In Yangon, Richard Cockett finds that the Rohingya crisis is just a symptom of the growing power of Aung San Suu Kyi’s enemies

It is, as the UN has belatedly pronounced, a ‘textbook case ofethnic cleansing’. For months now, in Britain, America, Europe and across the Middle East the dreadful plight of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas fleeing from Rakhine state in western Myanmar has been leading the news. Over 600,000 people have been driven from their homes by a pitiless Myanmar army in the most rapid exodus of a people anywhere in the world since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

In the makeshift refugee camps in Bangladesh, the survivors of the army’s onslaught can now recount their horror storiesin relative safety. ‘Our cousin was killed because she was pregnant,’ says one woman. ‘She couldn’t run fast enough. She wouldn’t leave without getting her son out of the house. They [the army] first poured petrol and then they lit her house on fire. They died there together.’

Another tells of her own harrowing escape: ‘When we were crossing a small stream, there were dead bodies floating and we had to get past them. At one point, I had to hold my nose and go under the water to hide from the military. We didn’t know where we were headed, we didn’t know where to stay or go. There was nothing to do. Young men were tied to the trees and burned alive.’

Yet in Myanmar itself, none of this is reported at all. And noone, barring a few foreigners, is talking about a ‘Rohingya crisis’. In Rakhine state, according to the authorities and official media, there are no starving refugees, no murders by the army and certainly no ethnic cleansing – just terrorists, and ‘development’. The latest round of ethnic cleansing was provoked, according to the army, by an attack on 20 or so police posts on August 25 by ‘Muslim extremists’.

Thus what is a human-rights crisis to the Westis merely a legitimate counter-insurgency operation to the Myanmar authorities.And, according to the army’s own internal report on its actions, published on November 14, it did a pretty good job, killing lots of heavily-armed terrorists but, apparently, no civilians.Daily, papers like The Global New Light of Myanmar, traditionally the old regime’s English-language mouthpiece, report on the latest ‘extremist terrorist’ outrages in Rakhine, or the discovery of strangely sophisticated tunnels built by terrorists to conceal themselves (conveniently, the terrorists are reported to have left Korans behind, proving they are Muslims). All this information is helpfully conveyed to the media by the army, and sometimes sourced directly to the office of the commander-in-chief.

U-TURN: Aung San Suu Kyi (l) is now lauded by one-time foes such as the anti-Muslim monk U Wirathu
U-TURN: Aung San Suu Kyi (l) is now lauded by one-time foes such as the anti-Muslim monk U Wirathu

As the army has closed any access to the entire area of north-west Rakhine state for months, the media has no way to check any of this. But neither do thedomestic media show much willingness to do so, for it is clear that this account of what has happened in Rakhine state is the version that most people in Myanmar, and certainly the majority Burman Buddhist population, want to believe.

Most Burmese, and certainly the local Rakhine people, believe that the Rohingya do not belong in Myanmar anyway, that they are illegal immigrants from what used to be the old Indian province of Bengal (now Bangladesh). Thus the ‘Bengalis’, as they are often referred to, are merely being pushed back to where they should never have come from in the first place. The very name ‘Rohingya’ has been effectively banned, a policy supported by the country’s de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. However, now that they can simply be referred to as ‘terrorists’ anyway, in terms of day-to-day usage that hardly matters any more.

The Burmese concede that there is ‘conflict’ in Rakhine state, the second poorest in the country, but no more perhaps than in all the other states with substantial ethnic minorities in them. And anyway, such conflict will all be solved by ‘development’, directed by a munificent government.But even if most Burmese have willfully ignored the realities of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, what has happened to them could yet have profound consequences for the country and its faltering progress towards a more democratic, pluralist future.

For a start, the Rohingya crisis has driven a wedge between those many foreigners, particularly in the West, who supported change in Myanmar, and the Burmese, includingState Counsellor Suu Kyi. On this issue, the two sides address each other in a fog of mutual incomprehension.The West’s condemnation of the treatment of the Rohingya could eventually lead to cuts in aid and even the revival of some sanctions.

