[Marxism] Francis Wade on the Rohingya

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jul 1 06:53:49 MDT 2018


LRB, Vol. 40 No. 13 · 5 July 2018
Fleas We Greatly Loathe
Francis Wade on the Rohingya

Since last summer, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled western Myanmar to 
Bangladesh. The Myanmar military began its sweep of villages on 25 
August in response to attacks on police outposts by an insurgent group 
aligned to the Muslim minority, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. 
Those who escaped to Bangladesh have recounted that soldiers, often 
accompanied by Buddhist civilians, encircled villages under the cover of 
darkness and sprayed bullets through the latticed wooden walls of 
houses, cutting down people who tried to flee and torching what 
structures remained. Satellite images show hundreds of razed villages. 
The military’s campaign has produced the most concentrated outflow of 
refugees in the world since the Rwanda genocide in 1994, and the camp 
the Rohingya now reside in across the border in Bangladesh is the 
largest anywhere.

The intensity of the violence has shocked the outside world – Médecins 
Sans Frontières conservatively estimated that 6700 Rohingya were killed 
in the first month alone – but news of the military’s institutional 
malice shouldn’t be surprising. Battalions of soldiers have attacked 
civilians in Myanmar’s borderlands for decades. Since coming to power in 
1962, the military has pursued, almost obsessively, the subjugation of 
what it considers an unruly periphery in which ethnic minority groups 
have rebelled against an aggressively centralising state ever since 
independence from Britain in 1948. Yet where rapes and executions 
elsewhere have been loudly decried by the majority in Myanmar, the 
accounts told by Rohingya have been dismissed as sob stories designed to 
elicit international sympathy. The mainstream view inside the country is 
that the Rohingya are an illegal Bengali immigrant community out to 
Islamicise their Buddhist neighbours. Deceit is seen in everything they 
do and say. Only a small minority have questioned a popular narrative 
that treats allegations of military persecution as fictions. ‘We have 
seen the devastation caused by this criminal military against our people 
for many years,’ read a statement issued in September by the Karen 
Women’s Organisation, representatives of a minority group that knows 
only too well the military’s tendencies. ‘This is the story of our 
nightmares and must be stopped immediately.’

Such voices have to contend with a formidable weight of contrary 
opinion, held as firmly by grassroots agitators as it is in the 
country’s highest offices. A government spokesperson, U Zaw Htay, told 
the media in October that the exodus was a plot by Rohingya to ‘mislead’ 
the international community into believing ‘that there is mass 
migration’. Mass public demonstrations have taken place in Rakhine 
State, where the majority of Rohingya have lived until now, calling for 
the expulsion of the international NGOs assisting them. ‘We don’t need 
terrorist supporter groups,’ read placards at one protest last year. The 
UN, often a target of these protests, has reported ‘mass rapes’ of 
Rohingya women by soldiers; Aung San Suu Kyi’s office countered by 
claiming that Rohingya women were trading in ‘fake news’. The UN Special 
Rapporteur Yanghee Lee declared that the military’s campaign bore the 
‘hallmarks of genocide’. Still the jeers rang out. In 2013 one 
government official claimed that Rohingya reproduce at ten times the 
rate of their Buddhist neighbours. Monks have likened them to ‘African 
carp’ that ‘breed quickly’.

The perception of a conniving community of interlopers in Rakhine State 
has intensified since 2010, when Myanmar’s democratic opening began, 
starting with multi-party elections and followed by a rapid freeing up 
of media, the emergence of a more participatory political sphere and the 
cautious liberalisation of the economy after half a century of military 
rule. The almost simultaneous eruption of violence has upended long-held 
but simplistic views that many in the West had of Myanmar. How could the 
campaign against the Rohingya be supported by a population that had, 
from afar, seemed united in its opposition to the military? Why risk 
rehabilitating that institution at precisely the time a long fought-for 
shift away from military rule is taking place? And what of the 
self-professed democrats who are rallying behind the mass expulsion of a 
vulnerable minority? A violent opposition towards this minority has cut 
across political divisions, with lauded figureheads of the erstwhile 
pro-democracy movement speaking of a willingness to take up arms 
alongside the military to drive out ‘foreign invaders’, and monks 
calling for ‘unity’ with the army. What has happened?

