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Democratization in Myanmar hampered by anti-Muslim discrimination

By Emre Tunç Sakaoğlu
November 21, 2013

JTW Interview, Prof. Dr. Selçuk Çolakoğlu

Dr. Selçuk Çolakoğlu, Director of USAK Center for Asia-Pacific Studies, sat down for an interview about the grave conditions surrounding the Muslim population in Myanmar, particularly the Rohingya. Another of the interview’s focal points is the international dimension of the issue regarding the official status of and policies towards Arakanese and other Muslim groups spread throughout Myanmar (mainly within the borders of present-day Rakhine state) was also a focal point of the interview. In light of Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu's recent visit to Myanmar between November 14th and 15th, Dr. Çolakoğlu elaborates on Turkey's official stance regarding the worrisome situation in Myanmar and the strategic, political, and socio-economic context behind it.

Acts of violence targeting Muslims in Myanmar is not a new subject. It can be traced back to the early 1960s. Many individuals from the Muslim community have been massacred and mosques and schools demolished since. What is the source of this decades-long, continuing hatred towards religiously Muslim ethnic groups in Myanmar by the Buddhist majority?

These is an incomplete but ongoing process of nation-building in Myanmar. The Burman ethnic group, which constitutes 70% of the population in Myanmar, aims to impose a political construct based on Buddhism over the whole society. The sum of all ethnic groups with a Buddhist background totals 90 percent of the population. Within such a context, the ruling elite aims to systematically integrate all those Buddhist groups into the nation-building process. 

On the other hand, we have some other ethnic groups constituting 10 percent of the population which cannot be easily integrated into such a religiously-defined system. These are groups with different religious backgrounds (Christians, Muslims, groups belonging to different sects of Buddhism). The Rohingya, which is predominantly Muslim, stands out here as a major minority which cannot be integrated under a Buddhist roof. They constitute the majority in a region (the Rakhine state) bordering Bangladesh on the coast of Indian Ocean, a very strategic gatepoint indeed. Since 1962, Muslim groups – and particularly the Rohingya – have witnessed relentless efforts by the military junta to suppress and terrorize ethnic minorities. That is because the Burman leaders of Myanmar were aware that the Rohingya were impossible to assimilate, therefore they needed to be driven out of the country's borderlands. A vital step was taken in this direction in 1982 by officially cancelling Rohingya families' citizenship statuses. Therefore, the Rohingya are considered immigrants in legal terms today and they are being forced to relocate to Bangladesh and other neighboring countries. 

The government of Myanmar claims that the Rohingya Muslims residing in the Rakhine state had immigrated recently as migrant agricultural laborers into the country and they do not actually number as many as the international community speculates. On the other hand, we have this "969 Movement" which took credit for the recent acts of violence and, according to international sources, has the government's support. We also know that Buddhists arriving from China, Bangladesh, and Thailand participate in such illegal groups as well. Do you believe that such an organizational capacity and discourse consistency points to the backing from public authorities? 

Indeed, the chain of events laid bare in the case of Myanmar is not so unfamiliar. Throughout the 20th century, ethnic and religious minorities in various parts of the globe were forced to either emigrate or assimilate. Ethnic cleansing was always on the table as a means to realize national homogenization processes. The military government in Myanmar aims for is precisely this. Some radical groups exist among the Buddhist population but it is not possible for such a dispersed and radical militia to carry out 30 years of consistent and systematic attacks of such proportion without support from the state's security apparatus. It should also be kept in mind that those militant groups may have international links as well. 

Nevertheless, it would be totally unfair to incriminate the Buddhist population as a whole. Indeed, attacks by radical groups receiving assistance from local security forces also bear the potential to sabotage the democratization process. It is known that remnants of the cadres from the military regime still exert influence, especially within the ranks of the military forces, police, and intelligence agencies. Therefore it should be underlined that the democratization process has come upon a fork in a road. To avoid a deadlock, the international community has to take the initiative.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu emphasized that Turkey is always ready to provide its assistance against all sorts of obstacles on Myanmar's path to democratization during his visits in 14-15 November. Discriminatory policies against Muslims in Myanmar are still in effect. For instance, a Muslim is still not allowed to stand legally against a Buddhist citizen. A curfew is exclusively applied to the Muslim population is another such policy. How do you evaluate this situation?

In the light of international law and universal human rights, it is impossible to consider the current situation legitimate in any way. Thes government’s claim that the Rohingya recently immigrated into the country as agricltural laborers is also baseless. Because it is a historical fact that the Rohingya have immigrated to their current location (Rakhine state) in the 19th century at the very latest. Therefore, conferring citizenship to the Rohingya in 1948 but cancelling the same people's citizenship status in 1982 makes no sense, neither in legal terms nor from a humanitarian perspective. As a result of such problematic policies carried out by the government in Myanmar, the Rohingya of today are deprived of basic political, economic, and constitutional rights. In the words of many independent observers from all around the world, crimes against humanity, which can be qualified as a genocide in some respects, are committed against these people. Muslims from several other ethnic backgrounds and spread all over the country are systematically subjected to intimidation, discrimination, and oppression similar to the Rohingya experience. Only in 2013, a great deal of houses and offices belonging to Muslims of Malay, Burman, Chinese, and Indian origin were raided and set fire, leading to numerous casualties. 

Most of the refugees fleeing the rampant violence and the govenment's oppression are taking refuge in Bangladesh. However, the economic infrastructure in Bangladesh cannot cope with such a huge number of refugees. Therefore the political administration in Bangladesh is unwilling to shelter more refugees and is worried that their numbers may increase significantly. How can we evaluate the current humanitarian crisis from the other side of the border, from the perspective of Bangladesh?

