This article is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” See More …
On January 31, from my home in England, I “watched” the coup unfold in the wee hours in Myanmar as evening fell where I am exiled. Messages arrived at my messenger chatbox: “so and so MP-elect or state or provisional chief was taken into custody.” “ASSK was detained around 3 am.”
Myanmar is 6.5 hour ahead of GMT or London time. My initial reaction was a mixture of anxiety and personal vindication — vindication because for roughly the last ten years I had been the outlier who screamed “foul” while most others raised their champaign glasses to toast the so-called “Myanmar Spring.”
I come from an extended military family three generations of whose relatives have served in the Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are called since its inception as a national proxy under the patronage of the Imperial Japanese Army. The military circle was a tiny bubble where I could drop names of my relatives who were among the Who’s Who of the armed forces.
Disillusioned with a combination of Aung San Suu Kyi’s lack of strategic or intellectual leadership, the West’s half-hearted support for democratic opposition, as well as minority liberation movements such as Kachin, Karen, Shan and so on, I ended my foot-soldiering for the Burmese opposition in 2004.
At massive personal reputational costs, I went over to the political deep-end of giving the benefit of the doubt to Myanmar’s military leaders when they said they wanted to undertake democratic reforms.
Sixteen years ago, the generals approached me, having sensed that I was ready to walk away from my 15-years’ involvement in the Burmese opposition. I was going to be “bagged” — a scoop for the generals, who presented themselves to me as “reformers” seeking national reconciliation, democratic reforms and economic development for our people. They asked would I — one of the few Western-educated Burmese who would even consider interacting with them while most others kept their distance — try to help restore Burma’s ties with the West, which could be used as a counterforce against the encroaching power of Communist China. I was to be their teller of “truths” about Myanmar under military rule, then known as the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC.
You see, I was a Burmese nationalist who grew up admiring my relatives, some of whom were decorated soldiers. I had heard their tales of fierce battles against insurgents and “enemies of the state,” of belly-landing a fighter-bomber, of learning to use firearms when a few unmarried uncles were at home during their breaks from the frontlines. It wasn’t too difficult a dilemma for me to decide to work with the military men whose language I could speak and in whose company I felt at ease.
But it became clear to me that my general-friends had not had a change of heart regarding democratization, human rights, or reconciliation. My advocacy on their behalf for normalization of relations with the West, setting up and facilitation of Track II negotiations with certain Western government officials eager to establish high-level contacts with the Burmese military had not helped transform them.
The generals, after all, were primarily interested in maintaining their primacy in Burma’s national politics, and they were becoming adept at using the language of democracy, human rights and peace which they rightly calculated would resonate with the liberal democratic West.
The clearest sign that the generals did not care one iota about the welfare of our own people came with Cyclone Nargis. In May 2008 the generals blocked emergency relief aid to Cyclone Nargis victims — after the country had suffered 200,000 fatalities — in the Irrawaddy Delta and the coast areas. On the phone begging my colleagues to show compassion for our own people who desperately needed international assistance, I was told that “we the Tatmadaw were capable of providing that aid — in the form of fried rice in take-away styrofoam containers!” Their callous response came at the very time when upwards of 1-2 million survivors of the cyclone were drinking contaminated water from riverlets, creeks, and streams littered with decomposing corpses and deformed animal carcasses.
There is always a line that one does not cross or one is prepared never to cross, or so I told myself. My brief period of personal attempts to work with the generals ended.
Meanwhile, luminaries sich as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then-British Prime Minister David Cameron, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, billionaire philanthropist George Soros and even the “Bond girl” Datuk Michelle Yo had descended on Myanmar’s old capital Rangoon (Yangon) to celebrate the “Myanmar Spring.”
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s own elite class lauded Burmese American writer Thant Myint-U, telling the world that the junta was taking baby steps towards democratization. All the while, Aung San Suu Kyi traversed the world, wining and dining with royalty and influencers, telling them all she needed was some help to transform her father’s military into a modern professional defense service. She lectured at some of the world’s most prestigious defense academies: the British Royal Academy of Army at Sandhurst and US Army’s West Point in New York — opening doors for Burmese generals and the officer corps who referred to her as “big sister” and she to them as “my general father’s sons.” I had the privilege (and then honour) of sharing an hour-long Rule of Law Roundtable with Suu Kyi at the London School of Economics and Political Science on her 67th birthday in 2012. There, I slipped her a note, in which I wrote, “Aunty, you cannot do business with these generals. I tried to cooperate in good faith with them. It ended in disaster.”
Fast-forward to February 16, 2021. According to Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer, this most revered and popular politician whom much of the country refers to as “Mother Suu” was tried in secret without due process or representation on two bogus charges.
During the past 30 years, successive cohorts of Burmese military leaders have held five elections — in 1990, 2010, 2012 (a by-election), 2015, and 2020. In the four elections which Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy Party (NLD) contested, they registered landslide victories over the generals and their political proxies (i.e., Nation Union Party made up of General Ne Win-era veterans, nicknamed the “dinosaurs” in 1990, and the Union Solidarity and Development Party made up of veteran generals in the other elections.
Given these humiliating defeats at the polls, the generals were rightly concerned about the erosion of their respectability and acceptance by the Burmese public as well as anxious about their possible loss of control over the vast web of economic and commercial enterprises they directed and profited from. The February 2021 coup, therefore, was the generals’ last-ditch effort to derail any acceleration of democratic reforms.
