The historical backdrop
Southeast Asia's Myanmar, (historically, Burma), bordered by Bangladesh, China, India, Laos and Thailand, is an overwhelmingly Buddhist country in which close to 90% of its population are Theravadda Buddhists. Of these, nearly three-fourths are ethnically "Bamar" or Burman. It is these Bamar who have overwhelmingly dominated Myanmar's political, military, and religious institutions for the last half century. During British Colonial rule of India, Burma became a province of India, nested within the British Bengal Presidency administrative unit.
The Rakhine state, of which Arakan is a composite component, has had historically close political, religious and socio-cultural links and interlocutions with Bengal that date back to the 8th century" when Islam was first introduced here by sea-faring travelers and traders who set up ports and settlements along the Rakhine coast. The Arakanese were animists before Brahminism, Buddhism and Islam shaped their beliefs. Burmese ports along Arakanese coast rapidly became a transshipment hub for trading ships from Persian Gulf to China. Many Arabs, Persians and Indian Muslim traders who settled in these ports in Arakan married local women, forming the original nucleus of Muslims. The British, after their colonization of India and Burma also, through socio-economic engineering as integral part of colonization for economic exploitation, transported laborers from Bengal to Arakan province for agricultural and resource extraction. During their Colonial rule period, the British firmly managed and controlled relationships between the much smaller Rohingya Muslims who called themselves "Rohingya" and other communities. During WW-II, Rohingyas remained loyal to the British while the Buddhist Burmans largely sided with Japan. Arakan became increasingly conflict-ridden since Japanese occupation of Arakan in 1942, with communal clashes often breaking out between original Buddhist inhabitants and Rakhine Muslims. The Rohingyas identify themselves as the native settlers of Myanmar from the 7th century with birth rights in the state, who were illegally stripped of their nationality rights under the draconian 1982 Citizenship Law, when the then military ruler Ne Win stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship. An interesting facet of the history of this troubled region is that prior to the departure of British colonial rulers from India and the region, the Arakan Muslim leadership of pre-Independent Burma had expressed their desire to be incorporated as a part of Bengal in an Independent India - a suggestion that apparently received short shrift from not just the British rulers but also Mr. Jinnah.
The Rohingyas issue therefore has clearly historical foundation. The modern-day conflict, however, perhaps was fueled more by contestation for extractive rights over resources, exacerbated by the majority-minority (Bamar-non-Bamar) and religious (Buddhists-Muslim) factors. The Rohingyas categorically reject the official Myanmar narrative that describes them as illegal migrants and raise the countercharge that they are being persecuted on account of their linguistic, religious and cultural traits rooted in history. The military regime that took total control over newly independent Myanmar subsequently used the twin forces of religious and majoritarian nationalism to tighten its grip on the state and use the glue of repression to hold it tenuously together.
Myanmar's long history of troubled relations with its ethnic minorities
The Bamar-Rohingya ethnic conflict is not the only ethnic strife that plagues today's Myanmar. Since independence, multiple ethnic groups have been fighting the State and other groups in Myanmar. Primary among them are the state's conflict with the Kachins, the Shans and the Mons. All these groups, while each relatively small in numbers as compared to the majority Burmans, occupy large areas of Myanmarese territory located along sensitive areas situated along Myanmar's international borders with neighbouring states. At the heart of these several, simultaneously raging conflicts, are fundamental issues of self-determination flowing from deeply set grievances over allocation of resources, denial of fundamental rights, and brutalizing repression by the Army (the Tatmadaw).
In 1947, at an effort at unification and national reconciliation, the Panglong Agreement was signed with General Aung San (Suu Kyi's father) leading the Burman nationalists and the various ethnic leaders. However, the Central government was weak, and problems broke out almost immediately following Aung San's assassination soon after independence in 1948. The. Minority groups pushed increasingly relentlessly for autonomy within a loose federalism that was construed by the increasingly military-dominated center as being anti-national, anti-unity and pursuing disintegration. This polarization led to the military coup of 1962, when General Ne Win seized power from the earlier constitutionally elected government of U Nu. The Military (Tatmadaw) consolidated power and held the state in their iron grip thereafter, despite several "elections" being held under their watch and strictly controlled parameters defined by them. Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of General Aung San) led the movement for democracy that led to her prolonged incarceration between 1989-2010. In recognition of her struggle, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1911 while continuing to remain under relentless house arrest. Following some loosening up at the center on account of increasing international pressure and growing domestic pressure, the Military somewhat reluctantly held Myanmar's first openly contested elections in 2015 resulting in the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD), but the Army nevertheless retained control over the levers of power. Soon after, perhaps realizing that there was need to seek national reconciliation that her late father had initiated, her Army-dominated government signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight insurgent groups on October 15, 2015, and with two more joining in on February 13, 2018. However, this Agreement failed to revive trust among the signatory parties. Suu Kyi's victory in 2015, with hindsight today, may be viewed perhaps as a pyrrhic victory at best, with the Tatmadaw maintaining a vice-like grip on all levers of power and severely constricting Aung San Suu Kyi's own ability to act independently or go against the grain of the military's rigid and oppressive agenda. Within this constraining rubric, if she harbored any desire for seeking reconciliation or settling grievances, she was certainly extremely constrained with her own personal safety, personal freedom and flexibility to govern effectively and mediate internecine conflicts limited, if not nil.
