One year after a historic election put a civilian government in charge, the country's army is using brutal methods to regain its popularity.
- By Poppy McPhersonPoppy McPherson is a Myanmar-based journalist, reporting from South and Southeast Asia
On a cool night last November, a euphoric crowd surged around the headquarters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in Yangon. Supporters danced and waved flags as result after result was announced from a digital billboard. It was a landslide. Amid the cheers, a man named Than Htay told me he how he had waited decades to vote freely.
For the first time in more than half a century of a brutal junta, civilians would be in charge of the country. But a year after the vote, it’s not clear just who is in charge in Myanmar — and Myanmar’s military, once despised, is riding a new wave of support.
The reason? An enemy propped up for decades by the army has made a resurgence in the public imagination, if not in reality. The military is restoring its political power by returning to its war footing against Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority who for years have been loathed as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, despite their presence in Myanmar dating back centuries.
The Rohingya have been discriminated against for generations, but the persecution has grown particularly intense in recent years.
It was dictatorial Gen. Ne Win who, after seizing power in a coup in 1962, pushed through the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act and 1982 Citizenship Law that stripped Rohingya of their citizenship. In Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads, Benedict Rogers quotes a former government minister as saying the junta chief “had an ‘unwritten policy’ to get rid of Muslims, Christians, Karens and other ethnic peoples, in that order.’”
Government prejudice has been mixed with demagogic hatred, with the Rohingya portrayed as foreigners and, more recently, vehicles for the spread of jihad. In the era of the Islamic State, existing suspicions have become bound up with a global narrative of Islamist extremism. Nationalist Buddhist monks like Ashin Wirathu have framed Islam as an existential threat to Myanmar, stoking fears that Muslims are both outbreeding the Buddhist majority and connecting to international terrorist groups.
The Myanmar military now claims to be facing an organized rebel insurgency among the Rohingya, chiefly in the western province of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh. It’s true that the far-flung state has been home to various insurgencies, both Buddhist and Muslim. In the past year, the Arakan Army rebels, comprised of Rakhine Buddhists, has fought several skirmishes with the military.
In the early hours of Oct. 9, scores of assailants armed with swords and pistols attacked three border posts in Maungdaw Township, northern Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh. Nine police officers were killed and five soldiers then died pursuing the attackers. Both the authorities and the public blamed the Rohingya, with the government accusing the attackers of being Rohingya Muslim terrorists trained by the Taliban, citing evidence obtained — possibly by force — after soldiers captured some of the alleged culprits. In a later interview, Suu Kyi backpedaled, saying the claims came from only one person and may not be reliable.
All have been met with blanket denials, not only by the government but by a public already defensive about international criticism of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. Jingoistic articles have dominated state media and Myanmar-language Facebook. “Insurgents arrested!” (Bedraggled-looking men in a police lineup.) “Guns seized!” (Decades-old hunting rifles).
For the military, the attack came at a convenient moment, as other long-standing conflicts — with the Kachin rebels along the Chinese border, and with the Ta’ang Liberation Army in Shan State — are flaring up again. When 30 soldiers were killed this May in fighting with the Arakan Army, another minority — but not Muslim — militia in Rakhine, the military didn’t comment. But following the Maungdaw attack, the authorities have been warning of a “Muslim invasion” and promising to arm Buddhist civilian militias. The plan has fueled fears of a repeat of 2012 violence when Rakhine Buddhist mobs — allegedly facilitated by local authorities — set upon Rohingya Muslim communities, burning down homes and killing scores. “For the first time since the Kokang crisis of early 2015, the military is getting strong public support for its actions,” commented Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based political analyst, referring to a spasm of fighting in the north last year which killed more than 100 soldiers and rallied support for the armed forces.
In the wake of the Maungdaw attacks, Rakhine Buddhists marched around villages chanting their support for the army, while leading Myanmar journalists questioned why Rohingya were “uncooperative” with the military. A reporter who gave an interview to the New York Times saying he had witnessed soldiers shooting unarmed Rohingya later retracted his comments in a Facebook post that was shared thousands of times. What pressures he was under to do so remain unknown.
Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, is an hour’s flight from Yangon and five hours away from the operation zone in Maungdaw, which is off limits to foreign journalists. In the dusty coastal town, it’s easy to forget how much Myanmar has changed since 2011, when the military launched reforms. The junta apparatus is everywhere, from the hotel whiteboards that listing the names of every guest and their room numbers, to the secret police and informers. Checkpoints stand outside derelict mosques, guards watching for long-gone congregants. They’re no longer needed, as most of the Muslim population were driven out of their homes following clashes with the Rakhine Buddhist majority in 2012, pelted with fruit by local Rakhines they trudged to the internment camps on the outskirts of the city where they have been confined ever since.
Inside the camps, the mood is bleak. In Maw Thi Nyar camp, Noor Islam, a middle-aged Rohingya community leader, told me he hadn’t heard from his sister from Maungdaw in more than a week. “She told me that her neighbor had already been killed,” he said. During their last conversation, she said, “Just pray for us and just pray for Maungdaw.”
