Myanmar: another turn of the screw

José María Arraiza, Independent Scholar
/ 8 mins read

Every morning we ask ourselves whether this is real or just a fantasy. The Covid-19 crisis has confined most of us in Europe to our homes, limiting us to endless Netflix shows, online yoga, improvised concerts by our neighbours and anxious children asking how long it is going to last. It is tough, of course. Especially for those who’ve lost their loved ones or are caring for sick relatives during this time of crisis. And the post-lockdown economic and social crisis that will follow will have a profound impact on all of our lives for years to come. But one of the many questions we need to ask now is what will a convalescent, inward-looking Europe do when it emerges from the pandemic? Will it respect its traditions of respect for human rights or will it turn its back on refugees escaping both persecution and the pandemic?  

Welcome to Rakhine State 

Now, imagine you live in a village where an administrative travel authorisation (and/or a bribe) is needed to travel outside it (failure to abide may land you in a hot and humid prison), where getting work is almost impossible, where if you get sick you cannot go to a hospital because you are seen as an inferior race, and where many of your friends and family have fled to crammed refugee camps across the border to escape persecution – often jumping from a frying pan into the fire.

You cannot communicate with them or receive information because of a government internet lockdown. Your children are at risk of malnutrition. Your village is prone to flooding. Dengue and a variety of gastro-intestinal diseases are highly common during the rainy season. International assistance is systematically held hostage: NGOs are administratively bullied into submission through the threat of travel restrictions. Add a civil war between a secessionist armed group and the army is raging with civilians systematically caught up in the fighting. Now, add the worst global pandemic in a century: welcome to Rakhine State (Myanmar). 

Perhaps this makes it easier to understand why some people jump on crammed boats, get scammed by criminal trafficking gangs and end up doing anything they can to come to safety in Europe. Last week, 500 persons landed in Bangladesh after two horrific months at sea. More than 60 people died after the boat was denied entry by Malaysian authorities. It is nothing more than sheer will to survive, and to give their children a dignified life they were denied.

The transition that did not happen

When I traveled to Northern Rakhine in 2016 I thought I had experienced the most extreme situations. I had previously seen people living in caged streets in Hebron, Serbian enclaves guarded by tanks in the postwar Kosovo, remote mountain villages in East Timor where people died of a tooth infection due to the lack of health provision. 

What I could not imagine was a persecution so extreme as to willfully deny the members of a group the “right to have rights” - the right to a nationality. I remember sitting on a wooden floor with a group of displaced Rohingya. An old man showing me, indignant, his identification documents and asking me why he and his family were not recognized as citizens of Myanmar. From the corner of the room, a group of niqab veiled women looked at us with deep, immense, sadness. Their husbands had been jailed with long sentences, accused of participating in the violent riots in 2012. They faced double discrimination: by the Burmese State and by the strict Islamic rules of their own community.

Nobody is safe

I was hopeful, then. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) had just won the elections and a wave of positive change was expected. Everything would get better. I could not be more wrong (as was probably the whole international community, as described by Thant Myint U). The apartheid in Rakhine State intensified, and in 2017 a “clearance operation” in response to an attack by a vicious, newly formed “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army” displaced more than 740.000 persons to Bangladesh, raising accusations of crimes against humanity and genocide against the Burmese state and its leaders.

The situation of the remaining Rohingya (and that of their ethnic Rakhine and other neighbours) would then worsen by the escalation of civil war between the Arakan National Army and the Burmese Army (the Tatmadaw) from February 2019 onwards. Since then, the conflict has displaced tenths of thousands of ethnic Rakhine and other groups. The Rohingya are not the only victims: members of the Rakhine, Bamar, Chin, Kaman, Mro, Daingnet, Thet, Maramagyi or other ethnicities; animists, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Christian believers… nobody is safe. Then in early 2020, Covid-19 made every displacement camp a potential coronavirus tinderbox.

The nativist roots of Myanmar’s persecution of minorities

But where did these nightmarish scenarios originate? A clear culprit are the Burmese citizenship policies in place since the regime of General Ne Win (1962-1988), with its infamous 1982 Citizenship Law. However, the roots of the problem are deeper and lay within the contradictions and tensions underlying the creation of an independent Burma in 1948. The main tension was between the nationalist ideal of one state, one language and one religion versus a federal multi-ethnic state. Integrating diversity meant both empowering the non-dominant ethnic groups and integrating the descendants of colonial workers, soldiers and other groups linked to the British regime.

