By Daniel Otis
Myanmar’s voice of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been decidedly silent about human rights abuses since winning a seat in parliament last year. She was criticised in March for backing the expansion of a Chinese-financed copper mine that would lead to the forced eviction of 50 families. Earlier, when asked if the Rohingya are citizens of Myanmar, she reluctantly replied that she did not know and that the issue should be decided by the law. “I want to work toward reconciliation between these two communities,” the Nobel laureate was quoted as saying in November. “I am not going to be able to do that if I take sides.” In such an imbalanced conflict, however, silence can be incredibly partisan.
In a recent interview, former political prisoner and National League for Democracy MP Phyo Min Thein was more frank about the topic. “History doesn’t lie,” he told Southeast Asia Globe, “and historically, there is no such thing as ‘Rohingya’. These people are from Bangladesh. Citizenship for them is possible [if they are eligible under the law], but being defined as a distinct ethnic group is not.”
After years of being persecuted and standing up for Myanmar’s disenfranchised, the NLD, it seems, is finally playing politics by courting the ruling party, the military and Myanmar’s increasingly Islamophobic majority.
Myanmar’s government, on the other hand, has several things to gain from the violence in Rakhine state. It can ensure a continued military presence in the strategically vital region (a new deep water port and an oil pipeline to China are being built in the resource-rich state), and it has been given, if necessary, a handy excuse to slow the pace of democratic reform. With the 2015 election in mind, it could also be seeking to garner support from the Arakanese – or at the very least, ensure the subservience of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP). By supporting the Rohingya –who voted overwhelmingly for the ruling party in the widely-condemned 2010 election – despite not having citizenship papers – they would gain nothing but an angry electorate, and perhaps an Arakanese insurgency.
Atrocities that would have sparked global condemnation five years ago are now going mostly unheeded. With sanctions being lifted and barriers to trade being removed, it seems that Western democracies wouldn’t want to jeopardise business for something as trivial as human rights.
“Exiled to nowhere” – Recent sectarian violence has brought renewed attention to the Rohingya. Brutal oppression is nothing new to this Muslim ethnic group, many of whom have chosen to endure a hellish existence in hostile Bangladesh rather than return to their native Myanmar
“Etched in time: Chin women” – Their faces marked with intricate tattoos, an older generation of Chin women embody a dying art of ritual in one of the country’s most isolated and persecuted states. Photographer Brent Lewin captures their story
“Gimme shelter” – As a new Myanmar emerges, the battle rages on for the inhabitants of Kachin, its northernmost state. Thousands of civilians have been displaced and ethnic troops have taken up arms once more to defend their homeland from government forces. Photographer Narciso Contreras captures their story
“War on Myanmar’s women” – With the constitution relegating women to second-class citizens and the national army increasingly employing sexualised violence as a weapon of subjugation, Myanmar is still very much a military man’s world
“A failed state?” – How Myanmar can position itself to join the ranks of successful nations