He and others were convinced the rebel movement had been fabricated by the military. “Currently, the Myanmar military is implementing their policy,” he said as a small crowd gathered to listen in. “I’m just a simple man, so I don’t understand, but I’m hearing from my grandmother and grandfather and my father — because this is my ancestral land — that the Myanmar government is trying to ethnically cleanse these people, torturing people, eliminating people, doing such bad things to these people.”
The next morning, two Muslim men said that they had been fishing in a local river a few days earlier when they were detained and beaten by the navy. One of them, Abdul Amin, lifted his longyi, the long cloth worn by Myanmar men, to reveal purplish red marks on the backs of his legs. “We were just taking a rest after we pulled in the net and ate our dinner at 8 p.m.,” he said. “At that time the navy came to us and just bound our hands and beat us with a stick, made us lie down and beat us with a wooden stick.”
As we spoke, other Muslims gathered around, nodding in agreement as Abdul Amin said, “It’s like it’s government policy to kill people.”
There is no evidence that the Myanmar military faked the murder of their own border police. But few doubt that their actions over recent years may have nourished an appetite for retaliation.
Matthew Smith, CEO and founder of Fortify Rights, a nongovernmental organization, described the military’s “divide and conquer” strategy in the region to rally the support of the region’s majority Buddhist population. “It has an uncanny ability to instigate conflict between ethnic groups, and it’s done that to great and deadly effect in Rakhine,” he said. “We haven’t seen evidence that the attacks on police were a false flag event but it’s clear the military is using the situation to shore up favorable sentiment.”
“The allegations [about military atrocities] emerging from northern Rakhine State are still difficult to verify given very limited international and media access to date. But they are broadly consistent with allegations that are heard from other military operations zones, including in northern Shan and Kachin,” Horsey, the political analyst, commented, referring to two other long-standing conflicts between the military and minority groups.
But many local Buddhists don’t want to see a return to violence of any kind. Rakhine Buddhists who had fled the fighting against the suspected Rohingya insurgents in the north and were staying in a makeshift refugee camp inside a stadium in late October said that they had been friends with Muslims back in their home villages and met up for religious ceremonies.
Ronan Lee, a doctoral candidate at Melbourne’s Deakin University who has done research in northern Rakhine, said that “despite the events of 2012, many Muslim and Buddhist communities in northern Rakhine State were keen to work together and they understood that both their communities were better off when there was peace and trade between them. Despite the state’s natural resources, keeping Muslim and Buddhist communities separate and restricting Muslims’ ability to travel has damaged the state’s economy.”
As the military’s popularity has surged following the attacks, the civilian government’s muted response has left it looking ineffectual. Shortly after the attacks, State Counsellor and de facto government leader Suu Kyi flew to India. Last week, she was in Japan. She has not visited Rakhine and neither has her president, Htin Kyaw. According to Reuters, the Ministry of Information submitted a list of questions about the army’s response that went unanswered. “There are really two governments in Myanmar: the civil government and the military government,” said Widney Brown, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights, which recently released a report on northern Rakhine.
The military retains control of vital institutions including the ministries of defense, home affairs, the police, and immigration. “Thus, there is a very strong military presence along the land borders, including with Bangladesh,” Brown said. “This control coupled with concerns about insurgencies means that the military government, not the civilian government, is really in control in northern Rakhine State.”
The months leading up to the Maungdaw attacks had brought rare, civilian-led progress in the search for peace in the state. In the face of staunch opposition from the military, the government paved the way for an independent Rakhine commission, headed by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, to conduct investigations and file an advisory report. The recommendations are due in late 2017.
Now that enterprise looks distinctly shaky. “The naming of Annan to head up a state advisory commission is an attempt to shed light on abuses and set the stage for some reconciliation,” said Brown. “However, the ability of the commission to have an impact was already limited, as it is merely advisory and the recent violence in northern Rakhine State may have cost the commission any opportunity to have an impact.”
More disturbing than the suggestion that the civilian government is powerless against the military is the idea that they tacitly approve. Nobody really knows what Suu Kyi thinks of the Rohingya, although she has often been criticized for her failure to act. There is also evidence that other senior NLD officials are deeply hostile.
After the October attacks, state media, which is run by the civilian-led Ministry of Information, has carried opinion pieces condemning “fabricated” allegations of human rights abuses by the military and accused journalists of being “hand in glove” with terrorists. They have referred to Rohingya as “thorns.”
On Facebook, Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the government, singled out a journalist at the national English-language newspaper, the Myanmar Times, for her reporting on alleged military rapes. “We support and advise government to take legal action against [the Times] and those who are responsible for fabricating false news,” read one of the many comments. The reporter was fired, reportedly following calls to the paper by Zaw Htay, a former soldier who served in the former military-backed administration but was kept on by Suu Kyi.
A few days ago, Zaw Htay confidently said the government and army were “collaborating” on the crisis. “And [they have] also the same policy on it.”
Additional reporting by Aung Naing Soe.
Myanmar soldiers on patrol in Maungdaw, Rakhine State, on October 21, 2016. Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images