It's great that US Ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, has finally spoken out on the ethno-religious riots between Rohingyas and Buddhist people in the Rakhine state.
He points out racism in Myanmar society at large, something some of us have been saying for so long.
But the problem with shifting the new focus onto popular racism is that it lets the real culprits – the generals and their troops – off the hook.
The Myanmar regime has a direct and immediate hand in the recent communal riots between the Rakhines and the Rohingya – who it only refers to as “Bengali Muslims” – by sending the message that these people do not belong in Myanmar, even though they were born on Rakhine soil and have been in the country for generations.
For the record, I place the ultimate responsibility for the outbreak of ethno-racial violence squarely on the Thein Sein government. Successive military regimes since Ne Win’s reign (1962-1988) have used the tactic of ethnic and religious divide and rule. Precedents and contemporary cases abound. In 1967, Ne Win reportedly diverted attention from the failings of his socialist economy – which resulted in rice shortages across the country – by blaming “greedy Chinese merchants”. That sparked anti-Chinese riots. When the mob in Yangon stormed the Chinese Consulate, the generally trigger-happy Burmese troops (when it comes to “restoring law and order”) simply stood by and watched the mob kill the deputy chief of mission on the Chinese Consulate’s premises. The regime is pursuing a scorched-earth military operation against the Kachins in the north while offering ceasefire deals to the other armed ethnic resistance groups.
This is the regime that has specialised in “law and order” for the past 50 years, since 1962. It deliberately let all hell break loose in western Myanmar because it suited the regime in multiple ways for the Rakhine and the Rohingyas to slaughter one another.
Burmese generals have never liked the Rakhines people, especially those who are ethno-nationalistic and want to push for genuine political autonomy for the Rakhine state.
Troops and all other security units stationed in western Myanmar, on the other hand, have turned all kinds of severe restrictions – in place for at least 30-40 years – into the basis for extorting and abusing the Rohingyas. For instance, the Rohingyas’ physical movements and their ability to marry and have children were restricted, requiring permission from the authorities and security units. In effect, the Rohingyas were turned into cash cows by the local security units in western Myanmar.
For their part, the Rakhine people felt angry that the government security troops and authorities were benefitting economically from the Rohingya. (The Rohingya population in general are very poor, while there are a handful of wealthy Rohingya business families. Many Rohingyas who work abroad, however, remit money back to their families in western Myanmar.) Also, forced labour among the Rohingya population is disproportionately higher than in any other ethnic community including those in Myanmar’s active war zones in the eastern and northern regions of the country. So, the authorities extract both cash and labour from the captive Rohingya population.
But the Rakhine people felt powerless in the face of the overwhelming might of the security forces on their soil, despite their perception of the regime’s favouritism to the Rohingyas, whom the Rakhine have come to consider as “animals” on their soil.
So, naturally, the Rakhine people grew more hateful of the Rohingyas and the state security apparatus, and finally took it out on the weaker of the two – the Rohingyas.
When violence broke out, not only did the security forces not intervene to keep order and nip the initial violence in the bud, but troops – some Burmese and some Rakhine themselves – in places like Maungdaw decided to turn against their cash cows and forced labourers – the Rohingyas.
This time it wasn’t the greed of the troops, who had long milked the Rohingyas for their money and extracted labour that led them to directly participate in the slaughter of the Rohingyas. Rather it was the Burmese and Rakhine people’s general dislike of Muslims that finally compelled the troops in Maungdaw to machine-gun the Rohingyas in large numbers.
Evidence of the attacks keeps surfacing from various independent eyewitnesses. According to one local researcher in the country – whose account of the Rohingya slaughter at the hands of the Burmese and Rakhine security forces was published in Al Jazeera English (“Mass graves for Myanmar’s Rohingya, August 9) – the troops that he interviewed openly talked about “how much they hate Muslims” and described coldly the manner in which they machine-gunned down the Rohingya.
This directly corresponds with the policies of Nay Pyi Daw. This is not simply troops in local areas shooting without orders from above and getting away with mass murder. In fact, the widespread view within the military is: “the bottom line is, we do not want more Muslims in our country”. So there is not simply popular racism but vertical and official hatred of Muslims in general and the Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar in particular.
To deny this is to add insult to injury. The focus of the current riot inquiry by the presidential commission and the international media coverage needs to focus on this direct connection between popular racism and the regime’s racist and violent policies and practices of the last 40 years since Operation Snake King (or Nagamin) killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Rohingyas and drove hundreds of thousands more out of western Myanmar into Bangladesh in the 1970s, under the Ne Win-Sein Lwin regime. Ne Win was the godfather, and Sein Lwin was the butcher.
Muang Zarni is a visiting fellow at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, the London School of Economics. A veteran founder of the Free Burma Coalition, Zarni advocated “principled and strategic engagement” with the regime as early as 2003. @ email@example.com.