It is clear that democratic transition has brought significant 
developments in Myanmar’s political centre, but it has had the converse 
effect in the periphery. Military assaults on minority groups in the 
borderlands – like the Kachin and Shan peoples – have intensified, while 
the Rohingya, already subject to several waves of lethal mob violence by 
ethnic Rakhine, have faced gradually tightening restrictions on their 
freedom of movement. Since a first wave of mob violence in June 2012, 
upwards of 120,000 have been confined to camps and ghettos, prevented 
from leaving by barricades and armed police. Further north in the state, 
checkpoints line roads leading into towns where, until the violence in 
2012, Rohingya had traded alongside Rakhine in the marketplaces and 
children had been schooled together. Those checkpoints now mark the 
limits on movement for Rohingya in surrounding villages, and the towns 
where they once lived and worked are no longer open to them. Only one 
adequately equipped hospital in the state will accept them, but they are 
attended to in segregated wards. This racialised system of healthcare 
has had a devastating effect: a Lancet report from 2016 found that 
infant mortality in northern Rakhine State, where Rohingya were, until 
August, a majority, was three times higher than in areas of the state 
less than eighty kilometres away, where Buddhist Rakhine are 
predominant. Finally, they are politically ostracised, allowed no 
representatives in parliament and afforded no voting rights.

Underpinning the antagonism the Rohingya face is a fierce dispute over 
their identity and genealogy. Before the August exodus began, Rohingya 
numbered around a million in the towns and villages along the western 
coast. The ethnonym is first mentioned in a 1799 survey of communities 
in Myanmar by a Scottish botanist, Francis Buchanan, but then, save for 
sporadic mentions over the next two hundred years, it disappears from 
records. No census carried out by the British during its 124 years of 
rule mentions the name. Despite the fact that the post-independence 
government of U Nu recognised the Rohingya as an ethnic group, their 
detractors cite their long absence from censuses as evidence that the 
Rohingya are a new entity, a political project by immigrants from the 
subcontinent. What really happened is unclear. Many who now identify as 
Rohingya were probably bracketed under different designators, such as 
‘Rakhine Muslims’ or ‘Chittagonian Muslims’. Some may well have arrived 
from Bangladesh after Burma’s independence in 1948, following a 
migratory route that long predated the drawing of hard borders and that 
has served both Buddhists and Muslims moving in either direction. But 
after Myanmar’s first dictator, General Ne Win, came to power in 1962, 
even these two categories were dropped from censuses. The reasons are 
uncertain. Perhaps Ne Win, a known xenophobe who banned Muslims from 
entering the army, expelled hundreds of thousands of Indians from 
Myanmar after coming to power and launched a pogrom against Rohingya in 
1978 that caused close to 250,000 of them to flee Bangladesh, was unable 
to countenance having an indigenous ethnonym like Rakhine alongside a 
‘foreign’ religion; perhaps he believed that allowing ‘Chittagonian’ to 
remain on census lists legitimised claims for recognition by outsiders.

Although it was the period of military rule that stripped Rohingya of 
their legal status, the basis for their exclusion extends back to the 
politicisation of ethnicity under colonial rule. Before hard borders 
were established, the territory known today as Myanmar was a place of 
porous frontiers and interpenetrating political systems. For much of 
Myanmar’s precolonial history, a patchwork of mountainous micro-states 
encircled a lowland core composed of innumerable identity groups. There 
were ethnic markers – dress, language – but loyalties were largely 
towards political authorities, and less to ethnic kin. Yet Britain’s 
obsession with racial classification and its desire to make legible the 
complex tapestry of ethnic groups meant that boundaries developed 
between peoples where they hadn’t previously existed, and once-fluid 
notions of ethnicity began to calcify into hard distinctions. The 
military, obsessed with bringing disparate identity groups under 
Buddhist Bamar authority, aggressively pursued this endeavour during its 
time in power, drawing on British censuses to create an index of 
officially recognised ethnic groups, or ‘national races’ – each of them 
supposedly fixed entities that had remained consistent across time, 
certifying the right to citizenship. Some were ‘more’ indigenous than 
others: the Bamar Buddhist majority were at the top, with others below 
in a hierarchy of belonging. Ethnic identities were printed on ID cards, 
and the lines between different groups became highly volatile. The 
removal of the Rakhine Muslim and Chittagonian Muslim designators from 
the census occurred at precisely the time that an individual’s ethnicity 
came to determine whether or not they were seen as members of the 
nation. A sizeable Muslim community on the western coast, stripped of 
its identity, was therefore compelled to seek another. This has fed a 
perception, now mainstream, that the Rohingya identity is a political 
construct, in contrast to groups like the Rakhine and Bamar, whose 
identities have supposedly remained intact across centuries.

