Experimenting with Democracy: Myanmar’s Persecution of Rohingya Muslims

By: Sara Sirota, Columnist

Photo Credit: Radio Free Asia

A violent crisis is terrorizing the Muslim population of a Southeast Asian country and not many people are talking about it.[i] Security forces there have been accused of “killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses.”[ii] The image comes straight out of a dystopian novel.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is one of the world’s youngest experiments with democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. It gained independence from British rule in 1948, but came under a socialist dictatorship 14 years later and did not gain civilian governance until 2011, with the election of retired military general Thein Sein.[iii] Myanmar’s steps along the oppressed-to-authoritarian-to-liberal political transition are classic.

But as many authors have pointed out, and as seen over the past ten years in Myanmar, democratization can be a highly unstable process. Countries are vulnerable to despotic regimes and violent militancy that wreak havoc on the population. Recall that in one of the more recent attempts at democracy, the former Yugoslavian nation-states of Bosnia and Kosovo descended into violent ethnic conflict at the turn of the twentieth century and witnessed Europe’s largest massacre since World War II.[iv]

“Democracy has always carried with it the possibility that the majority might tyrannize minorities,” sociologist Michael Mann wrote in his seminal text, The Dark Side of Democracy, alluding to French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous argument. Mann warned that in modern times, ethnic cleansing and genocide are the rare yet omnipresent risk of this ideal form of government.[v]

And that’s what we see right now in Myanmar. Internal conflicts among the country’s more than 130 ethnic groups have been rampant for generations and there has been an uptick in violence over the past few years. The Muslim minority group in particular has been the subject of mass persecution at the hands of the government and majority population, both before and after the first civilian elections.[vi] While policymakers and analysts are reluctant to use this term today, the Rohingya Muslims are enduring “ethnic cleansing.”

Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, who make up about 2% of Myanmar’s roughly 54 million people, live in despair in the northern Rakhine state along the border with Bangladesh.[vii] The country’s Buddhist government views them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship. Following the rise of insurgent movements in the 1970s, the authoritarian regime led a major repression of the Rohingya Muslim community. Hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh, where many still live in decrepit refugee camps.[viii]

Since its recent transition toward democracy, an outbreak of communal violence in 2012 displaced over 100,000 Rohingya Muslims. After the democratic election of Ms. Suu Kyi, Harakah al-Yaqin, an insurgency group led by Rohingya Muslim émigrés in Saudi Arabia, murdered nine border policemen in Rakhine on October 9, 2016. Myanmar’s government afterwards began a new purge, compelling tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh, where the government does not view them as refugees and has detained hundreds.[ix]

A Rohingya refugee told me his family escaped Myanmar in 1992 after the military forcibly removed his father from their home one night. Still living in a Bangladesh refugee camp today, he has met “children without parents, wives without husbands, very young girls who were raped.” He wished to keep his identity confidential as he fears for his safety.

Myanmar’s government has said UN allegations of “devastating cruelty” and “ethnic cleansing” are exaggerations. “As a new government we’re just trying to achieve to a modern country. We have thousands of problems,” said a spokesman for Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.[x]

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is currently leading a commission tasked with considering humanitarian and developmental issues, legal questions, and security for all the people in Rakhine. The commission is expected to submit its final report and recommendations to the government towards the end of August. In his March interim report, Mr. Annan wrote that the security situation “has sharply deteriorated” since Harkah al-Yaqin’s attacks in October 2016.[xi]

“If human rights concerns are not included—and people’s rights and voices are ignored—this may provide fertile ground for radicalization, as local communities may become increasingly vulnerable to recruitment by extremists,” he warned.[xii]

This wasn’t supposed to happen in Myanmar, whose 2015 election of Aung San Suu Kyi could be “an important step forward in Burma’s democratic transition and the effort to forge a more peaceful and prosperous future,” then-President Barack Obama said at the time.[xiii]

Democratization in Southeast Asia was a major part of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” agenda. In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy, “But even more than our military might or the size of our economy, our most potent asset as a nation is the power of our values—in particular, our steadfast support for democracy and human rights. This speaks to our deepest national character and is at the heart of our foreign policy, including our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific region.”[xiv]

As Michael Mann said, democracy is indeed the ideal form of government in modern times, and we should encourage other countries to adopt it. Civilians do appear to be more secure and free in post-2011 Myanmar than before. But moving forward, we should find new directions for countries at risk of conflict and protect the survivors of current or past ones. The thousands of refugees living in battered refugee camps, for instance, could use our help.

Take a look at Myanmar, and you’ll see a little-discussed yet major threat to security today. You’ll see a young democracy struggling with classic ethno-nationalist pulses. Now with the added concerns of Harakah al-Yaqin and other similar insurgent groups, Myanmar’s government must be accountable and transparent, and ensure freedoms for all of its people.

[i] “UN report details ‘devastating cruelty’ against Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine province,” United Nations, 3 Feb. 2017.

[ii] “Myanmar wants ethnic cleansing of Rohingya – UN official,” BBC. 24 Nov. 2016

[iii] “Myanmar profile – Timeline,” BBC. 30 March 2016.

[iv] “The Bosnian War and Srebrenica Genocide,” United to End Genocide.

[v] Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy.

[vi] “Myanmar: Major ethnic groups and where they live,” Al Jazeera, 14 March 2017. Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, “Timeline: A Short History of Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority,” Wall Street Journal, 23 Dec. 2017.

[vii] “Myanmar: Major ethnic groups and where they live.”

[viii] “Who will help Myanmar’s Rohingya?” BBC. 10 Jan. 2017. Michael Sullivan and Ashley Westerman, “Rohingya Fleeing Myanmar Describe Military Tactic of Systematic Rape,” NPR, 13 April 2017.

[ix] “Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State,” International Crisis Group, 15 Dec. 2016.

[x] Harry Cockburn, “Burma says UN claims of crimes against humanity against Rohingya Muslims are ‘exaggerated’,” The Independent, 10 Mar. 2017.

[xi] Kofi Annan, “Interim Report and Recommendations,” Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, March 2017.

[xii] Idib.

[xiii] “Readout of the President’s Call with Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, 12 Nov. 2015.

[xiv] Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, 11 Oct. 2011.

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