“They chopped people, they shot people, they raped us, they left us senseless.” These were the words of a young Rohingya woman interviewed by the New York Times in mid-October, as she recounted the atrocities she and her village endured at the hands of the Burmese army. Since August 25, over 650,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar, escaping violence and famine that has already claimed hundreds of lives. The Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, have experienced persecution for decades because of their religion and supposed “immigrant” status. Buddhist members of their villages have perpetrated violence against them in waves each year, often with the aid of the police.
The most recent violence started after members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (a small militant group) attacked Myanmar army outposts, resulting in almost 100 deaths, many of which were Rohingya militants. The Burmese army responded to this incident with hugely disproportionate force, burning villages and slaughtering villagers while claiming they were only attacking suspected militants. As the international community looked on in horror, the democratic government steadfastly denied any wrongdoing on the part of the military, while the UN labeled the crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
More than half of the one million Rohingya who lived in Myanmar have been driven out, and refugees will be unlikely to return to Myanmar unless guaranteed their safety by the UN, despite talks of repatriation. Myanmar was a beacon of hope for democracy proponents in 2015 when it conducted its first free and fair elections without violence; now, only two years later, it has become a dramatic example of democracy’s failures. How has this crisis escalated to such an extreme, and what does this conflict say about Myanmar and democracy as a whole? To answer these questions, it is important to look back at Myanmar’s history of violent suppression of ethnic minorities and the military’s rise to power.
Myanmar’s History of Violence
Many of the problems with ethnic minorities in Myanmar can be traced back to colonialism – under the British, ethnic minorities including the Rohingya, were treated favorably and with some autonomy, while the majority Burmese population was subjected to harsher policies and worse jobs. In WWII, a Burmese independence group led by General Aung San sided with the Japanese, who promised to push out the British army and turn over the country to their movement. Minorities, including the Rohingya, sided with the British, who they saw as liberators from Burmese rule. Though the independence movement eventually switched sides to help push the Japanese army back east, feelings of opposition and betrayal on both sides have lingered to the present day. Almost as soon as Burmese independence was declared in 1948, ethnic groups took up arms against the new Burmese government.
As ethnic groups mobilized, the Burmese army began its decades-long campaign to end these insurgencies and incorporate all outer lying regions into the Burmese center. This campaign went into full force with the fall of the civilian government in 1962 after a military coup. This regime would last until 1988, and it set many of the precedents for problems in modern Myanmar. The military regime used brutal tactics to try to tamp down insurgencies along the borders, including land seizures, massacres of civilians, forced labor, destruction of property, sexual assault, and arbitrary detention, many of which are being used today against the Rohingya. These tactics became an ingrained part of how the military would deal with insurgencies and ethnic minorities, along with the process of “Burmanisation,” which focused on the extermination of both their people and their unique cultures. Examples of these termination techniques include placing heavy restrictions on the building of churches, tearing down churches and mosques to build Buddhist temples, and encouraging soldiers to marry minority women. Minorities that were not Buddhist were seen as more of a threat, since the regime derived some of its power from religious authority.
A student uprising and violent countrywide protests in 1988 caused a new military regime to come to power, which continued essentially the same policies towards ethnic minorities. These protests also brought a new political power player onto the scene; Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the hero General Aung San, led the revolutionary movement for democracy and her burgeoning party the National League for Democracy (NLD). After 15 years of house arrest over a 21 year period and winning a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts, she was released in 2010 for the first elections allowed by this regime. Though they were highly rigged in favor of the military party, they set the stage for Myanmar’s first free and fair election in 2015. The new civilian government worked to broker ceasefires with many of the militant ethnic groups, but these militias were very suspicious of attempts at disarmament for fear that the government would not keep its word and end the violent campaign. As a result, the ceasefires are still fragile, although conflict has decreased in many areas following the election of civilian government. The lack of violence during transition to civilian government and the government’s early successes had many people hopeful, but recent discrimination against the Rohingya has dashed the optimism of many onlookers.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority ethnic group that live in Western Myanmar in Rakhine state, and in Bangladesh, India, and Thailand. They have been persecuted with similar tactics and for the same length of time as most other minorities in Myanmar, only typically with harsher treatment and political exclusion. In 1982, they were denied most of their citizenship rights, a reflection of a common belief among the Burmese that the Rohingya are new arrivals from Bangladesh that do not have the same claims to the country. This means that many Rohingya, who have in reality existed in western Myanmar for as long as any other group living there, have found themselves alienated and isolated in their communities. Lack of documentation means that it is difficult for Rohingya to travel from village to village, often having to pay exorbitant bribes to numerous village and state officials. Sometimes they are confined to small sections of larger cities “for their own safety,” and are cut off from access to food, hospitals, and trade. This treatment is partially seen as just because many Buddhists in Myanmar fear that the Muslim Rohingya are a hotbed for Islamic terrorism, and that the Rohingya’s goal is to overwhelm Myanmar and make it into an Islamic state. This belief has been fueled by the rise of Buddhist nationalism since the installment of the new democracy.
