Given the five decades it spent as one of the most repressive countries in recent history, it’s hard to imagine that Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was once considered an empire. But 190 years ago this past March, after the Burmese Empire conquered two large Bengali territories across its western border and undertook a series of raids into British-held lands, the British Empire had had enough. British India launched a counter-insurgency that would drag on for two years and take thousands of lives. With some of the heaviest fighting concentrated in Islamic border communities, thousands of Muslims were forced to flee, eventually settling along frontier areas in India and Myanmar.
The Muslim families driven into Burma as a result of Burmese aggression — known as Rohingya Muslims — never left, despite being persecuted ever since. A grisly modern chapter began in 2012, when the alleged rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in western Rakhine State led to mob violence that took the lives of hundreds of Rohingya over the next two years and saw 135,000 Rohingya held in squalid camps for their own “safety.” Seemingly oblivious to global concerns sparked by the persecution of this Muslim ethnic minority, the Myanmar government last week announced a repulsive new policy: All Rohingya must prove that their families have lived in Myanmar for at least six decades. For those we cannot, the penalty is either a refugee camp or deportation. For those we can, the prize is second-class citizenship, but with a catch: They must first renounce the term “Rohingya” and agree to be classified as a “Bengali.” It’s little wonder that more than 100,000 Rohingya have reportedly escaped Myanmar the past two years.
Coming on the eve of President Barack Obama’s trip to Myanmar this week for the East Asia Summit, the new policy set off a round of stories about how the country was backsliding on democracy and human rights just two years after it held parliamentary elections and began to open itself up to the world. But when it comes to the way that the ethnic Burman majority treats the 135 different ethnic minorities that make up roughly 40 percent of Myanmar’s population, “backsliding” is not the right word — because that would presume that progress has been made in the first place. In Myanmar today, the new war is the same as the old.
In reality, the brutal civil war that has raged since 1948 between many of Myanmar’s ethnic groups and the ethnic Burman military — a war that has left 600,000 dead and a million homeless — continues to rage deep in the jungle where most journalists don’t travel. One journalist who did was freelance reporter Aung Kyaw Naing. While covering the fighting between the army and ethnic Karen rebels along Myanmar’s southeastern border a few months ago, Naing was captured and murdered by the Burmese military, which accused him of acting as an “insurgent communications officer” for the Karen rebels. He was left to rot in the jungle.
Naing’s death received global attention. But receiving far less attention in recent years were the 7,800 acres seized from ethnic minorities to build a Chinese-financed copper mine. Or the 15-year-old ethnic Kachin girl who was reportedly gang-raped by government troops. Or the one ethnic killed, five wounded, and 1,000 ethnic Shan villagers forced to flee their homes this past June after the Burman army, according to one report, left “temples, vehicles, houses and other properties destroyed… and farmers’ crops set on fire.”
Just this week, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic released the results of a four-year investigation that found that “the Myanmar military committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2005-2006” and that those responsible “continue to serve at the highest levels of the country’s government.” In areas presumed to have ethnic minorities hostile to the Burman majority, one former soldier recalled being told to “do whatever you want” — which included “mortar attacks on villages, the destruction of civilian property, ‘shoot-on-sight’ incidents, and the placing of land mines in locations that indicate a clear intent to cause civilian casualties.”
The findings echo the conclusions of similar study by the Karen Human Rights Group, which found thousands of incidents of “abuse, destruction of property, pollution, theft, and confiscation of land” in southern Myanmar from 2011 to 2012 — six years after the focus period of the Harvard report.
The continuing atrocity isn’t just what the military is doing outside the law, but what the government is doing within the law. The Rohingya are a good example of the institutional dehumanization of ethnic minorities at work in Myanmar today. But the discrimination isn’t limited to the Rohingya: The largely Christian inhabitants of Chin State, for instance, can’t build their own churches or attend college within Myanmar.
There is a reason why ethnic minorities were excluded from the referendum that produced the 2008 constitution — a constitution that gives few if any of the rights of citizenship to minorities, while mandating central government control over all ethnic lands. In a country where the most lucrative trade routes and natural resources — from rubber to jade and timber — rest along the border areas where ethnic minorities live, the constitution itself is designed to keep ethnic minorities indefinitely subservient. Since the very military that benefits most from the illegal sale of natural resources also has a constitutionally-mandated 25 percent of parliamentary seats — and since it requires greater than 75 percent approval to change the constitution — the system locks in place a vicious cycle in which the same army that has tormented ethnic minorities for more than half a century are also their judge and jury.
It is, by any definition, a slow-motion ethnic apartheid in the making — one that Western nations, eager to tap into a market of more than 50 million potential consumers, tacitly endorse every day they remain silent.
This week, as President Obama participates for a second time in his tenure in meetings in Myanmar, the U.S. and its Western allies should use every bit of leverage in their power — working through its allies in the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, for which Myanmar is the current chair — to focus on three necessary changes.
First, Western leaders should insist that the Myanmar constitution be changed to represent all citizens of Myanmar, and not just the 60 percent who are ethnically Burman. Western leaders should make clear that any future Western aid, development and business investment — as well as any future trade agreements between the U.S., the EU and ASEAN — will rest in part on equal rights for all ethnic tribes. The last thing Western businesses want is to be perceived as supporting a new apartheid for the 21st century.
Second, the West should insist that Myanmar recognize land rights, including the ancestral land of ethnic minorities. For Western investors who have are already shying away from investing in large swaths of Myanmar for fear of having their investments and property stolen out from under them, it will help ensure that Myanmar is a place worth investing their time and resources — both of which are crucial to Myanmar’s future growth.
Third, the West should accelerate its military-to-military ties with Myanmar — including both ethnic Burman and ethnic minority leaders. For decades, Western sanctions meant that China and Russia were the only role models for Myanmar’s military leaders. With the Obama Administration already committed to rebuilding ties, fast-tracking their exposure to Western ideals and democratic leadership can only help move Myanmar’s military in the right direction.
In the end, the country is called Myanmar, not Burma. Every single time we in the West insist on calling it Burma, as many publications and governments still do, it simply reinforces the notion that the only people who count in that southeastern Asian nation are the six in 10 who are ethnic Burmans. It’s long past time for the world to also stand up for the four in 10 who are not.