The images are disturbing, the stories startling. The military of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and many of its civilians stand accused of committing mass murder, rape, and expulsion of the Rohingya people. Since 2016, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. The western media does a valiant job at portraying the current plight of the Rohingya, but it misses several key aspects of the conflict — namely, the history of Buddhism and Islam in Myanmar, Britain’s colonial legacy, and the connection between Rohingya militants and jihadist extremism.
The Rohingya people are concentrated in the state of Rakhine, adjacent to Bangladesh. They are mostly Muslim, while the vast majority of Burmese are Buddhist. The Rohingya language is related to Bengali, the national language of Bangladesh. While most Burmese have a southeast Asian appearance, the Rohingya look Indian. Thus they are culturally, religiously, linguistically, and racially different from most Burmese. While some have been living in what is now Burma for centuries, most Rohingya arrived in the 19th century under British rule.
Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 and emerged as a democracy, yet the Rohingya were denied citizenship and experienced discrimination. The Burmese government does not recognize the term “Rohingya” and insists on referring to them as “Bengalis.” After independence, Rohingya militants fought to break their region away from the rest of Burma to form an independent Muslim state, or to join East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). They eventually surrendered to the Burmese military, which had taken control of the country in a coup in 1962.
In the late 1980s, a pro-democracy activist named Aun Sang Suu Kyi created her own political party. She was soon placed under house arrest. In the country’s 1990 elections, her party won a landslide victory. The military subsequently nullified the results and kept her under house arrest almost continuously for two decades. As her fame spread both at home and abroad, the military found it increasingly difficult to deny her freedom while still holding on to its power. As the international outcry increased, the military finally released her in 2010. The military junta that had ruled Burma for more than a generation was disbanded in 2011. In the 2015 elections, her party again triumphed, making her the de facto leader of her country.
The free world lionized her as the indefatigable champion of her people’s freedom, much in the same vein as fellow political prisoner turned leader Nelson Mandela.
This leads to the seeming contradiction that perplexes Suu Kyi’s admirers around the world: How can a human rights champion turn a blind eye to ethnic cleansing?
From the perspective of Myanmar’s government, including Suu Kyi, there is no contradiction. Their narrative is that the military is attempting to quash a violent insurgency. The current conflagration began in October 2016, when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked Burmese police officers. ARSA is a militant Rohingya group whose leader grew up in Saudi Arabia and received training in guerilla warfare from the Pakistani Taliban. As in most civilian insurgencies, the government is unable to distinguish fighters from peaceful civilians, so the Burmese military has responded with a massive crackdown that targets all Rohingya. The Burmese government calls ARSA a terrorist group, while ARSA claims that it is defending the Rohingya from Buddhist attacks.
There are over 100 languages spoken in Myanmar, but the vast majority of Burmese are Buddhists, and this is virtually the only thread that unites most of the population. To be Buddhist is to have a place in the society, and to be non-Buddhist is to be a foreigner, persona non grata. Buddhist monks are among the most virulent anti-Muslim voices in the country.
The sad truth is that most Buddhists in Myanmar despise the Rohingya. They refer to them as Bengalis, which implies that they do not belong in Myanmar. Al-Qaeda has announced its support for ARSA, which has only intensified the Buddhist narrative that Muslims are a security risk to the country.
What the media misses is that both sides identify as the victim, which leads them to justify any and all measures. Any attempt to resolve this conflict must take into account both sides’ concerns and historical narratives.
By Jonathan Praff
Jonathan Praff is a news analyst, Middle East scholar, and translator. His work is posted at jonathanpraff.com.