Anti-Rohingya agitators often point to the corrosive effect British rule 
had on Buddhism as evidence of what will happen unless this alien entity 
is contained. The British, who took Burma in three stages after 1824, 
ended nearly a thousand years of unbroken monarchical rule and sidelined 
the Buddhist clergy, disdaining its central position in society and 
embittering the Buddhist population. The subsequent importation of 
hundreds of thousands of Indian workers, who rose to economically 
powerful positions, compounded fears that Buddhism was under threat. 
Indian Muslims were accused of forcing Buddhist women to convert on 
marriage, thereby diluting the Buddhist line. The Rohingya are seen as 
the latest iteration of this colonising drive, and legislation has 
accordingly been passed to mitigate its effects. In 2014, as anti-Muslim 
sentiment was growing inside Myanmar, parliament passed a set of laws – 
advocated for by ultra-nationalist monks – that required anyone who 
wished to convert to another religion to seek official permission, and 
gave local governments the power to limit the reproductive rates of 
women if they considered their region to be suffering from overpopulation.

A conviction that Rohingya are plotting to usurp the position of local 
communities, and that the Western countries providing them with aid and 
vocal support are abetting this project, has been fanned throughout the 
democratic transition by monks, activists and politicians. Monks pepper 
their entreaties to protect the faith with references to Malaysia and 
Indonesia, onetime Buddhist strongholds that have long since fallen to a 
rapacious Islam. In 2015, a popular booklet published by the monk-led 
nationalist movement Ma Ba Tha warned that non-Buddhist religions were 
‘devouring’ the cherished faith and customs of Myanmar. Should Muslim 
communities in Myanmar be empowered by the democratisation process, 
their argument goes, then Buddhism will die out, and a more violent 
society will take its place. Granting them rights would aid their 
project, so the rights must be removed. Placards, hoisted during 
protests in Rakhine State in February 2015 against allowing Rohingya to 
take part in elections, read: ‘Anyone who allows foreigners to vote is 
our enemy.’ Because the identity is a project in and of itself, all 
individuals who subscribe to it are party to that project, and are 
therefore held collectively responsible for the actions of a few within it.

In response, justifications for the killing of non-Buddhists have come 
from the monastic community’s top ranks. Sitagu Sayadaw, perhaps 
Myanmar’s best-known monk, addressed hundreds of military officers in 
November, three months after the campaign against the Rohingya began. He 
quoted the words of Buddhist clerics in Sri Lanka who two thousand years 
ago had counselled an anguished king, Dutthagamani, following his army’s 
slaughter of Hindus in battle against a Tamil ruler: ‘Don’t worry, king, 
it’s a little bit of sin. Even though you killed millions of people, 
they were only one and a half real human beings.’ In the dominant 
interpretation of the Theravada strand of Buddhism practised in Myanmar, 
intention is key when assessing the positive or negative aspects of an 
action. If the objective is to safeguard Buddhism, then the means 
required to do so must be evaluated in light of that intent. Among their 
adherents, these monks are therefore not seen to be breaking with their 
gospel of peace, but instead ensuring that the peaceful way survives.

