In recent weeks, the international corporate media has acutely focused on the Rohingya crisis and has propagated condemnations of Myanmar’s leader, Aung Saan Suu Ky. Yet, it remains silent on the decades long plight of the Palestinians, the Eelam Tamils of Sri Lanka, and the suffering of the Yemeni people who are being subject to the genocidal U.S.-backed Saudi war.
For this reason, the ethnic conflict in Myanmar must be understood in the context of geo-political and geo-strategic interests of U.S. imperialism in its attempt to counter the growing influence of China and Russia in Southeast Asia.
More than 420,000 Rohingya, primarily Muslims, have fled Myanmar to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh since the end of August. Bangladesh was already harboring over 400,000 Rohingyas who had fled due to earlier ethnic violence and genocidal persecution by the Buddhist majority-Myanmar state since before the 1970s (1). Make-shift refugee camps are sprawling in Southern Bangladesh and aid organizations are scrambling to accommodate survival needs of the recent influx population.
The refugee camps in Bangladesh are more akin to internment camps. There have been recorded incidents of camps being demolished by Bangladeshi authorities, as well as several incidents of refugees being deported back. Shuffled back and forth between the two nations, the Rohingya are in limbo (2).
The most recent spur of state violence against the Rohingya followed an offensive by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants against the Myanmar State’s security forces at a camp that left nine policemen dead. In response to the attack, State forces launched a security “clearance” operation that indiscriminately targeted the Rohingya civilian population accusing them of harboring ties with ARSA (3). Hundreds of Rohingya were targeted, many killed, in the State’s “counter-insurgency” operation, and hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes with the force of violence (4). Earlier this week, Myanmar’s de facto leader, Auug San Suu Kyi, released a statement about the Rohingya crisis in which she failed to even mention the Rohingya, but sympathizes with other affected communities in Rakhine state (5).
Who are the Rohingya?
The Myanmar government continues to uphold the narrative of the Rohingya being “illegal immigrants” native to modern-day Bangladesh and hence not native to Myanmar. This is, however, a false narrative that is promoted both by the State and the Buddhist nationalists to justify the decades-long oppression of the Rohingya.
Historians maintain that the Rohingya’s established presence in the Northern Arakan (present-day Rakhine state) can be traced back to earlier than the 12th century. The Rohingya were also a part of the independent Mrauk U (Mrohuang) Kingdom (6). Fast-forward to British colonial rule (1824-1948) when there was a significant migration of laborers to then Burma from South Asia. The British administered Burma as a province of India, and the migration was considered internal movement.
The Myanmar government holds that the migration that took place during colonial rule was illegal. The indigenous Rohingya are conflated with “illegal Bangla migrants,” and it is on this basis that the Rohingya are denied citizenship under the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law. The Rohingya are excluded from the country’s 135 official ethnic groups, and the Rohingya language is not recognized among the other national languages (1).
Over one million Rohingya have fled Myanmar, primarily to what is now Bangladesh, in different periods, notably in 1948, 1978, 1991, and most recently since 2012 (6). Their illegal status restricts their freedom of movement, and denies them voting rights. The Rohingya cannot hold public office positions, or have political representation. This lack of political rights and self-determination has effectively relegated them to ghetto-like living conditions as well as a lack of basic services, opportunities, or integration into the greater fabric of Myanmarese society.
Buddhist nationalism and chauvinism
Buddhist nationalism and religious tensions in Myanmar existed prior to British colonial rule in 1948. The modern Myanmar state is constituted by a coalition of Buddhist ethnic groups, but is dominated by the Bamar, and since its independence from the British has been fashioned in the image of a Theravada Buddhist state. Theravada Buddhism is the oldest form as well as the dominant school of Buddhism practiced in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. The Bamar chauvinist nature of Myanmarese nationalism is also evident with the post-independence ‘Bumiputra’ movements of the Buddhist chauvinists who forcefully uprooted hundreds of thousands of Tamils in Burma in the 1950’s by framing them as illegal migrants that were planted by the British despite the historic presence of maritime and mercantile Tamil communities in Burma (7).
In relationship to Myanmar, it is no coincidence that Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka. The intricate connection of the Myanmar state to Theravada Buddhism and nationalism can be compared to the development of the Sinhala Buddhist character of the imperialist-comprador unitary state of Sri Lanka, which carried out the genocide of the generationally oppressed Eelam Tamils in 2009. In both Myanmar and Sri Lanka, the Theravada Buddhist ruling-class leads the ethno-nationalist project using the formation of a unitary state. Similar to the decades long struggle of the Tamil people for self-determination, Rohingya groups for decades fought under different banners for more autonomy in Rakhine.
