By Andy Gawthorpe
Southeast Asia has bloody borders. Over the centuries, groups marginalised by the region’s lowland states have been driven into the hills and inaccessible plateaus that also formed the natural geographical barriers to the states’ expansion and hence settled down into borders. As nation-states have been consolidated across the region, these groups suddenly found themselves defined as “minorities” in relation to the state’s dominant ethnic groups. They have henceforth often been dealt with on a spectrum that runs from benign neglect to violent ethnic cleansing, and rebellions have often ensued.
Burma is no exception to this general pattern. As the country ostensibly moves to end its own decades-long revolt against the norms of the international system, it is being haunted by its own minority problem. In June of this year, ethnic violence broke out in Burma’s Arakan State, which borders Bangladesh in the country’s north. Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands displaced, some systematically by the security forces.
In October, the pattern was repeated. For Burma’s ruling junta, keen to ingratiate themselves with the international community after their brutal response to nationwide anti-government protests in 2007, the violence could not have come at a worst time. Yet the roots of the violence are deep and solutions obscure. The Burmese government’s partners in leading its reintegration into the international system – the United States and Britain foremost among them – hence face the tough if not unfamiliar dilemma of whether to let the violence interfere with normalisation.
The facts of the violence in Arakan State are as follows. Arakan is home to Buddhist and Muslim populations who live on a radically unequal footing. Most Arakan Muslims – the Rohingya – are seen as illegal immigrants and denied Burmese citizenship, despite the fact their community numbers something like a million people. The UN views the group as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, and with good reason: the Burmese denial of citizenship renders the group effectively stateless. Their consequent lack of rights is graphically illustrated by their treatment by local security forces (Burma’s national army receives higher marks, but seems powerless to prevent periodic outbursts of violence).
Ethnic violence in Arakan State this year had a number of incidental sparks, but at its core was the marginalisation of the Rohingya – not even recognised by the government as one of Burma’s minorities, nor granted the basic rights of citizenship, they are easily targeted by Arakan Buddhists who see their presence in the region as an encroachment on the rights of legitimate citizens.
Quite how deep the problem of the Rohingya’s marginalisation goes becomes obvious when we consider the words of Aung San Suu Kyi, the conscience of Burma. According to Suu Kyi, violence in Arakan in June was a result of the government’s failure to enforce its immigration policy; asked if the Rohingya should be considered Burmese, she said she “does not know”. During last month’s violence, she kept her peace, which can be considered an improvement. But Suu Kyi’s unwillingness to speak up for the Rohingya – no doubt mainly to avoid alienating potential political allies – shows just how far the group have to go before their integration into Burmese society becomes even a respectable suggestion, nevermind a mainstream concern.
It hence seems likely that whatever progress there is in tamping down ethnic violence in northern Burma will be slow. The Burmese government recently announced its intention to reach a “win-win solution for all stakeholders”, proving at least that the government has been socialised in the international language of meaningless waffle; real solutions seem much more distant. Even changes in the legal situation such as the extension of citizenship to the Rohingya are unlikely to produce results quickly, given the social and cultural scars that ethnic conflict generates.
All of this leaves western countries who are keen to reintegrate Burma into the international system – witness, for instance, the World Bank’s decision to begin lending to the country for the first time in 25 years – and to cultivate the country as part of a regional counterbalance to China with the dilemma of how to respond.
Clearly normalisation cannot continue without reference to what the junta does, but nor would it be fruitful to abandon the country at the first time of trouble and allow the government to return to a state of isolation where it felt wounded and inclined to give in to its baser instincts. Not to seize the opportunity to welcome Burma back into the family of nations on acceptable terms would be a tragedy for the region.. The only greater tragedy imaginable would be to do so without using every ounce of leverage to push the Burmese government to do what it can to mitigate ethnic hatred in Arakan State, however slow and perilous the process may be. That would be a marriage of realism and humanity of which even Ms. Suu Kyi herself could justifiably be proud.