Bangladesh is very reluctant to take sides in this crisis. It is a geographically small country but densely populated with 153 million citizens. Therefore the Bangladeshi administration is of the opinion that the country is unable to harbor more refugees. So much so that Bangladesh is not party to the the Contact Group on Rohingya Muslims under the umbrella of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), despite its central role regarding the crisis. The members of the abovementioned contact group are Malaysia and Indonesia (two ASEAN countries), Turkey, Egypt, Djibouti, and Saudi Arabia. The Turkish Red Crescent, TİKA, and Turkish relief agencies continue delivering humanitarian aid to Rohingya Muslims despite Bangladeshi authorities' unwillingness. In this respect, it is possible to empathize with Bangladesh’s economic and social concerns. On the other hand, the issue has a political dimension as well. That is, the Bangladeshi government does not want its bilateral relations with Myanmar to deteriorate. This aspiration became stronger with Myanmar becoming a center of international attention in the past two years due to its democratization process.

Despite all these dynamics, over 300,000 Rohingya refugees in several regions of Bangladesh are currently struggling to survive on very limited foreign aid and under challenging socio-economic conditions. Of these, only 160,000 refugees reside in UN refugee camps. However, the maximum capacity of these UN camps is normally no more than 30,000. Therefore the majority of Rohingya refugees cannot take permanent shelter in those camps today and are compelled to seek new shelter through a daunting migration. In addition, numerous Rohingya families not included in the official data presented above were compelled to take refuge in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, the UK, and the U.S.

We know that China is still the country which exerts the most influence over Myanmar. In line with their close relations, the two countries recently completed an exceptionally vital pipeline project. Acts of violence continued to take place throughout the pipeline agreement and construction process. Can the escalating strategic tensions between the U.S. and China be an implicit factor in this?

Such claims are gaining wide currency throughout global media indeed; but it is impossible to verify them in an academic sense. Recently, Myanmar has been easing itself away from Chinese influence and being drawn into the orbit of Western countries in a gradual way. However, China has been Myanmar's number one ally for decades under successive military governments when democratic regimes in Asia, together with Western democracies including the U.S., were casting Myanmar out. China was able to prevent international sanctions from being imposed oo Myanmar during this period thanks to its permanent seat on the UN Security Council and its economic weight. But Western countries and especially the U.S. have been rapidly normalizing their relations with the current political administration in Myanmar because of its democratization process ongoing since 2012. It is expected that the main opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a very popular and globally-respected figure, will come to power in the coming period after fair and free elections are held in the country. Under the shadow of the greater rivalry between the Western world and a rising China, both sides are compelled to turn a blind eye to the ongoing oppression of ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar by the Buddhist-Burman majority under the cover of "constructing" a homogenious nation-state. 

It is widely articulated that currently, China is building logistic ports with radio intercept equipment along Myanmar's Rakhine coast and will probably transform this "string of pearls" into permanent naval stations for military purposes when the time is right. Moreover, the increasing energy need of China's landlocked interior and southwestern regions will continue to be fulfilled through a major gas pipeline linking the deep water port on Myanmar's Indian Ocean littoral (Shwa) to the capitol of China's Yunnan region (Kunming) in addition to an oil pipeline which started operating in full capacity in October 2013. The U.S. has also taken several balancing steps in the face of such Chinese initiatives, especially around the broad maritime region that conjoins the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In accordance with is strategic pivot to Asia, the U.S. is maintaining its influential diplomacy on Myanmar, bilaterally as well as through ASEAN. On the other hand, ASEAN is gradually intensifying its economic ties with China while maintaining its political affinity for the U.S. Thus, in terms of its allegiance, Myanmar is pursuing a balancing policy. It is regretful that amid such a highly sensitive political balance, neither the U.S. nor China can unilaterally interfere in Myanmar's problematic policies over its vulnerable minorities. Therefore, both turn a blind eye to the terrorism of Myanmar's Muslim communities (especially in the strategic Rakhine state).

What is your interpretation of Turkey's official stance on this subject and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu's recent visit to Myanmar?

Previously, a delegation led by Foreign Minister Davutoğlu paid a visit to Myanmar in August 2012. This was the first high-level visit to Myanmar from Turkey. Davutoğlu consulted with both President Thein Sein and his counterpart. As a concrete result, there was a decision to restore a cemetary of Ottoman POWs captured by the British military during WWI. The meeting also paved the way for further international aid towards Rohingya Muslims and non-Muslim minorities as well. Turkey had already established an embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, in 2012. Myanmar is also expected to open its embassy in Ankara sometime in 2014. 

Foreign Minister Davutoğlu was accompanied by a delegation from the Rohingya Contact Group led by OIC General Secretary Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, in his second flight to Myanmar. Davutoğlu remarked that Turkey attaches great importance to enhancing its relations with Myanmar, and he also underlined that bilateral treaties laying the legal foundation for Turkish investment in Myanmar, will hopefully be agreed upon. The Turkish International Development and Cooperation Agency (TIKA), the Turkish Red Crescent, and the Anadolu Agency are also expected to open representative offices in Myanmar in the near future.

Thereby, the Rohingya Contact Group established by the OIC in 2012 achieved its initial goal. The OIC requested that high-level religious representatives from the Buddhist and Muslim communities organize dialogue meetings, that humanitarian aid is provided to the Rakhine state without making distinctions between Muslims and Buddhists, and that the Rohingya have their citizenship restored. The OIC’s Rohingya Contact Group also plans to incentivize wealthy Muslim countries and their successful firms to provide loans, aid, and investment to Myanmar. It is envisioned that ethnic and religiously-motivated tensions will besmoothed down to a large extent with the increase in social welfare and with economic development.

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