The Rakhine Muslims or Rohingya have been the worst affected by the Army's ethnic cleansing and scorched earth policies and actions, resulting in their fleeing in large numbers to Bangladesh. While a steady trickle had been there for long after the 1962 coup, the largest numbers came in three successive waves, the first in 1978, then the second in early 1990s; but the most recent (and most serious and largest by far) in 2017 in the wake of the severe retaliatory sweep by the army following alleged ARSA attacks in August 2017 that had resulted in casualties to the military and government-allied elements in the region. Despite a November 23, 2017 MOU between Bangladesh and Myanmar, prospects of return of the nearly over 100,000 refugees in Bangladesh returning to their homes in Myanmar appear bleak.
Although Rohingya were given voting rights in Myanmar's 2010 elections, with the promise of citizenship if they voted for the military regime's representatives, their citizenship was not restored. They have, instead, been coerced into forced labour with their lands confiscated by the Myanmar Army, their freedom of movement severely restricted. Marriage within their community without prior official approval, is forbidden and marriage licenses are issued with pre-condition that the couple can bear only two children. They lack access to health care, food, and education and are subject to forced labor and travel restrictions.
Efforts at amelioration - half-hearted or ineffective
In 2016, in a bid to defuse the situation, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counselor of Myanmar (or virtual "Prime Minister") in collaboration with the Kofi Annan Foundation had set up an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, comprising domestic and international members, and appointed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to head it - a move that lent it considerable inherent legitimacy internationally. The final report issued in Yangon by Kofi Annan himself on August 24, 2017, while recognizing the formidable historical and political obstacles to improving conditions for all in the Rakhine State, recommended a review of the 1982 Citizenship Law which in its implementation denied citizenship status and basic human rights to the Rohingyas of Rakhine State, and called for the Rakhine Muslims to be granted freedom of movement, access to political rights, social services , education and livelihood assistance. While Aug San Suu Kyi seemingly welcomed the final recommendations of the Kofi Annan report and even assured the setting out of a roadmap for implementation of measures spelt out in it, the military in contradiction and response, in a statement by the Commander-in-Chief decried the report asserting that it was full of factual errors and reflected an unfair attitude.
In the meantime, the situation for return to any semblance of normalcy is rendered virtually impossible by the rise of an increasingly militant nationalist Buddhist movement that advocates that annihilation of Muslims who, they allege, constitute an existential threat to their own faith. Their propaganda regurgitates myths and folklore that advocate that killing of non-Buddhists is justified to preserve the purity of their own Theravadda Buddhism, and feeds on fears of Muslim hordes invading Myanmar from across its western borders. This has resonated, to some extent, with Buddhists elsewhere in Southeast Asia, fears that may have been the main reason for the reluctance of ASEAN as a body (some of whom have had to deal with their own history of Muslim-militancy) playing a muted role. Institutionally, ASEAN also shied away from any collective display of outright condemnation of Myanmar's internal situation. Internationally, all attempts at criticism or even sanctions failed to move the military dominated regime in Myanmar. Sanctions imposed were ineffective, at best, since Myanmar has been for long developed a thick armor against such measures. International organizations and development agencies also face their own respective dilemmas.
Mynamar's fellow ASEAN neighbours, also beset with their own share of problems spilling across their respective borders from Myanmar's singular inability to deal in pacifying its ethnic communities internally, have little or very modest ability, at best, to influence their fellow ASEAN member. They have their own potpourri of very restive ethnic minorities, and therefore have shied away from doing anything that could undermine their own domestic situations or exacerbate them, as have great powers who have competing strategic interests coming into conflict in Myanmar.
China and India, as major powers who are immediate neighbours of Myanmar with large borders with the country, would ideally be the best parties to exercise meaningful influence, but both are wrestling with their own sizeable Muslim minorities on whom they are both cracking down hard, and they both have their competing strategic interests clashing palpably in Myanmar. China has its own deeply vested interest in the exploitation of resources that are abundantly to be found in Rakhine state, apart from the state's integral position in providing easy and fast access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean from Kunming in China's Yunnan province. China has reportedly signed a contract with Myanmar over a year ago to build a road connecting Kunming to Sittwe on the Arakan Coast, and a deep seaport just below Sittwe. They are therefore very likely to view India's nearby project as inimical to their own interest. India also has for long been interested in building a road connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand as part of its look East- Act East operationalizing efforts. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina very recently expressed to her Indian counterpart at a virtual summit of her country's interest in joining this initiative. Incidentally, India had approached Bangladesh in 2005 to join this initiative but Bangladesh had rejected it at that time, along with also opting out of the then-proposed India-Bangladesh-Myanmar gas pipeline proposal - both knee-jerk and singularly short-sighted reactions as would appear with hindsight, that flowed from the domestic and regional politics of those times.