In recent years, The Patriotic Association of Myanmar, also known as Ma Ba Tha, founded in 2013, a Buddhist nationalist organization, successfully backed the passage of four race and religion laws that attempted to implement population control methods, forbid polygamy, and put restrictions on religious conversion and interfaith marriage (8). These laws are widely perceived as discriminatory towards Muslims. The current ruling party in Myanmar, the NLD, out of fear of being branded a “pro-Muslim” party, decided to not field a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 elections (9).
Ma Ba Tha is connected to the larger 969 Movement, a nationalist movement that is opposed to what is perceived as Islam’s expansion in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. A leading figure in the movement is U Wirathu, who was jailed for nine years for inciting anti-Muslim violence in 2003. It takes inspiration from the English Defence League (10). Unsurprisingly, Wirathu has traveled to Sri Lanka to speak at a conference organized by the Sinhala Buddhist right-wing group, Bodu Bala Sena. The 969 group was behind the violent riots that saw intense clashes between Buddhist monks and Muslims that left 40 people dead in the city of Meiktila in 2013 (11).
There has been a longstanding fear of Islamic cultures encroaching on Myanmar and threatening a national identity that is centered around Buddhism. Turning the victims into perpetrators, the violence of the past five years is spun as being largely perpetuated by the Rohingya on the Rakhine Buddhists. But the Rakhine Buddhists have long held prejudiced narratives that imply the Muslim Rohingya are parasitical for taking up land and overburdening resources. It is these unbased fears that sparked the violence in 2012 when hundreds of Muslims were killed, and tens of thousands of Rohingya were driven from their homes in attacks by Rakhine Buddhists (12).
Recently, on September 21, hundreds of Buddhists in Rakhine tried to stop a boat loaded with 50 tons of aid to be sent to displaced Rohingyas (13). It was reported that Buddhist protesters showed up carrying metal bars and threw petrol bombs, and had to be dispersed by 200 police forces.
The development of the modern Myanmar state
In 1962, the Burma Socialist Programme Party came to power via a military coup d’etat and sought to follow a “Burmese way to socialism,” through economic independence from foreign domination using an economic policy of autarky or economic self-sufficiency. Although influenced by Marxist principles, the Party was Buddhist nationalist in character. The new government nationalized all private businesses and hospitals. It implemented a new system of public education and free healthcare as well as land reforms in the favor of peasants (14).
However, these benefits did not extend to all, as the religious differences and ethnic alliances remained in place. The Rohingya being an “illegal” people without citizenship were denied constitutional rights and reduced to the status of a stateless people.
The Union Revolutionary Council was the governing body until 1974, after which a single-party system was established in accordance with the 1974 constitution. Then in 1988, a nationwide referendum gave way to a multi-party system (15). In the same year, there were western-backed “pro-democracy” student protests in Burma, much like the Tiananmen Square protests in neighboring China in 1989, except in Burma, they were successful.
In 2008, a new constitution was drafted after another referendum that guarantees 25 percent of the seats in parliament for unelected military representatives. Following this, in 2010, multi-party elections were held and a political transition through reforms began with the election of President Thein Sein. The leading opposition party, National League for Democracy, won a majority in the 2012 by-elections, and won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections.
It should be noted that the U.S. government and U.S. NGO’s have spent millions on “democracy promotion” in Myanmar, specifically funding the National League of Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. This was done to spur “economic development” in Myanmar to push for a new neoliberal government in Myanmar, one that would dance to the whim of U.S. imperialism and allow for the penetration of foreign capital. Between 2012 and 2014, the Obama administration pumped $375 million to Myanmar towards this cause (16).
Aung San Suu Kyi
The hyper-focused condemnations of the global corporate media on Nobel Peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi goes well beyond artificial moral outrage.
Since 2012, the NLD, under the leadership of Suu Kyi, has ensured better contracts for U.S. and western companies, like Shell Oil and Conoco Phillips (17). This was the role assigned to Suu Kyi by the United States, and she initially played her part well, and was lauded for leading Myanmar into the arms of western “democracy.” She was the neoliberal Nobel Peace Prize darling of the West, and best represented the interests of Myanmar’s capitalist class. However, since formally assuming the role of foreign minister of Myanmar in addition to her role as State Counselor in 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi visited Beijing twice (18). In 2016, she skipped an invitation from Washington to attend a conclave of Southeast Asian foreign ministers organized by Secretary of State, Tillerson. This year, Suu Kyi once again met with President Xi Jingping in Biejing to boost diplomatic and economic ties between the two countries (19). Suu Kyi’s consistency in forging diplomatic relationships with China has the United States second-guessing the competency of their chosen leader for Myanmar. The Rohingya crisis presented itself as the perfect gateway for the United States to condemn the military elements in the government, who are seen to have influenced her and are limiting the NLD from forging stronger relations with the West.