The outside world’s view of the crisis – an aggressive military 
attacking a defenceless minority – is the reverse of the crisis as it is 
perceived inside Myanmar. The majority population sees the Rohingya as 
aggressors, and sees the military, for so long deeply derided inside the 
country, as newly welcome defenders of the nation against an 
expansionist Islamic force. Government officials have branded the 
Rohingya ‘terrorists’ or ‘terrorist sympathisers’, inserting them into 
the familiar narrative of a violent Islam. The global dimension this 
lends to what is essentially a local struggle in a remote corner of the 
country greatly exaggerates what is at stake – an entire culture, not 
just the peoples of the western coast – should Myanmar not be defended. 
The popular construal of violence as morally legitimate predictably follows.

*

Internationally, there has been as much shock at the response from Suu 
Kyi, the Nobel laureate, as there has at the military’s violence itself. 
Awards have been revoked by universities across the world. The UN’s 
Yanghee Lee has argued that she could be complicit in crimes against 
humanity. There is disbelief at her apparent break with a long-standing 
commitment to equality and non-violence. Her National League for 
Democracy party is filled with luminaries of the pro-democracy movement. 
How then could it act as it has? Explanations in most newspapers refer 
to the nature of the present political structure in Myanmar, suggesting 
that Suu Kyi, in entering a delicate power-sharing agreement with the 
military, gave up too much to it; that were she to criticise its actions 
in Rakhine State, then it could turn on her and scupper the fragile 
transition; and that because she values a democratic society above all 
else – after all, she sacrificed 15 years of her life under house arrest 
to bring about that change – she will do anything not to threaten it. 
But these arguments make a number of assumptions about the deal Suu Kyi 
struck with the military that are incompatible with a close reading of 
the dynamic between the various institutions of state. The military 
carefully choreographed the transition to ensure it would serve its 
purposes, and the seven-step Roadmap to Democracy it announced in 2003 
has been largely adhered to. Its significant economic interests are 
locked in, and it retains control of three key ministries – Home 
Affairs, Defence and Border Affairs. Suu Kyi has meanwhile become a 
lightning rod for criticism of the military, despite having no control 
over it. What interest would the generals have in upsetting the status quo?

Perhaps more glaringly, assumptions have been made about Suu Kyi 
herself, and the people she keeps around her, that don’t necessarily 
stand up. While under house arrest she wrote passionately of the need to 
break with the devious politicking of the military and the divisive 
mental state it produced in society. ‘Without a revolution of the 
spirit,’ she wrote in Freedom from Fear (1990), ‘the forces which 
produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, 
posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration.’ The 
broader pro-democracy movement had made equally spirited demands during 
its time in opposition for minority groups to be given identical rights 
in a new Myanmar, and it therefore seemed a given that the Rohingya 
would fare better once under the NLD’s stewardship. But, crucially, 
Rohingya had never been included in those calls; their plight had always 
seemed peripheral to the movement’s vision for a democratic society. 
Even among the many shows of cross-ethnic solidarity that came and went 
over the decades, Rohingya were absent. One-time supporters in the West 
have bemoaned what they see as a remarkable volte-face by Suu Kyi, with 
headlines lamenting the fall of an idol; few acknowledge that there is 
continuity in the brazen denialism her government has shown since 
Rohingya began to pour across the border into Bangladesh. As the attacks 
intensified late last year, the government began to repeat a line 
originally pushed by the military around the time of the mob violence in 
2012, that Rohingya had torched their own houses to garner international 
sympathy.

The question ‘Why all this, why now?’ has been met with similar 
confusion. Doesn’t the violence, and the rehabilitation of a deeply 
unpopular military, imperil hopes for democracy? If so, how could the 
people of Myanmar, such dogged advocates of democratic governance, 
possibly support it? But again, there’s a problem with the assumption 
behind the question. From outside Myanmar, the violence appears to 
threaten the transition, but among the majority inside the country, it 
may well be the making of it. Buddhism is not the only thing at risk in 
a modernising society; also under threat is the political standing of 
communities that see themselves as legitimate claimants to rights long 
denied to them. Should the transition bring about a true levelling of 
the playing field, enfranchising the Rohingya, then the position of 
other communities would, so the thought goes, be weakened. Since the 
annexation of their kingdom to Myanmar in the late 18th century, the 
story Rakhine tell is that their land was stolen and their culture 
corroded, first by majority Bamar rulers and then by an imposing 
colonial power. It is Rakhine who now feel most acutely the fear that a 
supposedly age-old hierarchy will be upended by peoples from the 
subcontinent. The long neglect and political marginalisation they 
suffered under the military, which left Rakhine State the least 
developed in the country, has produced a deep resentment of any group 
seen as a threat to their culture and a competitor for the scarce 
resources they claim for themselves.