Democracy in Myanmar
The international community rejoiced at Myanmar’s elections in 2015, but if Myanmar is a democracy, why has the violence against the Rohingya been allowed to continue? Although Myanmar now has a civilian government, de facto led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the military still has a stronghold on the government and the public. One quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for members of the military, and the military is completely autonomous from the civilian government. It controls all “security forces,” which includes police officers, border guards, and everyone involved in protecting public safety. They have control over their own sources of funding, and their chain of command is separate from the civilian leaders. This means that Myanmar is a hybrid democracy, with elements of civilian control but lacking some of the key tenets of a fully liberal democracy.
Even given the civilian government’s lack of control over the military, one might think that there should still be something the democratic leaders can do to speak out against the persecution of the Rohingya. And yet, the silence of the civilian government has been one of the most conspicuous aspects of the crisis, drawing ire from people across the globe struggling to understand how democratically elected leaders (including a Nobel Peace Prize laureate) could allow such horrors. While there are certainly strong arguments that Aung San Suu Kyi should be able to leverage her power to come to the defense of the Rohingya, it is worth understanding the complex situation in which she finds herself. The general public holds a significant amount of animosity towards the Rohingya – many believe that being Buddhist is an intrinsic part of being a citizen of Myanmar, and believe the preaching of nationalist monks who say that Muslims are trying to take over the Myanmar and make it a hotbed of terrorism. The Rohingya are a small enough group that trying to defend them does not make political sense. Appearing to be weak on issues of “national security” would make a military coup supported by the public more likely, and cause members of the ruling party to lose their political power, something for which most of them have made enormous sacrifices. There is not simply a lack of political will to protect the Rohingya, but a legitimate worry that coming to their aid could endanger the entire democratic government.
However, to call democracy in Myanmar a failure is not as accurate as acknowledging that in this crisis, the democracy has failed. And given the country’s history and current parallel and conflicting power structures, it seems obvious why. After Myanmar’s first free and fair election, the West rejoiced at an apparent fairy tale ending for decades of authoritarianism and strife. But in the two years since then, the government has been unable to live up to its promises in almost every arena, from economic reform to healthcare to education. Although there has been some reduction in fighting along the borders, deep religious and ethnic divisions have yet to be mended, the latest violence being an extreme example of the problems that persist. Many onlookers have blamed Aung San Suu Kyi, once the darling of the international community, for her inability to live up to a vision of democratic peace. But focusing on her role in the conflict ignores the underlying issues that have plagued the region since long before she took her place in its leadership. Democracy has yet to have a fair chance in Myanmar, and there is still hope that it could be successful someday in the future.
The Viability of Democracy
The struggle for democracy in Myanmar is not an isolated incident of democratic difficulty, nor is it simply a study in how democracy fails. Instead, its experience is an important learning tool for people who hope to bring democracy to areas of the world with long traditions of militarism and authoritarianism, suppression of civil rights, and seemingly irreconcilable ethnic divisions. Countries like the United States should look to Myanmar as an example of how democracy is not a panacea for the most extreme and historically rooted social and ethnic divisions. The UN ignored intelligence that warned of the possibility of retaliation against the Rohingya for years, not wanting to interrupt the transition to partial democracy. Countries lifted their sanctions and congratulated the NLD for its victory, while turning a blind eye to the problems that had yet to be solved – problems that have now displaced over 600,000 people and killed thousands. Democracy can also exacerbate some existing problems, as with the case of free speech in Myanmar leading to increased hate speech against Muslims spread virally across social media. Democratic transitions are always tenuous, especially with few democratic precedents or institutions in place, and social strife only adds to the possibility of failure. When transitioning democracies lack not only the political institutions, but also the infrastructure and economic resources to provide services effectively, they will have an even more difficult time making progress. Instilling democracy and human rights in places that have suffered from atrocity and government oppression is not impossible, but sometimes other issues may need to be addressed before democracy can succeed.