For Bob Rae, the Rohingya challenge is political as well as humanitarian

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Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in 2013. Photo: Anwar Hossain EU/ECHO/Flickr

There are 135 officially recognized ethnicities in Burma, but the group that calls itself the Rohingya is not among them. In fact, most Rohingya, whose community is centred in the poor coastal state of Rakhine, do not have Burmese citizenship. The Burmese don’t even recognize the Rohingya’s distinct identity and usually refer to them as Bengalis or Bangladeshis.

Many Rohingya probably did come, originally, from what is now Bangladesh, Burma’s western neighbour. Like the Bangladeshis, they speak the Bengali language and practice the religion of Islam. To a good many of the Buddhist Burmese majority the Rohingya are, quite simply, interlopers. They have virtually no rights in Burma.

When Bob Rae, Canada’s newly named special envoy to the region, gets there, he will find a situation not dissimilar to that of Sri Lanka, where he worked on behalf of the Canadian-based international organization, the Forum of Federations, in the early 2000s. (Full disclosure: Karl Nerenberg was on Forum staff for part of that period and worked on the Sri Lanka project.)

An ethnic minority resented by the majority

In Sri Lanka, many in the Buddhist Sinhalese majority harbour longstanding resentment toward the largely Hindu Tamil minority. The Tamils are a large group in southern India, numbering more than 60 million, but make up only a relatively small minority in that giant multi-ethnic country. There are only slightly more than three million Tamils in Sri Lanka, but they constitute almost a quarter of the total population.

During Sri Lanka’s colonial period, the British favoured the Tamils, and turned them into junior partners of Empire, as clerks, bureaucrats and small business people. After independence, the Sinhalese majority government took its revenge. It denied many basic rights to the Tamils, including the right to higher education. That led to an armed Tamil resistance movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which sought an independent Tamil nation-state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

Rae’s and Forum’s work focused on the possibility of a federal political solution, as part of the Norwegian-led the peace process. The Forum’s proposition was that through a form of federalism, the minority could have its rights — as do Canada’s Francophones, centred in Quebec — without splitting the country in two. The efforts were worthy, but, in the end, did not work. Instead, the Sinhalese majority government achieved victory on the battlefield, and imposed its own, unilateral solution on the Tamils. When, somewhat later, there were credible reports of Sri Lankan government-sanctioned abuses, Rae and other Canadians were denied entry to investigate the situation.

Buddhism, militarism and Burmese identity

In Burma, the Rohingya are only a small minority, a mere million out of nearly 60 million, and the colonial overlords never favoured them as they did the Tamils of Sri Lanka. But, as in Sri Lanka, the majority views the Rohingya through the lens of its own history and struggles. Canadian Samphe Lhalungpa worked for UNICEF in both Bangladesh and Burma and he describes the Burmese worldview this way:

“The Burmese sense of themselves is very strong. They are a Tibeto-Burman people who practice Buddhism. After years of British rule, the Burmese developed a deep resentment at the huge numbers of plantation workers the colonial rulers imported from south Asia. To make matters worse, until 1935 the British ruled Burma as part of British India. About 15 years after independence, in 1962, following a military coup, the Burmese government expelled more than half a million Indians. Most of those were second and third generation in the country, and had been active in commerce and finance.”

Burmese nationalism has long been associated with the Buddhist religion. “Buddhist clergy,” Lhalungpa says, “played an active role in the struggle for freedom.”

As well, since World War II the military has played an active role in Burmese politics.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel peace laureate and current civilian leader, although without full political power. But her father, General Aung San, was not only a key nationalist leader who helped negotiate Burma’s independence, he was also a military man. In fact, he received military training from the Japanese, and during World War II led the Burma Independence Army, which, for most of the war, was allied with Japan.

That army created the cadre of officers who held power in Burma for many years. Lhalungpa points out that since independence the army has kept busy in a series of campaigns dealing with a multiplicity secessionist movements, including those of the Karens, the Shans and the Kachins.

“The army developed its expertise in counter insurgency,” Lhalungpa says. “And, as the locales where it conducted its operations were away from the prying eyes of the world, it was free to adopt sometimes brutal but effective methods — in some cases, cutting deals with one group while it fought another.”

To make matters worse, in the mid 1990s the Burmese military achieved a “quantum shift” when it received “huge infusions from China of material support, including ground support fighters, artillery, up to date automatic weapons.” Burma is still able to acquire high-tech weaponry from China and other sources.

What Canada can do

That’s the backdrop for Rae’s mission. It is also important to note that Bangladesh, the country that is receiving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, has dealt with its own ethnic insurgencies, including those of the non-Bengali Chakma and Garo of the Chittagong hill region.

In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has a complex relationship with the military. Those who defend her seemingly ambivalent attitude toward the Rohingya — she has been quoted as saying she did not know whether or not the Rohingya constituted a distinct ethnicity — argue that her hands are tied. The military could easily, through so-called administrative means, significantly curtail what power she has, or remove her from power altogether.

“It would be hugely unwise,” Lhalungpa argues, “for the Canadian government to do anything, now, that might further weaken or marginalize Aung San Suu Kyi’s position. She is key to any viable solution.”

In addition, we must not forget that among the Rohingya there are militants willing to use violence. Their activities, including a co-ordinated attack on 30 police stations and an army base, provided the motive for the Burmese military’s current brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the West, despite protestations of concern for human rights, does, to some extent, see Buddhist Burma as kind of bulwark against militant Islam in Asia. That attitude certainly colours the official policy of the Trump administration, which is almost exclusively focused, these days, on security threats, not humanitarian disasters that have no direct impact on the U.S.

As for Rae’s mission and Canada’s role, as Lhalungpa sees it: “Canada can and must play an active role, but it will require deft handling. In some sense, it will be an exercise to see how we can slowly shift the centre of gravity from a military- and security-led dialogue to a political process to accommodate the Rohingyas, but within the larger framework of what has to be completed with the other minority groups.”

There is some talk about Burma allowing the return of at least some Rohingya refugees. But that does not seem to be a realistic prospect without a larger political arrangement to accommodate this Muslim minority group.

The Canadian government, advised by Rae, might consider playing a key role in devising such an accommodation, especially since neither the U.S. nor Britain seem to have much appetite for that sort of work these days. Whatever we decide to do in that region, it will be a daunting and complex task. 

Photo: Anwar Hossain EU/ECHO/Flickr

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