The long experience of dictatorship helps illuminate why the 
democratisation period presents itself as a zero-sum game to many in 
Myanmar: political rights are not seen as a public good, available to 
all; historical experience shows they are greatly limited, and thus 
finite. As the transition has advanced, Rohingya have become more vocal 
in their demands for citizenship and access to the political sphere, but 
if their wishes were granted, the logic goes, it would undermine the 
fragile and long awaited accession of other communities. General Ne Win, 
the architect of Rohingya statelessness, had warned time and again of 
the danger of subordinate groups being empowered. ‘This is not because 
we hate them,’ he said in a 1982 speech explaining a new citizenship law 
that privileged majority Bamar Buddhists and various others as ‘full’ 
citizens and relegated many minority groups to ‘associate’ citizens. ‘If 
we were to allow them to get into positions where they can decide the 
destiny of the state and if they were to betray us we would be in 
trouble.’ The relentless peddling of that fear by the military over half 
a century means that the Rohingya’s claims to citizenship are viewed not 
merely as a device to elevate themselves to a position equal to that of 
other communities, but to usurp those positions.

But support for the targeting of an entire group, not just individuals 
within it, requires that the fear of political competition be fused with 
a more sinister outlook. The estimates by Médicins San Frontières of the 
death toll from the first month in the period of violence that began in 
August included 730 children under five. Rohingya who made it to 
Bangladesh recounted the killing of infants at close quarters by 
soldiers. Even these reports prompted no shift in public opinion inside 
Myanmar. Rakhine I interviewed in the years after the violence of 2012 
had often spoken of Rohingya as if they were a single metastasising cell 
that threatened all who shared the mountains and coastal plains of 
western Myanmar. Could the violence be indiscriminate if the entire 
group had been set up as a threat? The idea of the individual Rohingya 
as an autonomous being had long since been thrown out of the window. 
Instead, he or she was seen to be always acting in the service of their 
identity, and the moral inhibition about targeting group members en 
masse was accordingly diminished.

After busloads of Rakhine men laid waste to Rohingya neighbourhoods in 
the state capital of Sittwe in June 2012, Rakhine politicians and 
monastic groups busily circulated statements that displayed this 
inability to disaggregate individual from group. It was always ‘they’ 
that needed to be dealt with. Calls went out for Buddhists to break all 
social and economic ties with Rohingya; statements warned that ‘Bengalis 
… are now working for the extinction of the [Rakhine].’ Aid groups 
assisting Rohingya were accused of having ‘watered poisonous plants’. By 
helping Rohingya, both young and old, they were keeping alive a toxic 
presence in the state. A meeting of senior Rakhine monks in Sittwe in 
October 2012, under the banner of the All-Arakanese Monks’ Solidarity 
Conference, issued in a statement imploring Buddhists to ‘expose 
sympathisers of Bengali Kalars [a term often used disparagingly to refer 
to people of South Asian descent] as national traitors’ and to ‘spread 
the information to every township’. Four days later, mobs launched 
co-ordinated attacks on Rohingya communities across the state.