The early Burmese nationalist, inspired by Sinn Fein, the Indian National Congress, Sun Yat Sen, European and Japanese fascism and a syncretic variety of anti-imperialist movements, imagined a Burma which would be primarily Buddhist and ethnically Bamar. However, the territory of colonial Burma included many other groups: Karen, Karenni and the Mon in the Southeast, the Kachin and Shan in the Northeast and the Rakhine in the Northwest, to name but some. Moreover, the then Rangoon and other cities had a large population of persons of Indian and Chinese descent. The new Burma had to incorporate such diversity to survive.

Tensions in the making of modern Burma

The first – unsuccessful – attempt at peace, the Panglong Agreement signed on 12 February 1947 between General Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi, who inherited his aura as a national icon) and Kachin, Shan and Chin leaders became a basis for the 1947 Constitution (drawing also on the 1946 Yugoslav Constitution), which recognized a degree of decentralization for the Shan, Kachin, Kayah, Karen States and a Special Chin Division (the Chin, Mon and Rakhine States would not be created until 1974). From a citizenship law perspective, provisions were made for the recognition of the citizenship of the indigenous races (Taingyintha) and the acquisition of citizenship of other persons with legitimate claims to nationality, including colonial workers and their descendants through jus soli. The coming to power of Ne Win destroyed this balance.

General Ne Win created a citizenship system based on nativism. Nativism is a type of xenophobia specifically engaged in the defense of the nation state understood as a unity of culture, including religion, language, and “blood”. The American historian John Higham described it in the US context as “intense opposition to an internal minority on the grounds of its foreign (i.e., ‘unamerican’) connections”. Nativism makes xenophobia a national project. The open racism of Ne Win does not leave much space for interpretation. In his own words: “racially, only pure-blooded nationals will be called citizens” (practically, the 1982 Citizenship Law in a nutshell).

The narratives of the “evil stranger”

In this narrative, the complex demographics and history of the Rohingya from Rakhine (whose identity is systematically questioned by Burmese nationalism), were simplified by portraying them blanketly as Bengali infiltrators. They became the “evil stranger”. They were re-imagined as a “demographic invasion”: a threat to the nation. This justified increasingly repressive measures and legitimized successive waves of violence in 1978, 1991-2, 2012, 2013, 2016 and finally 2017. Obviously, the nativist portrayal of an “evil stranger” as a means to legitimize highly nationalistic and/or militaristic governments is not a Burmese discovery. It can be clearly identified in other scenarios such as the Dominican Republic (where ethnic Haitians are the “invaders”) or India (where Bengalis in Assam State were officially portrayed as a “silent and invidious demographic invasion” by the Supreme Court of India).  In this sense, both the 2017 Rohingya expulsion, the massacre of ethnic Haitians by Trujillo’s forces during 1937 and episodes of violence against minorities in Assam reflect a will to homogenize and consolidate ethnic boundaries, or the principle of nationalism articulated by Ernest Gellner where “the political and the national unit should be congruent”. Cross-border communities such as the Rohingya do not fit well in such a scheme.

By far, the crisis in Myanmar (as the country was renamed after 1988) is not limited to Rakhine: ongoing open armed conflicts continue in Kachin State and Northern Shan between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army and other ethnic armed organisations. In the Southeast, the promise of peace through the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement is also unstable.

In this complex context, the Covid-19 pandemic has signified another turn of the screw. The Women’s League of Burma has recently warned that the Tatmadaw is escalating its attacks in Rakhine, Chin, Karen, Kachin and Shan States. It may empower the military even further and it will definitely create serious risks for displaced persons and other persons of concern. The newly confined Europe should not become so inward-looking so as to turn its back on these victims.

To find out more about the issue you an read the joint ENS and ISI Country Position Papers on Myanmar providing information on the profiles of stateless individuals and persons who may be at risk of statelessness due to nationality or civil documentation problems.

Photo: Buddhist monks receive offerings in Launglon, Thanintaryi; © José Arraiza

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