My interest in Myanmar goes back to the 1950s when the country was called Burma. I first visited it in 1967 but did not begin focusing on it as a scholar until 2007. For the past ten years, it has been my primary policy research project at Brookings. I’ve made about 20 trips from my home in Washington, DC to Myanmar since then and have written many op-eds, research papers, and reports on the country.
Whenever I speak to a group about Myanmar, however, one of the first things I say is that if you don’t speak the Burmese language you don’t know what’s going on in this country and you can’t know. And I don’t speak Burmese. So take the words that follow with a grain of salt. They are just my best guess.
I have been asked to write about “genocide and violence that has plagued Myanmar.” I’m not an expert on genocide, but I don’t see anything in Myanmar’s post-independence (in 1948) history that looks like an attempt by the government to exterminate by death any group of people living within the country’s borders.
What I do see is a pattern of violence by the Buddhist ethnic Bamar majority (at least 60 percent of the population), with the armed forces (Tatmadaw) as its instrument, to forcibly assimilate or subjugate most if not all of the ethnic minority groups, or drive them out into neighboring countries. No other country in the world today is experiencing a civil war that has continued without interruption for this long – 70 years.
The Rohingya ethnic minority accounts for only about 1 million of the residents of Myanmar recorded in the 2014 census out of a total population of 52 million. If all other ethnic minorities represent 20 percent of the population (the share could be as high as 40 percent), it means that the Tatmadaw has mistreated roughly 10 million non-Rohingya people, for decades. There is even a 2 million-strong Buddhist minority group living in Rakhine State – home of the Rohingya – that believes it is being mistreated by the Bamar majority and is supporting an armed group fighting against the Tatmadaw.
While the mistreatment of the Rohingya may not amount to genocide, from all the evidence I’ve seen the “anti-terrorist” campaign launched by the Tatmadaw last August – in reaction to attacks by a small and lightly armed Rohingya force – did amount to “ethnic cleansing” by inducing the flight of more than 600,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh. And the reports of horrendous human rights abuses are credible.
Having sketched out this essential context in which the Rohingya crisis is playing out, I can now address the matter of Aung San Suu Kyi’s “silence.”
The fact of the matter is that she has not been silent. She has repeatedly said two things: violence by any group against another group is wrong, and “the rule of law” should apply to everyone living in Myanmar.
She has stopped short of condemning the Tatmadaw for its operations against the Rohingya (and other ethnic minorities) for two simple reasons. First, she has no control over the Tatmadaw. She became the civilian leader of the government under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution that makes the armed forces independent of the civilian-led government. She has had no more success in ending the civil war with the ethnic minorities in the borderlands with India, China, and Thailand than she has with ending violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
Second, she is the unchallenged leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) that won 80 percent of the parliamentary seats contested in the 2015 election (25 percent of the seats in each house of Parliament are reserved for the Tatmadaw). The vast majority of voters who elected her, it appears, believe that the Rohingya are intruders from Bangladesh who are threatening the existence of Myanmar’s Buddhist culture and should never be allowed to return to Myanmar territory.
I could be wrong, but I agree with other scholars who believe that Daw Suu will lose the support of the Tatmadaw and most of the people who voted for her party if she openly condemns the Tatmadaw for its actions and advocates granting Myanmar citizenship to the Rohingya. Not just lose their support: she would be forced to resign.
For these reasons, many experts consider the Rohingya problem to be intractable. There will be no solution in the near term because the Tatmadaw, with substantial popular support, will not allow them to return and enjoy the freedoms and rights of Myanmar citizenship. But also because the international community has neither the will nor the ability to create by force a “safe zone” for the Rohingya within Myanmar’s borders. In this respect, the plight of the Rohingya is not so different from that of people fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other parts of the world.
Perhaps the best hope for the Rohingya in the long run is that Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to persuade the Tatmadaw to stop fighting the other ethnic minorities, end the civil war, and begin seriously to raise the whole country economically to middle-income status as leaders of the other East Asian countries have been able to do. At that point, the country might tolerate the return of the Rohingya on terms consistent with basic human rights.