A minister from Myanmar recently visited Bangladesh. It may have been a step in the positive direction, but the fact remains that though multilateral initiatives are essential to resolve the Rohingya crisis, so far the propensity has been to address the issue bilaterally. And that is why it is essential for us to comprehend Myanmar’s internal government system and its decision-making process. This is particularly important because Bangladesh in recent times has found itself more or less alone in the midst of global politics over the Rohingya crisis.
Myanmar’s system of governance is very different from that of other countries. English novelist Rudyard Kipling once said: ‘This is Burma, and it is quite unlike any land you know.’ The unique government system of the country calls for deeper understanding.
The country introduced the rule democracy, but that is still in its nascent stages. The army still has palpable presence in most areas and the influence of the Buddhist monks and astrologers on the people is strong. To understand the country’s politics and the prevailing predicament of the Rohingyas, one must also understand the nexus between the government, the army and other influential quarters.
It was way back in 1978 that a significant number of Rohingyas first entered Bangladesh. And yet till date there has been no effective national strategy devised to address the Rohingya issue. Other than India, Myanmar is Bangladesh’s only immediate neighbor and yet we have failed to develop any tangible relationship with the country. Diplomatic relations are very limited and state visits are few and far between. After becoming ‘state counselor’, Aung San Suu Kyi has visited all neighbouring states, except Bangladesh. The Rohingya crisis is complex on two grounds - the country’s geopolitical and geo-economic position, and its strange internal government system.
Myanmar’s geopolitical and geo-economic position is extremely significant. It has borders with two regional powers, China and India. It is situated at a junction between South Asia and Southeast Asia. On its south is the geo-strategically important Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Myanmar is also connected to two corridors of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China has to use the Malacca Straits route for the import of fuel oil and export of goods to the global market. This is both time consuming and costly. If they could use the sea port of the Rakhine state, this would save both time and money.
Alongside China’s growing influence in Myanmar, India has taken up several projects there too. Significant among these is the Kaladan multimodal transit project, which will give India an alternative to the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ link to its seven northeastern states. Japan and Russia also have several large projects in Myanmar. Stability in the Rakhine state is essential for these projects to continue. So the larger neighbouring states are in favour of Myanmar when it comes to the Rohingya crisis.
To understand Myanmar’s present complex situation, one must go back in history. Before the recent switch to democracy, the country had been under military rule for quite a few decades. And even before that, it had been under British India rule. It was at that time that a significant number of persons including soldiers, government officials, businessmen and construction workers came to Myanmar. Just prior to World War II, 50 per cent of the capital Rangoon’s population had been Indian. The majority Burmese began eye this as a threat to their society and religion and an anti-Indian sentiment grew.
In 1962 General Ne Win took over power and military rule replaced democracy. All industries, businesses and media were nationalised. A large-scale expulsion of persons of Indian origin began. In 1964 alone, over 300,000 persons of Indian origin were forced to leave Myanmar.
The lengthy military rule instilled certain values within the people which were very much their own and which they believed in implicitly. Myanmar’s first prime minister U Nu declared that the identity of the country would be determined by the Buddhist religion. Later General Ne Win declared that the common language Burmese would be the unifying factor of Myanmar’s citizens. And lastly, General Than Shwe declared the identity of the citizens would be based on their anthropological commonality.
There is a strong confidence among the people of Myanmar in the military, where the democratically elected government remains fragile. In a historical context, there exists an unfounded fear within the military that the Rohingyas can change Myanmar’s demographic composition. This fear has been passed on to the Burmese and Rakhines as well.
Under internal and external pressure, in 2008 the Myanmar military government drew up a new constitution, based on which elections were held in 2010. The long-standing diplomatic isolation ended and the country ventured on the path of democracy. However, the constitution was devised in such a manner that the military still has a strong grip on the government. In the parliament, 25 per cent of the seats are reserved for the military. And three important ministries - foreign, home and border - are in military control. The armed forces control the police too.
According to the constitution, the military chief is accountable to himself alone. He is not accountable, in effect, to the state counselor or the president. In fact, he can even intervene in some of the president’s decisions. The Rohingya crisis has been categorised as an internal/border problem and so the military is in charge of this too. It is difficult for the democratic government to play a role here. If the problem is to be resolved, Myanmar’s military must understand the magnitude of the crisis.
Buddhist monks wield incredible influence over the people in Myanmar. Astrologists also have a lot of clout. There are about 500,000 Buddhist monks in the country. In 2007 Buddhist monks successfully led the Saffron Revolution, declaring that Buddhism was under threat. They pointed to Indonesia, Bangladesh and similar countries, saying Buddhism had been the predominant religion in these countries, but had been overridden by Islam. The Ma Ba Tha organisation was formed which continues to resist the expansion of any other religion in Myanmar.
The parliament also passed a law barring Buddhist girls from marrying into other religions. Conversion to other religions has also been made extremely difficult under the law. The country’s astrologists too have expressed their fear about the increase in number of Muslims in the country. These astrologers also have influence in the country’s policy making. In fact, it was reportedly under advice of the astrologers that the capital was shifted from Rangoon to Naypyidaw.
If a successful resolution the Rohingya problem is to be reached with Myanmar, its history and evolution of its government system must be understood thoroughly. Other than the democratic government, the institution that holds sway over the country’s politics must also be understood. Only then will it be possible to devise a tangible plan to solve the Rohingya crisis.
*ANM Muniruzzaman is president of the Dhaka-based think-tank Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies (BIPSS). This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.