THE BLOG

Myanmar: The International Community's Dilemma

05/08/2014 13:19 BST | Updated 04/10/2014 10:59 BST

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Providing Relief items by boat to camps in the Rakhine State (AMS 2014)

As international community focus centres on the events unfolding in Gaza, in Myanmar, the silent genocide of the Rohingyas is still continuing as it has been for decades previously. Like the Palestinians, the Rohingya are not only stateless or lack citizenship rights, they are officially in the eyes of the Government of Myanmar, identity less. Like the Palestinians with Israel and Zionism, the Rohingya are also dealing with a racist and xenophobic system & culture that links ethnicity to religion, a purist form that ironically saw an emergence in the early 20th century with Nazism.

The entire Myanmar nation is complicit, from the president down to the grassroots, in terms of how the Rohingyas are perceived, accepted and treated. The situation is so bleak that calls for the extermination of the race of the Rohingyas are not uncommon. This intolerance is not just reserved for the Rohingya community, but observers will testify that it exists towards Muslims (and even Christians) i.e. anyone non Buddhist. These anti minority sentiments especially against the Muslims are not as some claim an 'unfortunate social consequence of transition from authoritarianism to democracy'. They are part of a decade long persecution of the community in the country often led by the authorities who have manufactured, endorsed, committed and allowed to be committed such violence. Myanmar's military in particular have played a large part in manufacturing this Burman-Buddhist nationalist ideology and institutionalizing a culture of fear and distrust of minorities. In recent times, the Military have taken a back step largely due to Myanmar's chairmanship of ASEAN as well as planned elections of 2015 as reasons why there has been a restrained effort by the government whilst indirectly proxies have been allowed to perpetuate the violence and keep alive this xenophobic nationalistic rhetoric.

It is this fear of "the other" within Myanmar's society especially when it comes to the issue of the Rohingyas that are the "elephant in the room" for the international community much more adept at black-and-white depictions of Myanmar's history as a struggle between military and "democratic" civilian forces. So far the international community have failed to put pressure on the Government or indeed its famous opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (who has famously remained reticent on this issue). It is also an issue that donors have been reluctant to chastise the government on. If anything, the international community has gone out of its way to avoid unnecessary criticism for the fear that it could jeopardise not only the transition of the country to democracy but more importantly the economic benefits that such a transition could bring.

This can only be the reason to explain the meekness behind certain actions of the international community this year itself. Take for example, the recent apology issued by UNICEF for using the term Rohingya in an official document, something that they tried to deny. Or the violence in March of this year that saw the destruction of millions of dollars of assets of the UN and other INGOs, which caused the agencies to withdraw for a few months from humanitarian operations in the affected areas of the Rakhine State. Despite such wanton destruction, unlike in other country there was hardly an international outcry.

The recent census which took place at the beginning of the year supported largely by the international community against the advice of activists and observers is yet another example of a confused position. Despite the government's undertakings to allow a self-identification of the Rohingya as well as an agreement on allowing Rohingya enumerators to conduct the census, both of these promises were broken. People were not allowed to self -identify while in some cases, officials had to be bribed in order for people to be allowed to participate in the census. The recent violence in Myanmar's second biggest city Mandalay against the Muslim community has sparked fears of a demographic redistribution in the preemption of a census not showing the desired ethnic distribution by the extreme elements of Myanmar.

This reluctance by the International Community to engage on the issue in the hope that democracy will wash away the problems is ideologically problematic. It doesn't fully comprehend the history of community relations; minority existence and ethnic tensions of the country. There are deep seated problems which cannot be solved merely through elections and a legal system. It needs a deeper engagement between faiths and a deeper social understanding of the concept of citizenship. This needs time and patience. It needs to undo the power of the military (and their vision of nationalism) and the influence that they have even within some of Myanmar's Buddhist monasteries.

Building trust and better relationships between ethnic groups from the grassroots level should be a priority for the Myanmar government supported by the International Community. A democratic system is not just about elections, but about citizenship and understanding basic notions of political rights. Much more effort and investment needs to be undertaken to ensure that these mechanisms and institutions are set right at the grassroots level before imposing a top-down electoral process. More must be done to hold the government accountable for the role it has played in supporting organizations and movements responsible for inciting hatred and violence. Its institutions need to understand the basis of the rule of law and ensuring safety and security for all.

Otherwise, there is a great danger of repeat violence prior to next year's elections. Myanmar and its people need to fundamentally understand the roles, rights and responsibilities of citizens in a multicultural, democratic country. This takes time, effort and investment and cannot and will not be solved by prematurely pushing for a census or elections. Programs at all levels of society need to be quickly developed to teach people how they can be part of a democratic process.

If Myanmar is to truly join the global community, the floor must be open to debate the issues of the Rohingya and other ethnicities. Approaching the problem both sensitively and directly, unlike even powerful figures in the pro-democracy movement, has to be part of the international community's much-needed road map for this country. If the foundations of democratic understanding at the grassroots level are not built, the 2015 elections will be a superficial showpiece and Myanmar runs the risk of retreating back into its shell.