, which would be loaded with NLD members.

Not a marriage made in heaven, perhaps, but much better than an anti-democratic coup by a panicked military. Burma was never going to become a full democracy in a single breath-taking leap, but this outcome would get it a long way down the road without panicking the army.

Burma has been ruled by brutal, ignorant and incompetent soldiers for more than fifty years, and what was once the richest country in South-East Asia is now the poorest. It’s time for a change. Take what you can get now, and come back for more later.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 10 and 13. (“But the military…facade”; “And the USDP…votes”; and “Not…military”)