What is a human-rights crisis to the West is merely a legitimate counter-insurgency operation to the Myanmar authorities

In practice, however, these measures would make little difference other than to stoke further the lingering resentments and distrust of the West from colonial days that have welled up over the Rohingya. Many Burmese resent the perceived interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs, and even her former political opponents resent the attacks on Suu Kyi.

But most importantly, this all plays into the hands of the military, and those forces that have been resisting change in Myanmar over the last few years. The Rohingya crisis has fuelled a rising sense of nationalism and xenophobia, but that has, in part, been purposefully manufactured by those political forces for domestic political purposes. The anti-Rohingya hysteria has been whipped up as part of a wider anti-Muslim campaign by Buddhist chauvinists and monks in movements like the MaBaTha, allclosely allied to the military. Think of this grouping as Myanmar’s alt-right, a revivified nationalist, conservative movement spreading its poison, like in America, largely via Facebook and Twitter: there are now about 30million Facebook users in Myanmar.

These elements lost the first democratic general election of the new era to Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in November 2015. But with the Rohingya crisis they have seized the opportunity to claw back lost ground, to mobilise opinion around nationalism, defence of the Buddhist faith, and a unitary state. They picture Muslims, through their supposedly excessive ‘breeding’, as an existential threat to Myanmar Buddhism, and the Rohingya (‘Bengalis’) as the terrorist arm of this threat.

Ultimately, all this is to protect and sustain the military’s outsize role in state affairs, whichhas been threatened by the success of the NLD. Vaunting their role in defending the Burmese Buddhist way of life in Rakhine state, the military is now setting the political agenda in the country, not the NLD. Large rallies, probably rather less than spontaneous and suspiciously well-funded, are now held to denounce foreigners and the UN, and support the government – or at least the military part of it.

The State Counsellor is the big loser. Boxed in by the army, she wriggles around helplessly in the capital, Naypyidaw, increasingly isolated from her traditional supporters. During the past few months she has been reduced to an almost peripheral role, a punch-bag for Western anger whilst appearing wholly unable to influence the course of events. Tellingly, she is lauded now by her one-time opponents,such as the violent anti-Muslim monk, U Wirathu. They have her exactly where they want her.

With sanctions lifted and the political winds blowing their way, the generals can now safely ignore Suu Kyi

Suu Kyi’s long-term strategy has been to try to build bridges with the army.This may explain her reluctance to condemn what has happened in Rakhine state, even in the slightest.If so, that strategy lies in tatters.She has been unable to exert any influence over the generals, and with sanctions lifted and the political winds blowing their way,they can now safely ignore her.

This could be disastrous for Suu Kyi’s most cherished plans for reforming the country, in particular signing a nationwide peace deal with the many ethnic armed groups, such as the Karen and Kachin.As one Myanmar-based analyst, Tom Kramer, argues, having shown no ‘moral leadership’on the Rohingyas, she has left all the other ethnic groups in the country fearful that they too could now be on the ‘receiving end of this Buddhist nationalism’. This will inevitably make their negotiators more wary of dealing with the army representatives on the other side of the table.

There are now about 30 million Facebook users in Myanmar
There are now about 30 million Facebook users in Myanmar

As for the generals, continued fighting will suit them just fine, as has been amply demonstrated in Rakhine state.The military knows that any peace deal implies moving towards a more federal state, which means opening up their entrenched powerin the constitution to change. So they have had every reason to resist all the ceasefires and peace proposals, and now feel politically emboldened to do so.

Further economic progress, everyone acknowledges, will only come if the country’s myriad conflicts are brought to a close.Thus the Rohingya crisis means that for investors, after several happy years of diminishing ‘political risk’, the dial is once again moving in the opposite direction. If Suu Kyi has less economic progress than was expected from her term in office, and no nationwide peace deal, she could be approaching the next election in 2020 with her list of achievements looking very threadbare indeed. Which is exactly what her opponents would wish.

Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold: The changing face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist

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