After eight months of Internet blackout, police in Rakhine state have dozens of protesters in Yangon. They seek to press charges against nine students, according to a local student union. Students in Yangon have been protesting against the shutdown and general government repression.
Myanmar is engaged in one of the oldest continuous civil conflicts in the world. Much of the tension has lately been focused in Rakhine state. According to the government, the recent wave of oppression is in response to Rohingya terrorists who have sporadically attacked Rakhine villages. The government has never had a positive relationship with the Rohingya. It even went as far as to rename their home province of Arakan to Rakhine, after their ethnic rivals and Buddhist neighbours, the Rakhine.
Ethnic rebels have sporadically clashed with government forces there since the early days of Burmese independence. Their demands of autonomy have produced political deadlock in a country that has been pursuing a program of national reunification for decades. Unfortunately, the reunification plans for Myanmar are for a Buddhist Myanmar. It has no place for the Rohingya. While the Rohingya are not the only Muslims in Myanmar, they are widely regarded as the least assimilated to Burmese culture.
Conflict began when Britain granted Burmese independence in 1948 without properly establishing democratic representation of diverse ethnic groups. In the power struggle that ensued, Burma was marred by a series of military dictatorships, the most recent of which was dissolved in 2011. Its current government can hardly be described as a democracy. Since that time, waves of violence have swept across Myanmar, both from government troops as well as civilian militias.
The larger context of this struggle is often overlooked. Both India and China play a role in encouraging hostilities on the part of Myanmar’s government. China has a record of democide and abuse of its own Muslim minorities. It also has very important infrastructure being developed in Rakhine state, which will eventually pump oil and natural gas into China’s Yunnan province. India is developing Sittwe port in the hopes that it will be able to ship goods upriver back into Indian territory. With this large influx of capital, regional powers have reacted favourably to a brutal crackdown that has been described as ‘textbook genocide,’ perpetrated by the Myanmar government against Rohingya Muslims.
After many decades of fighting, regional powers are willing to accept stability at steeper costs. It allows them to get on with the work of developing one of the least-developed nations in the world. Many of these nations have a vision of an ethnostate and are motivated by proud histories which they struggle to live up to. In the case of Myanmar, many of its citizens are proud of Myanmar’s ancient Buddhist heritage. However, a Buddhist state has not existed for hundreds of years in some of its modern day territory. Ethnic and religious aspirations do not make violence inevitable. It is understandable why the Rohingya have fought for autonomy for so long, being so culturally different from most of Myanmar. However, the Rohingya would be best served by an immediate cessation of hostilities between insurgents and the Myanmar government. China and India would be less likely to support Myanmar in its ethnic cleansing program if Rakhine state was more stable.
The biggest obstacle to resolution of the conflict is widespread disdain towards the Rohingya from Burmese citizens and neighbouring ethnic groups such as the Rakhine. Many citizens of Myanmar view the recent government crackdown and ethnic cleansing as necessary evils in the pursuit of a stable Buddhist Myanmar. They support the government as it prosecutes individuals who protest or speak out against its program of ethnic cleansing.
The citizens of Myanmar need to develop a civic consciousness that draws on the nationality they share with the Rohingya, instead of the religion they do not. A multi-ethnic society is exactly what Myanmar has become. The human rights disaster that is unfolding as Myanmar attempts to deny it must be avoided.