By: Cherui Chew
The persecution of the Rohingya Sunni Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar is in the international spotlight recently. U.N. officials have not officially labeled the Rohingya crisis as a genocide despite the evidence of atrocities, such as rape and murder, perpetrated by Myanmar’s armed forces against the Rohingya. The systematic persecution led to an exodus of Rohingya to neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh. In fact, currently Bangladesh is estimated to host more Rohingya than Myanmar itself. While the international community calls for Myanmar to end the humanitarian crisis, the government itself is incapable of resolving this issue. Myanmar’s Rohingya refugee crisis is symptomatic of multiple issues in the governance of a democratizing country, where the rise of Buddhist nationalism, radical political parties, and undue political power of the military pose constraints on the actions of the elected government.
Military violence is a recurrent theme in Myanmar’s politics and occurs when the country is threatened by political instability. Myanmar’s post-independence transition from colonialism to democratic rule was hampered by sectarian violence. In the 1960s, the armed ethnic insurgencies that threatened to dismantle the state prompted Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, to stage a coup under the leadership of General Ne Win. It was not until 2011 that the military junta initiated Myanmar’s democratic reforms. However, Myanmar’s increased political freedom has allowed unresolved ethnic grievances to resurface. Massive riots broke out in Myanmar’s second year of political reforms. Longstanding ethnic and religious conflict erupted between the Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state after a few Muslim men were reportedly involved in a gang rape and murder of a Buddhist female. The massive riots that ensued prompted Tatmadaw intervention, resulting in the displacement of approximately 270,000 Rohingya through an ethnic-cleansing campaign.
In Myanmar’s case, increased political freedom allows unresolved ethnic grievances to resurface. A dangerous Buddhist nationalism flared across Myanmar that originated from the perceived need to protect Myanmarese identity. For most Myanmar Buddhists, the Rohingya ethnicity is non-existent and the group is most commonly referred to as “Bengali Muslims”. Not only are they socially marginalized, but the Rohingya are also institutionally discriminated after the loss of their citizenship after the passage of 1982 Citizenship Law. The perception of the Rohingya Muslims as a security threat is reinforced by the actions of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which often launches retaliatory attacks on the Tatmadaw.
Religious conflicts are further politicized and magnified by political parties and religious organizations acting in their own interests. Myanmar’s opposition party, the United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), established a platform that supports discrimination against Rohingya. In the 2015 elections, Myanmar’s radical Buddhist monks, who have been vocal about expelling Rohingya Muslims, endorsed the then-ruling USDP. The history of political activism among Myanmar’s clerics originated from resistance movements against Myanmar’s military junta. Today, the infamous Ma Ba Tha, an ultranationalist Buddhist group, has the power to mobilize its supporters as it is actively connecting to the people through social service provision. Radical political parties and religious organizations that respond to the public hatred of Muslims are becoming a threat to the current National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
At the current stage of democratic reforms, the ruling government has limited authority compared to the Tatmadaw. This group wields extensive power in the legislative bodies, courts, and police institutions of Myanmar under the 2008 constitution, thus decreasing the de facto power of Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government. Myanmar’s military has veto power in parliament as it is allowed to appoint candidates to 25% of the seats in the upper and lower house. Retired military officers are appointed to positions in courts that weaken the checks and balances of Myanmar’s institutions. In addition, Myanmar’s constitution requires that the Ministry of Home Affairs be led by military officers, effectively allowing the Tatmadaw to assert its control over Myanmar’s intelligence services and police force.
Without further reforms to Myanmar’s military institution, the NLD government has limited capability to constrain the military’s ethnic-cleansing campaign. The government warned that ethnically-motivated violence would hamper the country’s democratic reforms. It was a call for peace to no avail. Following the drastic increase in communal violence and radical nationalism, the government finds itself oscillating between positions regarding the Rohingya issue. Previously, the government defended itself against international criticism of its inaction, but it has also displayed a willingness to work with neighboring Bangladesh on the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees.
The unique challenges posed by the Rohingya humanitarian crisis reveal the constraints placed upon the Myanmar government. Troubled by Myanmar’s old military elites and rising radical political agents in its new democracy, the NLD government needs more international support than ever to further its democratic reforms and protect the Rohingya. Constitutional reforms and institution building would provide channels for conflict resolution that replace military violence as a solution.