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A Different View of Burma

Ethnic, Territory, and Economic Issues at Root of Rohingya Oppression


I take issue with Kevin McKiernan’s article, titled “Burma’s Brutal Buddhists” on your cover March 6. I returned from a trip to Burma/Myanmar just a couple weeks ago. I do not proclaim to be an expert on what is a very complex situation, but based on my personal experience, reading, and discussions with people there, I see McKiernan’s assessments of Burma as oversimplified, slanted, and counterproductive to improving the situation.

Burma is a beautiful country with a long and tragic history of internal conflict among its many ethnic groups (one being the Rohingya). In addition, its entire population (other than a small elite) has suffered economic privation as a result of being isolated from the rest of the world for over 50 years by a brutal military regime. One need only take a short two-hour flight from Yangon, Burma, to see the hyper-modern, high-rise buildings of nearby Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to realize the striking contrast such economic isolation has created.

In the last couple years, Burma’s military has finally, at least for now, stepped back from complete power, and the country is tentatively taking baby steps toward opening to the world and becoming a democracy. There no doubt will be problems in that transition, problems that will not be solved easily or quickly. The plight of the Rohingya is a tragic one. But as sad as that situation is, many long-term observers of Burma are surprised that the entire country did not implode into whole-scale ethnic conflict and division as the military transitions from power, as happened in the former Yugoslavia when Marshal Tito and the Soviet Union went away.

As Thant Myint-U (the grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant) wrote in The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma, “Any transition to democracy is always difficult. In many places around the world, attempts to transform dictatorships into democracies have led to many new problems, including inter-ethnic violence and civil war.” I am not saying forget the Rohingya, not at all, but McKiernan’s assessment of their plight is an oversimplification.

He simply blames the “Buddhists” for oppressing them, but there are other ethnic, territorial, and economic issues that play into it. As Robert D. Kaplan sadly noted in his book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of Power, in a visit to neighboring Bangladesh he heard strident criticism of the Rohingya by Muslims:

Local Bangladeshis were unemployed because the ethnic Rohingya … were willing to do the same jobs for less money. Muslim solidarity here was wearing thin. One local politician told me, “The Rohingya deal in arms, drugs, and any sort of crime. If you catch three criminals, there will be at least one Rohingya among them. … You can hire a Rohingya to kill anyone you want for a very small price,” one local claimed.

Like Kaplan, I am not ascribing to such slurs on the Rohingya, but I quote them to note that they are a minority in sad conflict with its neighbors. The Rohingya need help, their problems needs to be solved by Bangladesh and Burma, but to simply “blame it on the Buddhists” à la Mr. McKiernan is ill-informed. As Kaplan notes, “[The Rohingya] embody the racial and cultural linkage between the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia, and as a result are despised both [in Bangladesh] and in Burma. Only a world of more flexible borders will free them.” Maybe, but “flexible borders” is not easy to achieve.

What McKiernan instead appears to suggest in regard to this complex political/ethnic/economic conflict in Burma (with a fledgling new government and a society struggling to transition into the 21st century) is that we the American people fully understand this particular problem of this country on the other side of the earth, we know the solution, and should intervene to “make it happen.” Intervene by reinstatement of sanctions and further isolation of the people of Burma.

McKiernan is clearly disgusted by the prospect that lifting of the sanction is allowing Burma to open up to foreign investment, noting “the stampede of Western corporations hungry to share in this [the development of Burma].” He must be shocked at the horrors of what that has done in nearby Singapore — better health care and education, and a higher standard of living, than in the U.S. He notes that prior international sanctions preventing investment by U.S. and other Western companies were lifted when military controls were lifted in Burma; he then claims “but it was followed by a rash of sectarian violence between Buddhist and Muslims.” Lifting the sanction resulted in oppression of the Rohingya? Burma has always had sectarian violence, less so now than in many years before. So is McKiernan saying he wants to resume sanctions? What would that do? As Thant Myint-U wrote in The River of Lost Footsteps (when the sanctions and military power were still in place):

The economy that was evolving under sanctions was exactly the opposite of one that would create a strong middle class and pave the way for progressive change. In almost every way, this policy of isolating one of the most isolated countries in the world — where the military regime isolated itself for the better part of 30 years and evolved well in this isolation — is both counterproductive and dangerous.

McKiernan treats the recent lifting of sanctions as a cynical political move by President Obama: “I guessed Obama sorely need a win in the foreign policy column. And I watched with interest, following the visit [of Obama to Burma], when the president lifted punishing economic sanctions which had isolated Burma as a police state for decades. Now I wondered how these events would impact the beleaguered Rohingya … ” I do not get the segue there. As Robert Kaplan wrote four years ago in Monsoon (before the sanctions were lifted by Obama), the Rohingya were already beleaguered during the sanctions. Lifting the sanctions did not cause the current Rohingya problem, and reinstating the sanctions will not solve them; it will just punish the people of Burma who have already suffered enough. But McKiernan sees it as all part of a larger political game by Obama: “… the Administration’s attempt to refocus attention from the Middle East toward the China-dominated Pacific, a gambit some have dubbed Obama’s ‘Asian Pivot.’”

McKiernan is ill-informed if he thinks the recent focus of the current U.S. administration’s on the countries of the Indian Ocean is simply a personal political “gambit” by Obama to shift public attention from the intractable problems of the Middle East in order to get in the “win” column. For years, businessmen, government leaders, and international political and economic analysts have been saying that the U.S. is already late to the game in focusing on this part of the world. Just read books like 2013’s Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants by Sunil S. Amrith or Kaplan’s Monsoon:

In a densely interconnected world, America’s ability to grasp what, in a larger sense, the monsoon [of trade, globalization, unity, and progress happening in the Indian Ocean countries like India, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, with China looming in the background] represents and to recognize its manifold implications will help determine America’s own destiny and that of the West as a whole. Thus, the Indian Ocean may be the essential place to contemplate the future of U.S. Power.

What most bothered me about McKiernan’s article is that it clearly serves as a deterrent to the readers of The Santa Barbara Independent to spend their tourist dollars by visiting Burma. That would be sad if that is the result. I encourage everyone who can afford it (a long plane ride) to go there. It is a beautiful country with many beautiful people. They have problems in parts of their country, but isolating the Burmese and denying them tourist dollars will only hurt their transition and only force them into the arms of the Chinese (who were only too happy to support the prior military regime).

McKiernan speaks of a seaside resort in Burma where he spent the night, “one of many that developers hope will transform Myanmar into a tourist mecca.” But then McKiernan goes on to poetically lament: “Then I thought of Ali and others in the camp. They were like random beings adrift in a lawless outer space, where the sound of voices cannot travel. Unhooked from the earthship where most of the rest of us ride, they seem to be floating away, tinier and tinier in the distance.” Aside from the fact that I do not understand how only “most of” the rest of us ride the earthship (where do the rest of us ride?), he seems to be saying in his muddled way that turning Myanmar into a tourist mecca is a bad thing as long as a Rohingya like Ali suffers.

Bringing hotels and restaurants to Burma will create jobs there and help lift their people out of poverty. Without that, Burma returns to getting money from things like jade mines and harvesting teakwood forests, all owned and controlled by the generals. It is sad that Ali suffers, but helping the people of Burma to rise from poverty may end up helping everyone there, hopefully including the Rohingya.

Tony Wall is a long-term observer of Indian Ocean countries, having been to and studied Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Thailand, and Singapore in recent years. He works as legal counsel for a number of clothing manufacturers and has also worked an agricultural kibbutz, interned with James Fawcett of the European Commission on Human Rights, and been a lawyer in Denmark and Jordan.

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