WASHINGTON—As I read the stories about the Burman military’s horrific campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, I can’t help but think of an autobiography I read not long ago by my friend Sao Sanda, whose father, Sao Shwe Thaike, served as the first president of the Union of Burma after World War II. It is a riveting account of what it was like to belong to one of the 135 ethnic minority groups living under the rule of Myanmar’s ethnic Burmans since World War II. There were two passages that came to mind immediately.
“Since the early 1950s,” Sao writes of the Shan people, who live on the eastern border that Myanmar shares with China, “the Shan States had come under military administration, and villagers suffered rape, torture, and general bad behavior from officers and soldiers alike. (Nobody) could alleviate the suffering of (our) people.” Later, she adds: “From the very beginning the Burman army’s aim has been pointedly to subdue non-Burmans. It claims that its persistent rallying cry of ‘One blood, one voice, one command’ is a call for unity within a one nation state. To the army, Myanmar … is to be peopled only by the Burmans. To this end the soldiers make sure that wherever they are, villagers recognize this slogan and comply. One risks one’s life to say one is anything other than a Burman.”
All of that bad behavior was supposed to be in the past. But it’s not. It never went anywhere. With all of the global coverage on the plight of the 480,000 Rohingya forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh today, much of the press attention has focused on what’s been called the “surprising” reaction of Nobel Peace Prize recipient and de-facto Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. But here’s the big picture we’re all missing in Myanmar: this country isn’t anywhere close to being a real democracy with civilian rule.
The generals that ruled for five decades may have traded their uniforms for business suits in 2011, and they may have allowed a few parliamentary elections to go forward. But civilians are not in charge here. Not when the constitution gives the military a mandated 25 percent block in a Parliament where a 75 percent vote is required to pass any real change. Not when the army maintains full autonomy over the country’s ethnic border territories at a time when the army has a huge financial stake in exploiting that land. Not when daily atrocities are still being committed by Burman soldiers to ethnic minorities in the places that Western investors and cameras never travel.
The sad truth is that even if civilians were in charge, those civilians would be ethnic Burmans who wouldn’t likely have any more interest in quelling the violence than the military.
Don’t just take my word for it. Colonel Tim Heinemann has seen it first-hand. A former U.S. Special Forces commander who led a battalion of Green Berets in Bosnia and served as Dean of Academics at the Army War College, Colonel Heinemann has worked as a volunteer advisor to ethnic minorities in Myanmar since 2004. He has seen been a witness to what the Burman military has done and continues to do in those remote border areas.
“The Rohingya crisis exposes Burmese generals as unaccountable criminals who are guilty of decades of crimes against humanity,” Heinemann tells me in an email from somewhere on the country’s border. “The world is now seeing what is still happening here: Burmese generals who dominate the country have attained false international legitimacy while perpetuating their militarized mafia to prey upon landed ethnic minorities, as they have done for decades.”
The reasons, he argues, are simple: “This is because minorities sit on top of most of Burma’s natural resources, hydro power potential, and international trade routes,” Heinemann says. “It doesn’t matter that ethnic minorities have protected these ancestral lands for up to three millennia. This is a militarized campaign of blood-for-profit, a classic Blood Diamond scenario.”
Much recent analysis has focused on the fact that the Rohingya are ethnic Muslims in a country that is 95 percent Buddhist, and that the Burmese military fears that Rakhine State could become a staging ground for Islamic terrorism. The attack on military outposts in late August by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant Muslim group which spurred the current military crackdown, was seen as a validation of that fear. But that analysis misses a larger point: the persecution of the Rohingya is a high-profile example of what is happening in the border regions every day.
“The Thai-Burma Border Consortium has identified 400,000 internally displaced ethnic villagers burned out of over 3,600 villages in Southeast Burma alone,” Heinemann tells me. “The present fixation on the Rohingya crisis, while understandable, is an example of the U.S. being enticed by the overt and emotional, while not fathoming the depths of what really is in play at strategic levels. It is what it is: a purpose-driven terror campaign against people the Burman army regards as less than human.”
In the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, the world may be once again starting to learn its lesson. Since the crisis began, she has blamed an “iceberg of misinformation,” for the crisis, defended the violence as a response to “brutal acts of terrorism,” and made only passing reference to the “allegations and counter-allegations” of human rights violations. Many have expressed the sentiment shared by Mark Farmaner, the Director of the Burma Campaign UK, who recently asserted that “no one knows for sure why she has taken this attitude toward the Rohingya.”
Actually, long-time readers of this space know that I’ve written about this many times: in her three decades as a high-profile global figure, she has barely uttered a word about the military’s persecution of ethnic minorities – even though, as Heinemann says, “ethnics inhabit 70 percent of Burma’s land area and likely make up more than 70 percent of the population.” The problem with “the Lady,” as she’s known, is that she doesn’t embody the cause of Burman nationalism, but the cause of Burman ethnicity. She believes that anybody who’s not an ethnic Burman has no real rights, voice, vote, or role in the country’s future.
Suu Kyi’s recent comments aren’t just consistent with her convictions, but with recent trends in Burmese politics. Her party does not appear to have much sympathy for ethnic minorities, either – and neither do opposition parties, which have also expressed support for the military’s campaign in Rakhine State.
Besides, neither Suu Kyi nor the opposition parties have any power to stop it anyway. The man responsible for directing the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya is the commander-in-chief of the army, Min Aung Hlaing – who, despite running an army that also has direct constitutional control of the police, security services, prisons, border affairs, and most of the civil service, has rarely received much attention in media articles. But he does get praised: In a face-to-face meeting with the commander last spring, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly “praised the army for its commitment to the successful holding of free and fair elections last year, describing the achievement as historic.” Last fall, Min Aung Hlaing was even invited to meet with European military heads, where he was feted on a VIP tour that included meetings with arms manufacturers – even though, as Farmaner points out, the EU bans the sale of arms to Burma.
So, what can the U.S. do? Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to share Heinemann’s full email on Myanmar – entitled “22 Fatal Assumptions for the USA and 17 Actions the US should immediately take.” But we can start by partnering with an unlikely ally: China.
We spend a lot of time these days arguing that the U.S. and China need to bring North Korea and its increasingly dangerous nuclear threat in line. But the opportunity is just as great in Myanmar. According to Heinemann, “China now is seeking out Americans in the region and asking them for their ideas on how to bring peace and stability to Burma” – an opportunity we should embrace because, among other things, “the ever-at-hand Chinese are also adept at enticing ethnics, many of whom now feel abandoned by the far-away USA.”
Myanmar’s economy remains dependent on both countries to attract investment and humanitarian aid. The US and China could exert significant leverage by partnering together on a program of targeted sanctions. It could agree to lift those sanctions in exchange for reforms focused on bringing the military under civilian control. To build more robust institutions, both countries could also use investment guarantees as an added incentive to push for political reforms that would enfranchise ethnic minorities. The result would be a Myanmar that is more stable while moving closer to real civilian rule in a functioning democracy.
In her book, “The Moon Princess,” Sao Sanda writes that she first felt the urge to write about her father’s life and legacy in 1962, when the military first officially took over Burma through a coup. Yet, it took her nearly 50 years to finally publish her autobiography. It was well worth the wait. Hopefully, the same will be said one day about democracy in Myanmar.