The removal of voting rights for Rohingya and the expulsion of Rohingya 
representatives from parliament before the 2015 elections laid bare the 
political machinations underway to isolate them, but the psychological 
ostracisation they underwent arguably had a more profound effect on 
their security. The acute segregation that followed the violence in 
2012, with Rohingya confined to camps, villages and ghettos, meant there 
was no scope for the sorts of interaction that might help correct the 
narrative being pushed by Rakhine politicians, monks and activists. As a 
result, an anxiety seemed to develop among Rakhine that inside the camps 
lurked a mutating threat, hidden from view. Rakhine and Rohingya stopped 
visiting one another’s villages. I have met a number of Rakhine who 
recalled that relations before 2012 were comparatively harmonious: they 
had sat in the same teashops, traded in the same marketplaces; they had 
lived alongside one another. At a stroke, those relationships were 
broken. The anxiety intensified as time went on, and reached a peak with 
the appearance of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. After its first 
attack in October 2016, an editorial published in the New Light of 
Myanmar, a state paper overseen by the civilian-run Information 
Ministry, spoke of a particular peril now facing the country, of ‘fleas 
that we greatly loathe for their stench and for sucking our blood’. When 
the military began its sweep of Rohingya villages the following summer, 
a Rakhine MP, Aung Win, warned that ‘all Bengali villages are like 
military strongholds.’

These abuses have been ongoing for years, and have been amply warned of 
by journalists and human rights investigators studying the country. But 
the Western governments that backed the transition in Myanmar, 
particularly the US and UK, indulged too much in a hope that the 
‘Rohingya problem’ was merely a bump in the road towards a more 
democratic state, rather than the catastrophe in waiting it has turned 
out to be. In December, four months into the military’s campaign, and as 
the first reports of mass graves in Rakhine State were emerging, the UK 
Foreign Affairs Committee published a report that criticised the UK’s 
myopic approach to Myanmar since the start of the transition: ‘There was 
too much focus by the UK and others in recent years on supporting the 
“democratic transition” and not enough on atrocity prevention and 
delivering tough and unwelcome messages to the Burmese government about 
the Rohingya.’

*

Western governments have lamented the military’s campaign in tones that 
suggest a deal has been reneged on, and that Suu Kyi, through her 
support for the military, has stabbed her supporters in the back. It 
would be too much to ask what exactly these governments had expected, 
for even the most seasoned observers of Myanmar have been taken aback by 
the ferocity of the violence since August and the response from the 
populace. But those who breathlessly championed the political opposition 
during the transition came to Myanmar ill-informed about the context in 
which the transition was taking place, and the degree to which the 
military had, over half a century, manipulated ethnic and religious 
identities and cultivated violent struggles over rights and belonging. 
Myanmar’s faultlines are complex and fluid, making the job of 
determining allegiances and animosities hugely difficult for outsiders. 
But once the military’s narrative had taken hold the precariousness of 
the Rohingya was obvious. The civilian mobs that had attacked them in 
2012 suffered no consequences, and neither did the authors of the 
pamphlets that called for their expulsion. All the while, Suu Kyi 
refused to be drawn on the worsening conditions for Rohingya, and like 
the military and the increasingly assertive Buddhist nationalist lobby 
that made up an important part of her constituency, she would not speak 
their name in public.

Ultimately, however, the particular focus of the diplomatic community in 
Myanmar obscured the depth of the crisis brewing in Rakhine State. 
Western governments had used the evolving political centre to guide 
their assessment of the broad health of the country, applauding the 
freeing up of the media, the newly filled parliament and the 
liberalising economy. They paid less attention to the worsening 
conditions in the periphery. The military had been testing international 
thresholds for violence throughout the transition, and publicly so, yet 
this drew only muted condemnation. Less than three months after 
parliament sat for the first time in March 2011, battalions of soldiers 
launched ferocious assaults in Kachin State in the north and Shan State 
in the east, ostensibly targeting rebel positions but in fact forcing 
the flight of tens of thousands of civilians into China. Those conflicts 
have continued throughout the past seven years. In spite of this, 
Western engagement has only deepened. Sanctions were eased bit by bit up 
to 2016, and the UK and US persisted with a programme of 
military-to-military engagement that had begun in 2013. Even after the 
military torched Rohingya villages in the wake of the first ARSA attacks 
in October 2016 and forced 66,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, Myanmar’s 
army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, was in Europe meeting defence officials.

Western engagement was coloured by a belief that a military which had 
shown a willingness to acquiesce in the formation of a civilian 
government might, with incentives, gradually withdraw further from power 
and allow a more democratic state to come into existence. But the 
transition had been designed to ensure it would always remain the 
pre-eminent political and economic institution, and that little real 
space would be ceded to a civilian ruler. Its persisting control of the 
Defence Ministry indicated that it was unwilling to come under civilian 
authority, while its self-written constitutional requirement that a 
quarter of parliamentary seats go to unelected army officers provided 
further proof that a government free of military influence had not been 
part of the plan.