Bangladesh's historical instinct and policies shun taking side exclusively with either of the two current competing trans-regional narratives against the other, but rather use elements of both to further its own visionary developmental objectives in the context of its own national interest and regional goals. This explains Bangladesh's advocating equally for apparently competing initiatives like the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor and the Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Thailand (BIMT) highway, as well as projecting itself as a hub of multi-modal connectivity, located as it is at the apex of the Bay of Bengal that bridges the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Simply stated, Bangladesh offers itself as a friendly but neutral space friendly to both narratives, giving a chance for both to be complementary rather than engaging in a hostile zero-sum contestation that will benefit few in the region and perhaps hurt all.
The Parliamentary elections of 2020 and after
Against the internal backdrop described above, Parliamentary elections were held in Myanmar again in November 2020. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) competed with various smaller parties, including the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), as well as parties and individuals allied with specific ethnic minorities also running for office. Suu Kyi's NLD won a landslide victory, winning absolute (even over-whelming) majorities in both houses of Parliament, garnering 396 out of 476 elected seats. Local and international observers declared that the elections were largely free and fair, and even the election commission, in response to allegations by the USDP and some others, announced that irregularities were too few and minor to have affected the outcome of the election. The biggest losers in this election were the USDP and its military backers.
With these elections, hope was kindled at home and abroad (and not least in Bangladesh) that perhaps one would witness now major changes in policy focusing on national reconciliation and resolution of long-festering issues. In Bangladesh, there was guarded optimism that finally the over a million Rohingya refugees who had sought shelter in Bangladesh would now be able to return to their hearth and home in Myanmar in safety and security, and the bilateral talks and the mechanism put in place by the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar appeared to indicate some forward movement in early 2021.
Then, on February 1, 2021, the Military struck back. It seized control of the state, accused the NLD of engaging in massive rigging, declared the election results as null and void, and imprisoned Suu Kyi indefinitely. They also announced that fresh elections would be held after a year (presumably under their watchful and restrictive eyes and control). The world has reacted with sharp criticism of these developments and actions by the Myanmar military junta.
So, what triggered this coup? Does this indicate that Suu Kyi and her party were perhaps moving, quietly and slowly towards a mellowing of the hitherto very harsh and oppressive rhetoric and policies against all minorities, that had not merely prevented national reconciliation but also triggered the Rohingya-centered regional crisis with international implications (including Suu Kyi's own fall into international opprobrium and disgrace)? Would her landslide victory now finally have enabled her to tilt the balance, meaningfully address the issue and set things right, so to say?
There has been widespread unrest and protest against the coup within Myanmar itself since immediately after the coup. Despite the military's brutal crack-down on these protests, news of continuing pro-democracy and anti-military demonstration continues to filter out, despite draconian media (including social-media platforms) blackout measures. Allegations of corruption of monumental proportions at highest military levels have surfaced in international media. The continuation, even if sporadic, of outbursts of public anger certainly indicate widespread support for democracy among the general populace. Does the military's failure to quell protests totally indicate cracks within the hitherto monolithic power center that was the Tatmadaw? Is it a generational divergence of views, pitting older against younger generation or autocratic forces against pro-people forces? Or are these indications of other contending forces, regional or global, overt or not so visible, at work - is Myanmar becoming the "Berlin" in a new Cold War configuration emerging on the global stage, shaped by the competing narratives of the Indo-Pacific and BRI narratives. One has even been tempted to look at the similarities of the global and internal situations that had defined and shaped the dynamics in East Pakistan-Bangladesh in 1970-71, or the situation in post-Liberation Bangladesh of 1990, compare those with what is unfolding in Myanmar today, and wonder at where it will lead.
Outlook for the future?
The crisis, within and without Myanmar is far from over. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the coup, a complicated situation has become more complex, difficult and even dangerous. Domestic resources for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as well as the hitherto commendably generous assistance by International donors and foreign governments, international NGOs and Development Assistance agencies are progressively going to be hard hit by the multifarious consequences to the global economy flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic. How such progressively shrinking source of funding will translate into the so-far commendable efforts to tenuously maintain a modicum of security and stability not just within the refugee camps in Bangladesh, but also on its likely spillover effects should current efforts falter, is full of uncertainty. The dangerous effects of refugee problems, if left unresolved for too long, on host communities and their external destabilizing spill-over effects are already too well documented from experiences elsewhere to ignore.
The current state of limbo of the Rohingya refugees makes it a potentially very dangerous and highly explosive powder keg. Some solution needs to be improvised urgently before the situation reaches a point of no-return. And now, internal events in Myanmar and prospects of a long and drawn-out internal infighting could also draw in external forces not necessarily to douse but further stoke the flames more dangerously. That would not bode well, for any of Myanmar's neighbours or the world at large.
Ambassador (Retd.) Tariq A. Karim is the Director of the Centre for Bay of Bengal Studies at Independent University, Bangladesh. He was a Distinguished International Executive in Residence at the University of Maryland. He is now also Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation.
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