As the slaughter continues, Ali MC weighs in on the history of the ‘world’s most persecuted people’.
Recently, protesters converged on the State Library of Victoria to make their voice heard in response to the escalating Rohingya crisis. For the mostly Muslim cohort, it was a voice of frustration, anger and desperate hope; understandably so, as what hope is being extended to their Rohingyan compatriots?
The Rohingya are famously described in humanitarian parlance as the ‘world’s most persecuted people’; current events would prove nothing less. A stateless people without citizenship rights in any nation, they are now besieged by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) intent on driving them out of the country.
The stories emerging are shocking: beheadings, the rape of young girls, villages burnt to the ground, and most recently, the use of landmines against civilians.
Meanwhile, thousands of words have been devoted to decrying the aloof response of Myanmar’s default leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Calls have even been made for her to hand back her Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet, this belies a deeper misunderstanding of the current crisis, and Australia’s involvement in it.
Recently, I held an exhibition of medium format photographs I shot while visiting Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and refugee camps, in both Myanmar and Bangladesh. In the exhibition text, I described Myanmar’s “militant Buddhists”; the phrase confused many people.
The West does not normally think of Buddhists as ‘militant’; yet there is currently a politically influential and powerfully vocal anti-Muslim Buddhist sect called the 969 movement operating in Myanmar.
As was found in the recent Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, anti-Muslim sentiment runs deep in the country, and attacks have been directed towards other Muslim communities – most notably in the 2013 massacre in Meiktila.
The conflict between Buddhists and Muslims has been simmering for decades, with notable escalations in 1978 and the early 1990’s causing Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh and elsewhere.
In 2012, an attack on Buddhists in Rakhine State led to the Muslim quarter in the Rakhine capital Sittwe to be burned down, and around 140,000 Rohingya interned in IDP camps and deprived of freedom of movement, education and medical aid.
In Myanmar, the name and identity of ‘Rohingya’ is not acknowledged, or even spoken. “You mean the Bengali camps,” the Army officer issuing my permission to visit the IDP camps informed me when I visited in May 2016.
The term ‘Bengali’ reflects the general opinion in Myanmar that the Rohingya are simply illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
However, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal ruled that the attempted eradication of Rohingya identity – a people recorded in Myanmar’s history since at least 1795 – is part of an ongoing genocide.
Whether Aung San Suu Kyi can be considered a ‘militant’ Buddhist is up for debate. Her detached response to the Rohingya crisis has certainly angered the international community, especially those humanitarian advocates who invested so much in her cause while she herself was the victim of human rights abuses.
The disappointing response of Aung San Suu Kyi can be seen as an indifference to the Rohingya crisis, or interpreted as a betrayal of human rights. Yet, it can also be seen as yet another tragic misunderstanding of localised context.
As has been the case in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and numerous other interventionist excursions, misunderstood local politics continues to dominate the West’s intent, including the brutal crackdown on Rohingya as Myanmar transitions into some kind of hoped-for ‘democracy’.
Myanmar – formally known as Burma – is comprised of a number of religiously and ethnically diverse groups. The country itself was only formalised after the collapse of British India in 1948, after which such groups suddenly found themselves part of this newly formed, independent state.
Since that time, ethnic wars have played out between the Kachin, Karen, and other peoples, in some of the longest-running conflicts in recent times.
The term ‘Burma’ came from the dominant ethnic group ‘Bamar’, whom the British had originally granted power in the form of indirect colonial rule.
This Buddhist majority held sway after independence by way of the military junta, and continues in the current governmental arrangement; it is no secret that Aung San Suu Kyi is also a Buddhist Bamar.
Not only are Aung San Suu Kyi’s politics informed by her ethnic and religious background, but also by the newly formed Myanmar power-sharing constitution.
The slow transition to democracy has meant that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) only has control over half of the government portfolio. The other half is still run by the Tatmadaw, including of course, military operations and security.
As was heard by the recent Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, all of these institutions are dominated by Buddhist Bamar. In fact, evidence presented demonstrated that Muslim, Rohingya and other ethnic groups such as the Kachin, had slowly been eradicated from any administrative positions of power – including the NLD.
Further complicating matters in Rakhine State is the conflict between the separatist Arakan Army who believe in a return to Arakanese independence prior to British colonial rule in 1824, and the Myanmar Government, which has resulted in an increase in Internally Displaced Persons unrelated to the Rohingya.
It is a complex localised context which the West is only beginning to understand.
And what of Australia’s complicity?
Australia currently provides Myanmar between $60–70 million in aid, in part to promote ‘peace and stability’ in Rakhine State. In 2014, the Australian Defence Force also began training with the Tatmadaw.
The response of our own ambassadors matches that of Aung San Suu Kyi, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop calling for ‘both sides’ to show ‘restraint’; soft words in the face of probable genocide, and a disingenuous statement that assumes there is some kind of power balance in the conflict, which recently has involved attacks by the self-proclaimed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
As Myanmar has ‘opened up’ in its transition to democracy, so have the business opportunities; a new oil pipeline that runs directly from Rakhine State to Yunnan province in China that has recently opened for business; and Woodside Petroleum is currently exploring for gas in the area.
Sadly, the lives of many Rohingya people are also caught up in our brutal offshore detention centres. A recent decision to pay Rohingya refugees in off-shore detention $25,000 to return to Myanmar demonstrates a sinister response to a crisis in which Australia is deeply complicit.
If Australia does not respond to the latest Rohingya crisis by opening our doors, we are simply demonstrating that we are content to fund, and arm, militarised nations in our region, ostensibly for the sake of the profits of oil and gas companies.
It is a tragic merry-go-round that Australia does not seem to want to take responsibility for at either end; yet some will no doubt be content to benefit from the opportunistic economic rewards.
While the world watches and waits for Aung San Suu Kyi to respond in a manner that befits her Nobel Peace Prize, the betrayal of human rights continues in our own backyard.