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Myanmar and Rohingya Muslims- Looking Back to 2017

As tensions continue to rise in Myanmar following the military coup, this article looks at the treatment of the Rohingya people. While the article was written in 2017, in gives an insight into Myanmar's politics and the nations mistreatment of Rohingya's.

Photo Credit: https://www.latestlaws.com/articles/rohingya-s-ordeal-ethnic-cleansing-or-genocide/

Shocking scenes have emerged from Myanmar in the last few weeks, with the nation’s security forces killing and injuring hundreds of protestors who stand in opposition to Min Aung Hlaing’s military coup (Guardian 2021, Independent, 2021). Further, a devastating fire at a refugee camp in Rakhine State has left tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims without shelter, reawakening the trauma that the Rohingya’s suffered at the hand of the Myanmar military in 2017 (Mahmud 2021). The following article was written in 2017 and investigates the persecution of the Rohingya people, focusing on the acts of the government and the resulting economic impacts. While things have changed a lot since 2017, particularly in light of the recent military coup which overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, the article helps to shed light on what has happened in Myanmar’s recent history.

The Rohingya’s and Myanmar

Myanmar is an emerging economy in South East Asia with a population of approximately 54 million people (Countrymeters, 2016). The main religion of Myanmar is Buddhism, however there are also Muslim minorities, namely the Rohingya which make up around 1 million of Myanmar’s total population.

The Rohingya people, based in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, have faced violence and persecution throughout their history. However, such violence has escalated in recent years, where numerous attacks against the Rohingya people have resulted in many being killed and thousands displaced to protection camps. In this way the situation has been equated to a system of ethnic cleansing, putting the Rohingya people at risk of genocide (Ibrahim, 2015). The inefficiency and actions of the Myanmar government and its institutions can be put at the very heart of the issue.

The Myanmar government’s discrimination against the Rohingya people can be evidenced by the maintenance of the 1982 Citizenship Law which maintains that ‘the Rohingya are foreigners residing in Burmese territory’ (Grieboski, 2016). This act means that the Rohingya are not recognised citizens of Myanmar and, as a result, do not possess basic social and political rights. In addition to this, Myanmar has failed to achieve full democracy, despite recent open and free elections. This is because the military continues to hold a large amount of power over the running of the government. For instance, under the new ‘democratic’ constitution, the head of the Myanmar army is given full autonomy in the choosing of defence and home ministers, whilst the police and security services also remain out of the control of government (Farmaner, 2015). This means that military and police services can act without constraint, and in this way, can act to forward the interests of the generals. This unconstrained power has enabled the military and security services to operate unchallenged, with Myanmar’s forces ignoring attacks made on Rohingya people by Buddhist nationalists, or attacking and killing Rohingya people themselves (BBC, 2014). This racist sentiment has not only been evidenced by the military, but also by the actions of the recently elected president, Aung San Suu Kyi, who, ‘despite her stated commitment to human rights, has repeatedly refused to condemn the persecution of the Rohingya minority’ (Grieboski, 2016). In these ways, the government of Myanmar and its subsidiary institutions have shown themselves to be inefficient, purposefully discriminating against Muslim minorities and preventing them from contributing to the economy.

The discrimination towards the Muslim minority in Myanmar has stunted their economic development in several ways. Firstly, the fact that Rohingya's are not granted citizenship to Myanmar means that they are often denied access to education, with younger children facing overcrowded schools and older students being completely banned from the only university in Rakhine State (Carroll, 2014). This in turn means that the Rohingya population suffers from illiteracy and a low level of education, generating a low skilled workforce. As a result, the region is unlikely to see inward investment since the poor quality of human capital will only serve to repel potential investors, thus reducing economic development.

Secondly, the government has overlooked boycotts against Muslim-owned construction companies, led by Buddhist groups who fear that as a result of FDI, ‘Muslims businesses’ status will be elevated from small-medium scale to be on par with the elite Buddhist construction executives’ (Masood, 2013). In this way, the government has chosen to ignore the needs of Muslim businesses to instead favour the Buddhist majority. As a direct result, investment has fallen and the Muslim businesses in Myanmar have found it difficult to develop. These boycotts serve only to lower economic development through lower inward investment and lower commerce.

Further, a large proportion of the Rohingya people, who are often fisherman or farmers, are confined to protective camps or secluded villages cut off from the surrounding areas (Economist, 2015). In the case of camps, this means that many thousands of workers are unable to work and, as a result, do not contribute any output to the economy. Similarly, those Rohingya's restricted to their villages have seen large falls in their income and face severely limited opportunities to cultivate business and trade. This low level of productivity contributes to the lack of trade within Rakhine State, keeping the region in a state of poverty.

