Media reports about Burma or Myanmar these days are confusing. It sounds like two different countries. Besides the confusion about the country’s name, there are widening gaps between two accounts: one of a country in a model transition to democracy, the other of a country in a murderous spiral into sectarian chaos. Here’s an example of what you’re likely to read:
Burmese President Thein Sein recently made unprecedented visits to Washington and London, where he was welcomed at the White House by Barack Obama and at Downing Street by David Cameron. The US and UK, until two years ago among the strongest critics of Myanmar and with strong sanctions in place, both recently lifted most of their sanctions. On this visit, Cameron went so far as to promise British military advisors to support the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, which both the UK and US had (until recently) wanted brought before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity. But since then Thein Sein’s government has relaxed political restrictions, released Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and allowed her to take a seat in parliament, and held by-elections in which the opposition won almost all the seats it contested. Ceasefires have been agreed with many ethnic armed groups. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, media censorship has been relaxed, trade unions legalized, the internet opened up, and peaceful protests legalized. Child soldiers are being identified and released from the Tatmadaw, and foreign aid and trade are now welcome. President Thein Sein received a human rights award from the International Crisis Group. Myanmar is now open to engaging the world, addressing its problems, and with a general election pending in 2015, appears to be making progress toward peace, democracy, and development.
Sectarian violence against Muslim Rohingya in Burma continues, with over 100,000 already displaced in squalid camps after many of their relatives were brutally killed by Buddhist mobs, their homes burned and their land seized. Police and the military stood by, or in many cases facilitated the violence. Human Rights Watch accused the government of facilitating ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. President Thein Sein publicly advocated mass deportations of Rohingya Muslims, and his government has stated that they will be systematically excluded from the 2014 census. Stripped of their citizenship by a 1982 law, their children cannot attend state schools, and they cannot legally marry.
The government now wants to restrict all Muslims in Burma to two children per family. The nationwide ‘969’ campaign to deprive Muslims of their rights appears to have the government’s blessing.
Meanwhile, Chin Christian children are being taken from their parents to residential schools where they are converted to Buddhism; those who attempt escape are chased down by the military.
The Tatmadaw continues to use torture, systematic rape, and the destruction of villages and food supplies in its scorched earth campaign in Kachin State, where over 100,000 Kachins have been forcibly displaced. This offensive has been ongoing for two years, since the Tatmadaw broke a ceasefire to secure major dam projects in Kachin areas.
Ceasefires with other ethnic armed groups continue to be marred by sporadic fighting; none of these ceasefires address the political or human rights issues which the ethnic groups are demanding be negotiated. In the countryside, the military still uses rape, torture, and extortion with complete impunity, and imposes unpaid forced labor on the civilian population. The military still controls much of the national economy, and land-grabbing in combination with domestic and foreign companies is becoming a growing problem. Villagers and monks protesting the seizure of their land for a mine formerly run by Canadian company Ivanhoe were attacked with white phosphorus weapons by police and military in 2012, horrifically burning them and leading to nationwide outrage.
As protests spread through 2013, the government is arresting and detaining increasing numbers of political prisoners. New censorship laws are leading to protest from the journalistic community. Token numbers of child soldiers are being released from the Tatmadaw, but most of the thousands of child soldiers remain in uniform. Twenty-five percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for active duty military men, and the rest of parliament is dominated by former military men elected in a rigged 2010 election. The Constitution places the military outside the law and civilian control; it guarantees the military a leading role in politics, gives it the right to take over power at any time, and cannot be changed without the active-duty military bloc in parliament agreeing to the changes. Burma appears at risk of spiraling into further violence, sectarian and ethnic armed conflict and chaos.
The bizarre thing is that everything in the above two accounts is true, and they both apply to the same country. Understanding this requires looking beyond the surface. Many of the current developments in Burma can be found in reports by Burma-based and international human rights organizations. Here I’ll help navigate the seemingly conflicting truths of today’s Burma.
Articles about this year’s violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims often make statements like: “The liberalization process has exposed the country’s long-standing religious divisions, leading to a wave of sectarian violence.” This stock statement, adapted to whatever conflict one is talking about, is a good way to sound well-informed. Unfortunately, at least in the case of Burma, it’s wrong. To begin with, it suggests that repressive rule was the only thing restraining people from their daily urge to wake up, murder their neighbor, and burn down his house just because his religion was different. To the contrary; whenever there has been sectarian violence in Burma the state has had a hand in instigating it, not suppressing it.
Often the regime has faced widespread unrest and defused it by fomenting riots. In the 1960s and 1970s, it fanned riots against Chinese immigrants and, in the 1980s and 1990s, against Rohingya Muslims. Since 2000, on several occasions when the regime was facing urban unrest, there were bombings in public places and against Buddhist objects of veneration which the regime attempted to blame on Karen rebels. In the mid-2000s, it attempted to stoke fear of an American “regime change” invasion to swing people behind it. Some of these have succeeded, others have failed or even backfired. But when they succeed, it is always followed by intensified military/government control in the target region, and the diversion of public anger onto another target.