Geostrategic interests provided additional incentives for Western 
governments to maintain full engagement in spite of the potential for 
reputational damage and despite the fact the military might see this as 
a green light to continue with their violence. The US, following Obama’s 
‘pivot’ to Asia and its bid to limit China’s growing global influence, 
was clear about the need to maintain good relations with Myanmar, lest 
the country slip back into the close orbit of Beijing, which had long 
been the junta’s principal patron. There is also the question of who 
else inside the country they could turn to. The uncritical view many in 
the West had of the Suu Kyi-led opposition has now been revised, but 
options for an alternative point person are limited. Suu Kyi has 
centralised what power is available to a civilian leader in her hands, 
and allowed no room for a rival. Western nations that see continued full 
engagement with the Myanmar government as necessary are therefore stuck 
with her, and with the decisions she makes.

There is now deep uncertainty over what happens next. Bangladesh will 
not want to bear the responsibility for this vast refugee population for 
long. Food prices in the area surrounding the Rohingya camp doubled 
within weeks of the August influx, triggering tensions between the local 
Bangladeshi population and the refugees. The Myanmar government has 
built a ‘reception camp’ to house thirty thousand refugees who may one 
day opt to return, and pictures that have emerged from the site show an 
expansive barrack-like compound surrounded by barbed wire near the 
border. Government officials have confirmed that new security force 
bases are being built on the sites of razed Rohingya villages. Rakhine 
Buddhists from elsewhere in the state are being incentivised to resettle 
in newly built model villages in the north, lured by the offer of free 
housing. Some 300,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State, the majority 
confined to their villages in the north or the internment camps in the 
south. Since August, aid organisations have reported mounting 
difficulties in obtaining permits to distribute supplies to Rohingya 
camps and villages across Rakhine State, and levels of assistance were 
reduced to the bare minimum. Rohingya who have continued to cross into 
Bangladesh, or leave on boats to Malaysia, long after the military wound 
down operations in late November are not fleeing violence, but have 
effectively been starved out of the country. Indirect assaults on the 
systems designed to keep a community alive are harder to detect from 
afar, but they are as effective in driving out a population as direct 
physical attacks.

The sequence of events that precipitated the mass killing and expulsion 
of Rohingya were misunderstood, when they weren’t ignored. This matters 
in relation not only to what has already happened, but what can still 
happen. What was already a lethal dynamic in Rakhine State has 
dramatically worsened over the last year. Militias composed of Rakhine 
civilians, armed and trained by the police and the military and located 
across the blighted north of the state, have been formed. Not only does 
this give Rakhine official endorsement for violent mobilisation, it 
signals that the government is willing to defer the policing of 
communities to civilian mobs already radicalised by violence and by the 
provocation of nationalist elites, and who can help in the future to 
deliver campaigns of state violence against Rohingya. If ARSA militants 
attack again – and they may well – the military’s response will again 
reach far beyond their hideouts and into the Rohingya villages that remain.

There will be no retroactive remedy for what’s been done in Myanmar. The 
conversation will now move on, as it always does, to the lessons that 
can be learned for similar events in the future, elsewhere in the world. 
But there is something more to gain from a deeper understanding of the 
processes that have created an enabling environment for ethnic 
cleansing, if not genocide, in a country undergoing rapid change. 
Violence of this nature mutates over time. The military’s strategy in 
Rakhine State has evolved over the years, and it may continue to as the 
transition brings new political and societal pressures. We have seen the 
shift from the structural violence of the camps and the ghettos to the 
physical efforts to cleanse the population. We have seen it sanctioned 
by various pillars of authority, civilian and religious, and a poisonous 
antipathy has accordingly entered the mainstream. It would be wrong to 
assume that the refugee camp that now spreads across the cleared 
hillsides of south-eastern Bangladesh is where the story of the Rohingya 
ends.



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