The marginalisation of the Rohingya's by the Myanmar government also means that Myanmar faces weaker political relationships on the global stage, which in turn has impacts on the nation’s ability to trade with other nations. For example, Myanmar has the potential to reap great rewards from participating in economic initiatives with their South-East Asian neighbours, offering benefits such as ‘greater market access for goods and services, investment in infrastructure development, energy cooperation and higher connectivity’ (Khatun, 2016). However, such initiatives require a stable political setting, and this is not achievable whilst violence and terror continue in Rakhine State.

Myanmar’s Institutions

Myanmar’s institutional inefficiencies persist mainly due to political, historical and religious tensions. In a historical sense, the people’s identity in Rakhine State has been formed around a ‘feeling of being besieged by Muslim kingdoms’ (Walton, 2013). This, in turn, has created a feeling of discontent towards Islam in the region, fuelling conflict between Buddhists and Muslims. On a national scale, there have been Buddhist national uprisings that have reinforced anti-Islamic sentiments. This was exemplified by the rise of the 969 national Buddhist movement which presents the idea that Myanmar is being taken over by Islam and that Buddhists must act to maintain their ways of life(Thompson, 2013). The views of the 969 movement have in turn been strongly adopted by the Bamar people who make up approximately two-thirds of Myanmar’s population (Coclanis, 2013). It is therefore clear that within Myanmar, there are religious and political tensions residing in the population, with the majority Buddhist groups demonstrating a lack of acceptance and trust towards the Muslim minorities, presenting themselves as racially superior. This anti-Islamic rhetoric instilled within the masses is extended into the Myanmar military, where the actions of the army have been to persecute the Rohingya's.

Aaun San Suu Kyi has been criticised for indifference to the fate of Rohingya Muslims (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/aung-san-suu-kyi-burma-s-once-saintly-leader-cannot-hide-her-flaws-any-more-fs8bd3dnz)

In turn, these historical and religious factors give rise to political issues that ensure the persistence of violence and discrimination towards the Rohingya's. Firstly, the fact that the majority of the population are Buddhist means that political powers act in a way that represents the popular view to gain votes. In this way, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is known for her work in human rights, fears alienating the electorate of Buddhist voters and thus maintains the anti-Islamic rhetoric to maintain her popularity and power (Horton, 2013). However, on a more important level is the fact that the Myanmar military still holds a lot of power over the nation. In this way, President Suu Kyi has to be careful in accusing the military of persecution and setting up investigations into the Rohingya crisis because she knows that it could destroy relations with the army, and in turn, the stability of her government (BBC, 2016e). This means that the army, because of their high degree of power, continues to dominate the political realm in Myanmar, suppressing the democratic system to pursue an ideology of Myanmar first. This, therefore, means that the popular view of Muslims and the constitutional rights given to the military ensure the persistence of discrimination against Rohingya people.

How can Myanmar move forward?

Any attempt to break the political deadlock would involve a change in the deep-lying negative sentiment towards the Rohingya and Muslim minorities in general. For instance, community schemes could be created to ensure interaction between Buddhists and the Rohingya people. By doing this, the Rohingya people could strengthen their bonds with the Buddhist majority, building trust and eliminating the uncertainty that lies behind Buddhist nationalist rhetoric. Similarly, education would need to be overthrown to build up a new system whereby people in Myanmar are taught about equality and the truths of their society. This would serve to reduce future prejudices against the Rohingya people from Buddhist communities, providing better social cohesion and enabling the Rohingya's to integrate within Myanmar society. Essentially, education must be given to change the views and opinions of Buddhists in Myanmar to ensure that the Muslim minorities are not treated unfairly and, in turn, are granted full citizenship to Myanmar.

There is also a need to move towards a fully democratic system, leaving behind the nation’s military past. In this way, the political power would lay with the head of state and the president, allowing for a movement towards peace and the granting of rights to the Rohingya people. This would however require the military to renounce their powers. In this way, the generals of the military would need to be incentivised or compensated for giving up the powers that they hold and allowing the democratic system to take full control of the nation. This could include promoting the economic benefits of democracy as the military generals already renounced some of their powers to create the basis for a democratic system in Myanmar- this was because the generals saw the need for economic reform to catch up with their South Asian neighbours (Lewis, 2016).


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