Divide and rule is a big part of Burma’s inheritance from the British colonialists—to the extent that it’s one of the most common English-language phrases you’ll hear in political Burma. Ethnicity—whether based on race or religion—is absolutely central to politics and conflict in Burma. This is not surprising, given that about 40 percent of Burma’s population are “ethnic nationalities,” who are the majority in 60 percent of the country’s territory. Most ethnic nationalities are concentrated in particular regions, and many rural people in these areas have never felt the hand of the government in Rangoon, except through the Tatmadaw’s scorched earth policies. So they can be excused for not particularly feeling part of “Myanmar.” Even the name “Myanmar” is an ethnically Burman term. Many still prefer the more neutral sounding “Burma,” though it was imposed by the British when they cobbled together a country out of several ethnic homelands that had never been centrally ruled.
Burma’s independence came in 1947, and within a year several ethnic groups had risen up in arms because the new Prime Minister, U Nu, systematically ejected them from the civil service, the higher ranks of the military, the universities and other institutions, and built a highly centralized, ethnically and linguistically “Burmanized” government. When commander-in-chief General Ne Win (himself a Burman appointed to displace a Karen) seized power in 1962, the main justification was that only the military could hold the country together against the will of the non-Burman half of the population.
From then on, repression and militarization were always justified by a call to defend “the nation” or “the [Burman] race” from the threat of “disintegration” (i.e. multiculturalism, federalism, or self-determination), or domination by ethnic or religious populations. These minorities were always cast as uncivilized and linked to foreign forces (be they communist, imperialist, or whatever suited). For five decades since, the population has been fed an ideology of the superiority of Burman culture and religion. People were told that only a forcibly imposed, centralized state could hold together a country with such centrifugal tendencies. These notions were spread by the centralized education system, the state’s media monopoly, and brutal Burman-dominated administrative and military hierarchies. The effects were magnified by Burma’s self-imposed isolation from 1962-1988, and later by international isolation. Even talking to tough democracy or ethnic-rights activists, some of these long-indoctrinated attitudes emerge, no matter how deeply they were buried under their conscious principles. Hence some diehard human rights activists in Burma can now be heard speaking against rights for Rohingya Muslims; while even ethnic leaders have sometimes referred to their own people as “backward” in my hearing. Almost all of us have such disconnects between ingrained attitudes and conscious principles, but it opens the door to militarism, discrimination, and genocide.
The history of divide and rule helps explain the current sectarian violence in Arakan (or Rakhine) State between Buddhists and Muslims. Muslim minorities exist throughout Burma, often concentrated in ports and trading centres. Some probably descend from South Asians or Arab traders who immigrated centuries ago or during the colonial period, from the early 1800s to World War II.
The Rohingya Muslims are a particular group whose population is concentrated in northern Arakan State near Bangladesh, with pockets in southern Arakan State, where there are also other Muslim groups such as the Kaman. Rohingyas speak their own dialect and consider themselves ethnically distinct, with generations of history in the area.
Sectarian tensions surfaced in the 1940s after most Muslims sided with the Allies while Arakanese Buddhists supported the Japanese occupation forces. The first state-led pogrom against Rohingyas occurred in 1978, four years after Ne Win had imposed a new constitution to permanently entrench his rule. The military used systematic arson, murder and rape to drive over 200,000 of them into Bangladesh; many of them later returned. This is probably when the state first disseminated propaganda that they are all “Bengali illegal immigrants.”
In 1982, a new Citizenship Law stripped Rohingya of Burmese citizenship unless they could produce papers showing descent from ancestors living in Burma before 1823. This was a cynical gesture, given that the military had stripped fleeing Rohingyas of their documents as part of the pogrom. In 1991, facing widespread public anger over the negated 1990 elections and brutal crackdowns on dissident Buddhist monks, the regime launched another brutal pogrom against the Rohingya, this time driving an estimated 300,000 into Bangladesh. This time camps were established, but within a few years most of the refugees were forcibly repatriated by the Bangladesh government in cooperation with UNHCR. Facing forced labor and other abuses, many of the returnees fled yet again to Bangladesh, where they are unwanted and harassed by the local population and the government. Their lack of citizenship in Burma, and their persona non grata status in Bangladesh mark them as one of the most persecuted minorities on earth. The year after 9-11, the Burmese regime tried to garner international support by circulating a concocted video implying that the Rohingya had Al-Qaeda links; CNN broadcast parts of the video as news, but it was debunked and quietly dropped.