While the U.S. hopes to see Myanmar turn hostile to bordering China, Suu Kyi’s attraction to China must not be mistaken for progressive nationalism or as a shift away from neoliberalism. Given that China and Russia are growing in influence and are able to provide an alternative route for economic development without exploitative preconditions, both neoliberal and anti-imperialist governments across the world are favoring trade partnerships with China and Russia over the United States, whose hegemony is being challenged. It is not unsurprising that Myanmar would want to develop positive ties with the strongest power in the region, and would find China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative attractive.
On the other hand, there is speculation that the military generals of the remnant government, who are a dominant force in the parliament, as well as the Buddhist nationalists, are seeking to force Suu Kyi to defend the Rohingya, (who are unpopular among the majority,) thereby weakening her appeal (20).
The brutal military crackdown of the Rohingya civilians following the offensive attack by ARSA last month could also be in the service of skewing the popularity of Suu Kyi in the upcoming elections. Aung San Suu Kyi is seen to be on track to winning the upcoming elections, although the by-elections earlier this year showed loss of support from ethnic minorities as a result of the violence in Rakhine since 2012 (21). The displacement of the Rohingya population from Rakhine through the use of state violence works towards creating “stability” and “peace” for the other ethnic minorities and hence could boost support for Suu Kyi by sectarian groups.
Following the Chinese revolution and the founding of the People’s Republic in China, formal diplomatic relations were established between China and Burma on the basis of a treaty of friendship and non-aggression (22). Anti-Chinese riots in 1967, followed by the expulsion of Chinese communities from Burma, generated hostility between the two nations, but relations again normalized in the 1970s. Deng Xiaoping originally pulled away from Burma, but the relationship once again strengthened in 1988 with a major trade agreement. This made a world of difference as Burma faced isolation internationally with economic sanctions following the state repression of “pro-democracy” aka pro-capitalism student protests.
However, after the 2011 shift towards neoliberalism, and the opening up of Myanmar’s market for western investment, Myanmar started to shift away from China. In 2011, the $3.6 billion Myitsone hydropower project in which a Chinese state-owned company had major stakes was suspended (23). Although the project is still on hold, its resumption was made top priority when Aung San Suu Kyi’s met with Chinese leaders in Beijing in 2016, marking a shift in Myanmar’s preferred economic and diplomatic partnerships since the reforms in 2011.
Wikileaks documents have indicated that the U.S. embassy in Yangon had provided funding to groups opposed to the power project (23). The suspension of the Myitsone in September of 2011, followed by Hillary Clinton’s visit to Yangon in November, and Obama’s visit the following year, are no coincidences, but rather a confirmation of the United States’ attempts to make Myanmar a strategic client state in the region to counter China’s influence. The Japan-India partnership’s interest in investing in Myanmar and ports along the Indian Ocean is also aimed at countering China’s growing economic and political influence (24).
China has openly condemned the violent attacks in Rakhine state, while also stating that it supports the Myanmar government’s efforts to safeguard the peace and stability of Rakhine state as well as the efforts made by the nation to maintain national development (25). China’s position on the Rohingya crisis emphasizes stability. In defense of their own interests, the Chinese are pushing for a peace process because the violence disrupts China’s trade. Siding with minority ethnic groups would isolate China from the NLD government at a time when trade relations have been recuperating. In the past, China tacitly supported some of the ethnic rebel armies within the Northern Alliance, such as the Kokang and the Kachin. When trade relations turned sour in 2011 with the “reformed” Myanmar state and once again stabilized in 2016 under Suu Kyi’s NLD, China realizes the fragile nature of the alliance. China is prioritizing good relations with the NLD over support for minority ethnic groups to keep bordering Myanmar from slipping into the arms of the West and risking direct U.S. military presence at the borders of China (26).
Primary accumulation and ethnic cleansing
Primary accumulation is the process through which populations are displaced and dispossessed without any subsequent incorporation into waged work. Often times, development takes root with the seizure of land for infrastructure and resource extraction along with deforestation projects. A land grab is easiest to do with people who already are denied citizenship or political rights. Such populations are seen as disposable and are most vulnerable to the effects of primary accumulation when already facing historical national oppression.
This was evident when the Myanmar state broke a 17-year cease-fire agreement with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 2012, and began an extensive military campaign to destroy the movement and occupy the Kachin territory. Reports pointed this to being coordinated with foreign investment projects aimed at exploiting natural resources (27).
China emphasizes the peace process between the varying armed groups and the Myanmar state because Chinese-built pipelines that carry oil and natural gas from the Bay of Bengal to Southern China run through the Western state of Rakhine. A Chinese state-owned corporation has high stakes in a project that is in negotiations to build a $7.3 billion deep-sea port at Kyaupkpu, a port town in Rakhine, which would give China access to the Indian Ocean (28).
Since 2011, U.S., British, Australian and British major oil companies have been given contracts by the Myanmar state (29). Many of these contracts, especially those involving Chevron, Ophir, Woodside, and Eni are projects in the Rakhine basin, just off the coast of the Rakhine State from where local Rohingya Muslims are being isolated and erased.
