by Jacob Goldberg
The success and international attention achieved by Burma’s current pro-democracy, pro-Western government has been a towering triumph for the former pariah state, but one that casts a vast shadow. Behind the veil of President Thein Sein’s liberal reforms and niceties exchanged with Western leaders (his recent visit to the White House last week was the first by a Burmese leader in five decades), Burma has been host to a series of human rights violations for which the supposedly reformist government has offered no viable solution. Rather than posing an obstacle to Burma’s development, however, the persecution of Burma’s Muslim population, the Rohingya, is the secret formula that binds the Burmese government to its Western patrons, most notably the United States.
The Historical Roots of Persecution of Muslims in Burma
While the mainstream media have attributed each outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in Burma since October 2012 to a single incident, such as the collision of a Muslim girl’s bicycle into a Buddhist monk or an argument between a Muslim gold dealer and his Buddhist clients that turned violent, the persecution of Burma’s Muslims actually has roots in the country’s birth.
The exclusion of Rohingya from the rights and protections of Burmese citizenship began at the Panglong Conference in 1947. At this meeting, convened by Burmese revolutionary Aung San (father of democracy icon-turned-parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi), minority groups in Burma were offered the opportunity to register as “national races.” A delegation representing the Rohingya community, however, was absent from this meeting, leaving the Rohingya bereft of “national race” status ever since.
This technicality was not used to systematically persecute Rohingya until decades later. In fact, during the short period of Burma’s democracy between 1948 and 1962, Rohingya were issued National Registration Cards and voted in national elections. Indeed, in 1959, Prime Minister U Ba Sue proclaimed that the Rohingya are a race like other races in Burma, and as such, they are entitled to equal rights.
However, these rights and services were discontinued shortly after General Ne Win ousted the democratically elected U Nu government and established a socialist military dictatorship in 1962. Beginning with Operation Naga Min (Operation Dragon King) 1978, the radically nationalist Burmese government has conducted a series of operations with the aim of purging illegal foreigners. Because of their lack of “national race” status, the Rohingya in Arakan state fell under this designation. These operations kicked off a vicious cycle in which hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are continually displaced between Burma and neighboring Bangladesh (from where the government claims they originate), rejected by both countries and rendered effectively stateless.
Today, Rohingya babies are not issued birth certificates, and Rohingya marriages are not recognized unless heavy bribes are paid. Rohingya are not even allowed to travel outside their villages, leading to claims of apartheid from the West.
The Strategic Value of Burma’s Muslims
Because the current regime profits from protraction of anti-Muslim violence committed by its citizens, the turmoil shows no sign of slowing. Allowing the violence to proceed and even contributing to the persecution themselves, the Burmese military gains the opportunity to cast itself as the only thing standing between peace and all-out chaos in Burma. Indeed, following the violent outbreaks in Rakhine and Meikhtila, in which state police are known to have participated, the regime declared a state of emergency in those areas, which gives it the legal authority to implement martial law. At a time when the entire world is cheering on Burma’s democratic transformation, the current regime walks a fine line between relinquishing power to the people and holding onto the benefits of authoritarianism. It is along this line that a small, internationally homeless minority group gets trampled.
The progression of Burmese history from its independence until today has led to the creation of the perfect victim. Because of the already tense relationship between Burmese Muslims and the country’s Buddhist majority, it has been easy for the government to tacitly stoke the flames whenever the opportunity arose and explain away the violence as the result of communal unrest.
The creation of this perfect victim also came at the perfect time. Although organizations dedicated to human rights advocate as best they can to end the persecution of the Rohingya, the people who can really make a difference have been conspicuously silent. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning Burmese democracy icon who spent the last three decades fighting the military dictatorship, explained her silence as the refusal to “take sides” on an issue in which violence is committed by both parties. Suu Kyi, who now holds a seat in Burma’s parliament, is speculated to be maintaining her silence in an effort to appeal to her constituents, most of whom are Buddhist.
Also silent are President Obama and his administration. Along with Burma’s government, President Obama has the most to gain from Burma’s development. Burma serves as one of the main battlegrounds on which the U.S. and China vie for influence in resource-rich Southeast Asia. When the military junta was dismantled in 2010, China lost much of its access to Burma’s leadership. China’s estrangement deepened in 2011, when President Thein Sein suspended the China-backed Myitsone dam project, citing “the will of the people.” The suspension of the project was seen as a rejection of Chinese attempts to grab resources from Burma. Closely following the suspension of the dam project, the U.S. and the EU dropped their sanctions against Burma and sought the same investment opportunities as those which China now seems to be losing. By pitting the U.S. and China against each other in an ongoing bidding war for Burma’s resources, Thein Sein wields immense power over both his own country and those that wish to invest therein. And after almost a term and a half of foreign policy blunders, Burma portends to become the jewel in Obama’s foreign policy crown. Therefore, aside from a single mention in his Yangon University speech last November, President Obama has made no indication that Burma’s human rights abuses will in any way affect his decision to support the country’s development.
The case of Burma’s development is one in which national leaders profit at the expense of their people and the majority profits at the expense of a minority. And there are no signs of this changing. The current Burmese government has found a way to straddle both Western-style development and authoritarian control over its own population, and the Rohingya are the focal point of this strategy. By facilitating communal violence, the Burmese government demonstrates the necessity of the military to the Burmese people. And by targeting a defenseless, stateless minority with no influential leaders speaking on its behalf, the Burmese government ensures that the violence it creates poses no risk to its investors. Furthermore, were the U.S. to find the persecution of Rohingya problematic enough to alter its participation in Burma’s development, the U.S. would run the unacceptable risk of Burma sliding effortlessly back into China’s patronage. From the perspectives of President Obama and President Thein Sein, the Rohingya are a politically inconsequential, and therefore wholly inconsequential, sacrifice.
Jacob is a third-year International Development Studies major at UCLA, where he is serves as the president of the Olive Tree Initiative. He tweets on conflict and development in the Middle East and Southeast Asia under @Jrifter.