Myanmar-Burma, Rohingya (the Muslim people) & Rakhine State (the area where they live)

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

I’ve just been at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar. I put a lot of thought into it before I went, assorted people told me I should not be going, that by turning up I was ignoring the ethnic cleansing or even genocide going on in the Rakhine area, the western corner of Myanmar where it rubs up against the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh.

I certainly had a distinct feeling of déjà vu, for a spell early this century I got so much flack about even mentioning the country, and postcards like this appeared so regularly in my mailbox, that in 2001 I travelled around the country purely to see for myself if a tourism boycott was a good idea. On that trip I was accompanied by Ron Gluckman, a journalist from Asiaweek, a now defunct Hong Kong-based news magazine. I didn’t think a boycott was a good idea, visitors could ensure their expenditure went into local pockets at ground level. Just because the military had (and still does) a lot of business influence didn’t mean that your visit had to support them.

Back then I was admonished that visiting Myanmar meant I was not supporting Aung San Suu Kyi. How things change, now I was being told not to go because visiting Myanmar would support Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Rohingya are Muslim people living in Rakhine State. They are not the only Islamic people in Myanmar, Yangon has over 100 mosques and Muslims are found in many parts of the country. So are other religions, Christians are a key constituent of some of the other minority populations on the border areas in conflict with the central government. What is unique about the Rohingya is the resentment they have generated. There have been a number of attacks on the Rohingya even before the 2017 onslaught which has driven more than a half a million Rohingya into Bangladesh. Many Burmese insist that the Rohingya are recent arrivals, intruders from Bangladesh. They refuse to even recognize them as Rohingya, insisting that they are ‘Bengalis.’ Well some Rohingya may be recent arrivals, but a great many are 2nd, 3rd or even more generation residents. At one time the Burmese government insisted they were welcome to stay so long as they could prove their ancestors had been in the country since 1823.

The Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay was far more than just wishy-washy ‘literature.’ Numerous sessions focused on the situation in Rakhine State, either trying to agree what was happening there or discussing what should be done. As well as the literary festival in Mandalay I met with aid workers and the historian (and grandson of UN Secretary-General U Thant) Myint Thant-U in Yangon and I visited the new capital (absurd new capital) Nay Pyi Taw.

  • Do boycotts work – in his book Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, Myint Thant-U wrote that during the sanctions period ‘Western politicians have been happy to view Burma as a simple morality play and a useful issue on which to appear ‘tough’ on human rights. The actual consequences of a policy that has long failed to deliver results are not important.’
  • Are tourists likely to encounter trouble? Highly unlikely since the government has stopped even journalists, human rights observers and aid workers from getting in to the troubled region. Even in Rakhine State the principal places a visitor might get to – transport hub Sittwe and the ‘little Bagan’ archaeological site Mrauk U – are in the south of the state, the trouble is in the north. Delphine Schrank, author of The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance in Burma when she was reporting from Myanmar for the Washington Post, had managed to get permission to enter Rakhine State and was heading straight there after her appearance at the festival.
  • Information and misinformation – yes the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police stations, but the Myanmar military response has been totally disproportionate. You don’t kill women and children, burn villages down and drive half a million people into a neighbouring country because of attacks from a ragtag bunch of ‘terrorists.’
  • But did the military really do that? Yes if we believe the half a million refugees and look at the satellite photographs of the region showing huge numbers of burnt-out villages. No according to many Burmese, sadly ‘denial’ seems to be a popular word in Myanmar at the moment. There are lots of people who insist that Rohingya (if such a people exist) are not being driven out of Myanmar, they are merely ‘emigrating’ to Bangladesh, the term used in a report in The Global New Light of Myanmar. And those burnt out villages? Well the Rohingya did it themselves to generate international sympathy.
  • Does the general population really dislike the Rohingya so much? Sadly for many Burmese, though by no means all, that seems to be true as well. The accusation that they’ve recently flooded in from Bangladesh and that they’re trying to outbreed respectable Buddhists are both bandied around. Myanmar has, however, bred outspoken monks, somewhat equivalent to US Bible-thumping televangelists. Some of them specialize in Islamophobia, the Mandalay monk Ashin Wirathu has been described as a ‘Burmese bin Laden’ and in Time Magazine as the ‘face of Buddhist terror’ The Venerable U Nyanissara, aka The Sitagu Sayadaw, has also been accused of pushing intolerance. Matthew Walton, talking on Buddhism & Politics at the festival, reported on a speech he had made to the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army) on 30 October underlining that intolerance.
  • Unfortunately Facebook seems to be involved as well. Facebook has huge penetration in Myanmar and as in other countries it can be a focus for harmful ‘fake news.’
  • There’s a great deal of disappointment in the west that Aung San Suu Kyi has not spoken out more forcefully. We’ve heard a lot of platitudes from a lot of people and it’s difficult to be a saint in the real world.

So should visitors be avoiding Myanmar? Not for their own safety, one of the stupidest statements I heard at the festival was from a well-respected Myanmar writer insisting that he’d just spoken to a foreign visitor who was surprised she hadn’t heard gunfire in the streets of Yangon, because that was what she’d read in the western press. It’s absurd and I asked him which western media had made that assertion. Of course he had no idea. Nevertheless, although you’ll not read misinformation like that in The New York Times or The Guardian, you will indeed get a very different story from western media than the one you will hear from local media (or Facebook) in Myanmar. Perhaps that’s a very good reason for visitors to continue to visit Myanmar. To underline that we know a very different truth about what is going on with the Rohingya people in Rakhine State.