I have long argued that the very crop of military leaders that had deceived the world — and the domestic public — have also been systematically lying to the Buddhist majority about Rohingya people in Rakhine state of Western Burma, the latter’s historical “belongingness,” and the decades-long persecution to which they have been subjected.
As early as 2011 I had begun to observe that an extremely potent anti-Rohingya racism was exploding in Burma, particularly through the mushrooming of private media outlets. Alas, Burmese people had discovered press freedom, and every outlet was free to print or broadcast or upload anything they wished — as long as the contents focused on Muslims and Rohingyas. Prior to the country’s implementation of top-down press and other reforms, the Burmese military’s psychological warfare department had had to use teacher training programs, summer enhancement courses for teachers, immigration officers and other civil servants, and to a lesser extent, textbooks to disseminate anti-Rohingya racism.
Blatantly disregarding extant official and historical evidence in Burmese and English languages, the Burmese military’s psychological warfare department had effectively airbrushed Rohingya — the word, the identity, the evidence of their historical presence in the country — from any official or popular publications. Ironically, however, by 2010, the media in Burma was celebrated as “the most free” by censorship researchers and press associations in Asia. Little did they know — or perhaps try hard enough to learn — that Burma’s newfound press freedom had been given an anti-Muslim and, more specifically, an anti-Rohingya direction.
Additionally, the military intelligence services found a “natural” ally in the Buddhist Order (or Sangha), which has long been beset with fear and loathing of Islam and its adherents. The arrival of Facebook, the affordability of smart phones and sim cards, the easy access to Western news media with its signature Islamophobia facilitated the military’s anti-Rohingya propaganda. Over the past 10 years, “the Burmese mind” has come to be poisoned with a genocidal strain of Islamophobia that is directed at the only geographic pocket with its own un-integrated Muslim population that has a legitimate claim to their home or ancestral land.
Northern Rakhine state — composed of the townships of Buthidaung, Maung Daw and, partially, Ra Thae Taung — was clearly, and officially, recognized as a Rohingya homeland 70% or more of whose inhabitants are Rohingyas. Like many other ethno-linguistic communities that dot Burma’s borderlands — Mon, Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Wa, and so on — Rohingya people have been saddled by post-WWII fictions or inventions. But because of the Islamophobia that has been institutionalized first within the Burmese Armed Forces from the late 1960s on — and later within the organs of the state (e.g., line ministries and the judiciary) — Burmese military rulers during General Ne Win’s xenophobic reign (1962-88), the armed forces began to use a “fortress” analogy in specific reference to Burmese borders with East Pakistan (and after 1971, Bangladesh).
While Burma’s borders with much larger neighbors such as India and China are a total of 2,000 miles, Burmese generals curiously refer only to their common border with Bangladesh as the “western fortress or gate.” In addition to these long and porous borders, Burma also shares a 600-mile border with Thailand where various armed ethnic-based outfits are based and have freely operated. The Bangladesh-Burma border is a mere 260 miles, and the one frontier region relatively free of ant type of terrorist activity or armed rebellion. The only unique thing about this Northern Rakhine region is that its population of Rohingyas are predominantly Muslims who happen to be adjacent to one of the largest Muslim-majority countries in the world, with a population of about 166 million.
The Muslim character of Western Burma’s indigenous population, with its bicultural and bi-ethno-lingustic ties with former East Bengal (now Bangladesh) has long been a concern of the Burmese military leadership. Since the late 1960s, successive generations of Burmese military planners and intelligence services had piloted demographic engineering schemes to make Northern Rakhine less Muslim and more Buddhist. The military tried population trans-migration by incentivizing Buddhists and other non-Muslims to relocate to this remote region, with difficult or primitive transport systems connecting Rakhine to the rest of Burma. However, Eastern Burma and the Delta region became engulfed in the Beijing-backed Burmese communist and other insurgencies backed by Thailand and, to a lesser extent, by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Yet, the Burmese military chose to focus on fighting “hot” wars in the eastern and northern parts of Burma, leaving the whole “Muslim Rohingya” question on the policy backburner.
In the mid- to late 1970s, when Pol Pot regime was committing a genocide against its own population General Ne Win, one of the very few heads of state who traveled to Cambodia and partied with Khmer Rouge leaders, returned home “inspired.” He started implementing a similarly genocidal scheme against the Rohingyas whom he began to frame as “illegal migrants” manipulated by Muslim Bangladesh and as demographic warriors whose ultimate mission was to take a slice of Western Burma.
Re-inserting their own nationalist understanding of Burma as their geographically bounded and predominantly Buddhist nation back into the colonial and pre-nation-state Burmese history, the military decided that Rohingyas are a population whose presence within Burma’s national borders are “unfinished business” — a people to be purged. And purge Rohingyas they did — genocidally in 2016 and 2017, with the devastating consequences for the entire Rohingya nation. Today there are three or four times as many Rohingyas outside of their homeland of Rakhine which they share with Buddhist Rakhine people, than there are in their ancestral land. The Myanmar military has, for all intents and purposes, completed their “unfinished business,” criminally and tragically for the Rohingyas.
Since the NLD emerged as the most potent challenger to the military’s monopoly grip on state power three decades ago, the generals have tried different methods of exclusion, disenfranchisement and purposive prosecution against Aung San Suu Kyi and all dissidents. Today, they are discovering that Suu Kyi and the NLD are a mere expression or embodiment of the democratic will of Burmese society. The military leadership is unlikely to be able to defeat 50 million people who have decided that a half-century of life under the boot is more than enough.