The latest pogrom began in May 2012, and this time the government appeared to stay in the background. A Buddhist woman was raped and killed, allegedly by three (non-Rohingya) Muslim men who were arrested and tried. Tensions had begun to die down when a week later, in a different part of the state, a bus was attacked and ten Muslim pilgrims murdered by an Arakanese mob. Violence then took off on both sides, particularly between Arakanese and Rohingyas. The military and police swung the balance by imposing curfews, but only enforcing them against Rohingyas, effectively trapping them in their homes while mobs wandered the streets. They disarmed Rohingyas but not Arakanese, then stood by while people were massacred; in some cases, they participated in the arson and slaughter themselves. Cycles of attacks have continued since, with the Rohingyas and even Kaman Muslims (who have citizenship) being gradually cornered into squalid, flood-prone camps reliant on tightly-restricted outside aid. Whenever tensions simmer down, they suddenly reignite, even in Meiktila in central Burma, far from Arakan. In each case, locals have spoken of outsiders stirring up hatreds leading to violence.
Radical Buddhist monks have also stirred up anti-Muslim hatred nationwide, one of them starting a nationwide campaign called “969,” which dictates that Buddhists boycott all business or social contacts with Muslims. Since at least 1990, the government has disrobed dissident monks and infiltrated the Sangha with “military intelligence monks”; whether this is a factor is difficult to ascertain. President Thein Sein is on record saying that all Rohingyas should face mass deportation to “third countries” and that if foreign countries want the Rohingyas to have rights then they should take them off Burma’s hands.
This violence has not emerged because a repressive regime has withdrawn, but rather it is based on hatred cultivated by that regime for decades and activated when it serves government interests. To understand why the government might tacitly support such violence, look at the results: the Rohingyas are largely confined to camps where they are subject to the government’s whim, with Arakanese seizing their land and possessions (as in the regime’s previous forced displacement of other ethnic groups). Former dissidents of all stripes have swung behind the government and the military presence increased in Arakan. Even Aung San Suu Kyi has been silenced, afraid to alienate her Buddhist supporters by speaking for Muslim rights; and attention has been deflected away from the Tatmadaw’s major offensive in Kachin State.
The offensive in Kachin State began in June 2011 when the Tatmadaw encroached on Kachin territory to secure planned dam projects. For 17 years the Kachin Independence Organization/ Army (KIO/KIA) had tried to make their ceasefire with the regime work, but this was the last straw. The ceasefire disintegrated, and the Tatmadaw launched its usual scorched-earth offensives targeting civilian populations, forcibly displacing over 100,000 through massacres, burning villages, systematic rape and destruction of food sources. After a year of this, the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) released an excellent paper documenting how the 17-year ceasefire and the associated “development” promised by the government took the form of destructive mining operations, land grabs, corruption on both sides of the agreement, increased poverty, and drug addiction.
Without a political resolution with human rights guarantees and accountability, KDNG warned other ethnic groups, “This is what ceasefires will give you,” and conflict will eventually return. Yet these are exactly the terms being offered in the ceasefires the government has signed with other ethnic armies in the past two years: military ceasefire, no withdrawal of troops, “development” and business concessions to ethnic political and military leaders, but no political or human rights talks until some unspecified “later” date. Since signing ceasefires in Karen and Shan States, the Tatmadaw has sent in more troops and munitions than ever before, and villagers report an increasing problem with land grabs by military forces on all sides. Turf battles have led to frequent armed skirmishes. Forced labor and extortion continue.
Even so, most civilians prefer ceasefire over no ceasefire. Still, KDNG’s warning suggests that to be sustainable, ceasefires need to become political peace. The government is wary of political talks because truly resolving ethnic aspirations would require constitutional and military reform, and probably federalism. For decades the government has vigorously denounced federalism, and the military would oust any government that tried to send it back to the barracks. Hence the ceasefires remain tenuous and unstable.
But there are well-publicized reforms, including the freedom to talk about politics without being arrested, the release of political prisoners, relaxed censorship of the media and internet, freedom to protest, and to form labor unions. While there has certainly been progress in these areas, we also see political prisoners being arrested, with no changes to the laws used to arrest them. We see brutal police attacks against farmers and monks protesting the seizure of their land for mining projects. We see new media laws that claim to remove censorship while actually retaining government powers to revoke publishing licences and imprison publishers who criticize. And we see government efforts to control the union movement with its own “yellow unions.”
These apparent contradictions result from the nature of the government. Though presented to the world as an elected civilian government, a quarter of parliamentarians are active duty military men appointed by the commander in chief, while most of the other seats are held by newly-retired military men who won in a blatantly rigged 2010 election. This is not a civilian government, and Thein Sein (a former general in the notorious Military Intelligence) was not elected as President by popular mandate. These men (less than 3 percent of MPs are women, none of whom are among the 50 cabinet ministers) have spent decades serving a paranoid regime. While some have come to see the necessity of reform, they cannot shed their paranoia enough to fully implement any single reform. The moment the government or the military faces serious criticism, the knee-jerk reaction is repressive. Reform, such as it is, did not begin with the 2010 election but only when the combination of domestic anger and international pressure forced it on the regime. Not coincidentally, the reforms began just as dozens of countries were supporting a call for an international tribunal for crimes against humanity in Burma.
