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Suu Kyi Kicks the Rohingya

Walter Russell Mead

Nobel Laureate and human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi has adopted the stance of hardline Buddhists, advising Burmese diplomats not to use the term “Rohingya” to refer to the country’s persecuted Muslim minority. The WSJ reports:

Some 120,000 Rohingya are living in squalid camps following sectarian riots between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 in Rakhine state, which forced them from their villages and left more than 100 dead. They reside in western Myanmar near the Bangladesh border, unable to return to their villages for fear of further violence, and relying on foreign aid for support.

Underlining their situation, a fire in a camp for displaced Rohingya on Tuesday destroyed 44 longhouses where at least 2,000 people lived, the United Nations reported.

The ministry’s advisory follows protests at the U.S. Embassy over a statement of condolence issued for an accidental boat sinking on April 19 in which at least 22 people died. The embassy referred to the victims as Rohingyas, and hard-line Buddhist groups responded angrily.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the embassy last week to call on the U.S. and other countries to drop the term or be labeled as enemies of Myanmar.

By reaffirming the previous government’s directive, the ruling National League for Democracy party, which is headed by Ms. Suu Kyi, has now weighed in on the Buddhists’ side. Ms. Suu Kyi also holds a de facto prime ministerial role of state counselor.

More than just about any other British colony of its size, Burma was inundated with immigrants under British rule. Less than one-in-four people in the colonial capital of Rangoon was of Burmese ethnicity; immigrants from the Indian subcontinent often had the best government jobs and monopolized many branches of the professions and commerce. Chinese immigrants were similarly common. One of the first demands of the nascent Burmese independence movement was to force the British to separate Burma from British India, and once independence was gained, Burmese governments expelled hundreds of thousands of Indians and others, often seizing their property and forcing them to flee on foot in dangerous conditions.

This kind of brutal nationalism was common in the 1940s. Europe saw one vast episode of ethnic cleansing after another, roughly as many Jews were forced out of the Arab world in subsequent years as Palestinians fled the Jews in 1948-49, and many postcolonial governments celebrated their independence by kicking out unpopular minorities who had settled in the imperial past.

In Burma the issue is still sensitive partly because the ethnic Burmese are only a small majority in the country, and various ethnic groups have been fighting the central government on and off since independence.

The Rohingya, originally migrants from modern India or Bangladesh, claim that they have been in Burma for generations. This cuts little ice with many of the ethnic Burmese, who see the earlier migrants as illegitimate immigrants who arrived in the British era. Add to that the religious tension—Buddhist/Muslim relations have deteriorated throughout South Asia in recent years in places like Sri Lanka and Thailand as well as in Burma as both religions become more assertive — and it’s easy to see why this is a hot potato.

Suu Kyi probably feels she can’t keep her hold on her supporters without sometimes yielding to their prejudices — the organized Buddhist community is a powerful political force in her country. To her credit, the issue she has chosen is symbolic. ‘Instructing’ foreign embassies not to call Burmese Muslims of Bengali origins Rohingya doesn’t actually bind any foreign embassies to do anything—and has no practical implications for people on the ground. But it secures her political flank and avoids a break with the Buddhist clergy that could end up strengthening the military and throttling the fragile hopes for democracy in Burma.

Unfortunately, this decision is going to bring her a lot of criticism from some of her more pure-hearted human rights supporters in the West—and, to do them credit, it is an ugly decision, however politically necessary it may be. The instructions will also raise the temperature in Buddhist-Islamic relations—more fiery sermons will be made in places like Pakistan, where the cause of the Rohingya has many fervent followers.

The move toward democracy in Burma was hailed by many of the usual naive Westerners as a fairy tale. But historically, the rise of democracy has been associated with many episodes of racial and ethnic violence and populist hate-mongering. In our own country, it was the populists who wanted Andrew Jackson to ship the Cherokee to Oklahoma, and it was the southern populists who supported lynching and violence to suppress black voting. Populist politicians in Vienna whipped up the anti-Semitism that attracted the young Adolf Hitler’s attention, and in our own day we’ve seen plenty of evidence around the world that the democratization of politics doesn’t always neatly mesh with the pacification of international life.

None of this means that democracy is bad or that we shouldn’t want more of it. But it’s a good reminder that politics are as twisted as the human soul, and that our tendency to see world events through a simple moral lens is a dangerous habit.

Burma is a complicated place with a complicated past, and it is going to have a complicated future. Aung San Suu Kyi has a difficult path to walk and it may be that no human being can accomplish the tasks that lie before her. Clearly, no one can rule Burma only taking policy steps that can get seals of approval from the human rights community at every turn. Meanwhile, the drama continues…

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