The recent military campaigns aimed at ethnically cleansing territories also function to clear the land for development through displacement and structural genocide. The Myanmar state is pursuing a military solution to the Rohingya question, as well as to the other national questions rampant in several parts of Myanmar, to clear the land for corporate exploitation of natural resources.
The Rohingya “insurgents”
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), formerly known as the al-Yaqeen Faith Movement, which was founded in 2012 in response to the communal violence, is designated as a “terrorist group” by the Myanmar government. The organization demands an independent democratic Muslim state for Rohingya. The group has released a statement in 2017 in which it vowed an obligation to “defend, salvage, and protect the Rohingya community” and said it would do so “with our best capacities as we have the legitimate right under international law to defend ourselves in line with the principle of self-defense” (30).
The statement goes on to state: “We […] declare loud and clear that our defensive attacks have only been aimed at the oppressive Burmese regime in accordance with international norms and principles until our demands are fulfilled.” The group has not notably engaged in attacks on the civilian Buddhist population in Rakhine. It is unclear whether the group has the popular support of the Rohingya masses. Twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia lead the group’s operations in Rakhine, while a committee of 20 senior Rohingya emigres oversees the group (31).
On September 9, the group declared a month-long unilateral ceasefire in Rakhine to enable aid groups to address the military’s actions on the Rohingya civilians (32).
While ARSA has stated that it does not associate with any terrorist group across the world, groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent have referred to the plight of the Rohingya in their material, and the group has been implicated with links to international jihadist groups (31). In the absence of a truly progressive international body or support from international left movements to aid an armed resistance force that lacks the guerrilla sophistication to defeat state forces, it is possible that extremist Islamic groups are stepping in to fill the vacuum. Organizations bound to extremist ideologies might be arming and funding ARSA towards their own ends. Until recently, the decades long struggle of the Rohingya against national oppression remained largely unheard of in the international arena.
U.S. game plan for Myanmar
Although limited military to military engagement with Myanmar was explored under Obama, formal assistance to Myanmar’s military is still illegal in the U.S., which includes the sale of U.S. military equipment as well as the participation in the U.S. International Military Education and Training program. Unsurprisingly, Israel, a strong ally of the United States, has continuously been selling arms to Myanmar’s military (33).
The U.S. was set to expand its direct military ties with Myanmar using the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), allowing for full normalization of ties between the militaries of the U.S. and Myanmar (34). This would’ve enabled the U.S. to have the same level of military engagement with Myanmar as it does with the Philippines. This would be the stepping-stone to the U.S. establishing a military base in Myanmar, which would end China’s hopes for its own naval base in the nation.
However, with the strengthening of ties between the NLD and China since 2016, the U.S. is using the recent Rohingya crisis to further its own imperialist interests. At this time, the U.S. congress is deliberating targeted sanctions against military leaders in the Myanmar government as well as pulling back on NDAA thereby limiting U.S. ties with Myanmar’s military (34). The violence of the Myanmar security forces is being condemned by the United States under the guise of humanitarian concern, while Suu Kyi’s NLD is left uncriticized. This reveals an attempt by the United States to punish and purge the bourgeois nationalist military elements within the Myanmar government that are seen to be the influencing force behind Suu Kyi strengthening ties with China. This would consequently strengthen Aung San Suu Kyi’s position and the NLD’s dominance within the government, thereby shifting the current back towards the West and away from China.
Which way forward for Myanmar?
To maintain its independence and self-determination, and not become a puppet state in the service of U.S. imperialism, the Myanmar state must address the national question of the Rohingya, not using a military approach, but rather by recognizing them as a native population. Citizenship, rights to ancestral lands and political autonomy are non-negotiable. By promoting a military solution to the question of national oppression, and killing Rohingya civilians indiscriminately, the genocidal nature of the violence can only breed further resistance from the oppressed nation, with more Rohingya youth joining the armed resistance. Naturally, such a resistance is justified.
As has been the case in many instances in the past, the United States will use the tragedy of genocide imposed on an oppressed people to its own geo-strategic advantage. In the midst of the struggle between world powers, the U.S.-led imperialist pole versus the emerging Russia-China pole, it is ultimately the wretched of the earth that will pay the price if their struggle is abandoned. The disgusting opportunism of CNN-like mainstream media to both increase its ratings and advance the imperialist agenda in the face of human tragedy is apparent when it cries, “The Rohingya are being ethnically cleansed: Why won’t the world take action?” when the United States dropped over 26,000 bombs on seven oppressed nations in 2016 with impunity. Progressives and revolutionaries must seek to understand the Rohingya struggle for statehood on their ancestral land in its historical context as a struggle for self-determination by a people facing national oppression by the Buddhist unitary Myanmar state.