In a nutshell, the two faces of Burma have emerged from the two faces of power there. The parliament and Thein Sein administration form the reformist, international face; the military/police/ corrupt authorities form the face presented to most of the population. In urban areas where foreigners are allowed to tread, the parliamentary face appears dominant, and the reforms are visible; but in the rural areas where 80 percent of Burma’s people live, little has changed because the military runs its own show and guards its turf.
None of the benchmarks established by western governments over the past few years ago have been met. Those benchmarks have included, inter alia, the unconditional release of all political prisoners (not fulfilled); removal of restrictions on those who have been released (not fulfilled); end to aggressive military actions against ethnic groups (not fulfilled); release of all child soldiers (not fulfilled); humanitarian access to all post-conflict areas (not fulfilled). Hardly a single benchmark has been fulfilled. Carrots such as diplomatic and trade concessions, or dropping sanctions, are being handed to Burma’s government based not on its actions, but on promises of action which are seldom honored. Thein Sein no longer needs to release political prisoners, all he needs to do is promise to release them soon—as he did in London in July—to receive the rewarding carrot and pat on the back. Even as he made that promise, his police were arresting villagers for legally protesting the seizure of their land.
Foreign governments argue that they have to embrace Thein Sein’s government to give him leverage vis-à-vis the military and to encourage further reform. But others argue that being too swift to reward the government actually stifles any incentive for further reform. It’s a fine line for diplomacy to tread. It’s also a red herring, because what is really driving policy decisions, as one Canadian diplomat told me in 2012, is that “the Europeans are already going in there. We can’t have our companies left behind.” Burma has resources and labor that Western countries want at bargain prices—especially now, while it still lacks environmental or social legislation. With foreign corporations rushing in to exploit cheap resources and labor, and foreign aid organizations rushing in to grab international credit and money for “saving” Burma, the image abroad will still be of an impoverished country with a struggling government, where Western trade and aid will save the day.
Unfortunately (but typically), they won’t. It would be a big job to list everything that needs to happen in Burma, but a foundation for positive change would have to include at least the following planks:
Constitutional reform. Most opposition parties and ethnic groups see this as absolutely essential. Among other reforms, the military should not have controlling votes in parliament or a constitutional right to assume power, and must be placed under civilian command.
Military reform. The Tatmadaw needs to be downsized and withdrawn to barracks. Military business enterprises must be dismantled. Officers and soldiers must be subject to law, and accountable for crimes.
Legal and judicial reform. The 1982 Citizenship Law should be replaced to ensure that anyone born in Burma is a citizen in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Abolish laws used to incarcerate political prisoners such as the notorious Article 17, which criminalizes association with broadly-defined “illegal organizations.” Moreover, an end to impunity requires the creation of an independent judiciary.
Political accommodation of ethnic aspirations. Ceasefires are not peace—the latter requires political resolution, and at least some perception of justice. A democratic federal structure is the best way to end civil war and hold Burma together. Regions need to have control over resources, education, and other matters.
Real change will come from the people of the country itself, but the international community must not add to the harm, and can support those making positive change. I don’t mean political reformers, but civil society groups. For example, at Inter Pares we’ve been working for 20 years with local civil society in Burma’s ethnic regions. We have seen it change from a disconnected network of committed activists to amazingly effective networks of highly skilled change agents working on complex interrelated issues. Their work draws the connections between human rights, women’s rights, environment, media, and economic issues. They are influencing ethnic political groups and now even regional-level government authorities. They have also built strong networks across ethnic and religious lines. For example, on a recent visit to Canada the Chin Human Rights Organization told Canadians about the regime’s ongoing persecution of Chin Christians, while also speaking for the rights of Rohingya Muslims. Such people and networks will prevent sectarian violence in the future, yet they are still seen as a threat by the government. Indeed, these groups cannot operate openly in the cities of central Burma but only in the ethnic states. The big donor organizations rushing into Rangoon miss out on this, preferring to see Burma’s problems as apolitical, technical issues of poverty and resources. But Burma is one of the best-resourced countries in the region; both in natural and human resources. Poverty here is man-made, and can only be addressed through political change.
Kevin Malseed is a program manager at Inter Pares in Ottawa, working with abouty 50 local organizations and networks in Burma and neighboring countries. He founded the Karen Human Rights Group in Burma in 1992 and has worked in and on the country since then. Opinions in this article are his and do not necessarily reflect those of Inter Pares.