MYANMAR — Where does one begin when asking how to help people in Myanmar? With the announcement in 2011 that its military junta would relinquish power, the release from detention of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and her party’s huge electoral landslide in 2015, casual observers assumed freedom returned to Myanmar, also known as Burma. Not quite. The junta that staged a coup d’état in 1962 continues to control much of the government and its spending. Additionally, the fierce, religion-based nationalism they stoked for years continues.
Myanmar’s generals effectively stripped citizenship from hundreds of thousands of people in 1982 when it declared that only certain local races of people, or those with an ancestor that lived in British Burma when it formed in 1823, were citizens. Almost 30 years later, the U.N. refugee agency estimated that 800,000 Rohingya are stateless in a country they long considered their own. Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, the Rohingya are from an area annexed shortly after 1823 and lost citizenship as a result.
The government and many Myanmar citizens consider the Rohingya to be illegal Bengali immigrants. They face restrictions on travel, the size of their families, and must get permission to marry. At least 140,000 were internally displaced in clashes with Buddhists in 2012. In April 2013, Human Rights Watch reported the situation and its aftermath — in which local security forces “acted as their jailers” — as “crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.”
A major problem for Suu Kyi is how to help people in Myanmar that are considered illegal. Human rights watchers believe the country’s de facto leader, held in detention for years after her legal election as president in 2001, should empathize with the Rohingya and are dismissive of her response. Even when 75,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after violent clashes with the government in November 2016, her reaction was considered tepid at best, and at worst, accusatory.
Some Western diplomats think Suu Kyi is appeasing the military for now to influence change down the line. She also must deal with an ever-more powerful Buddhist nationalist movement, egged on by the generals for decades. But in a recent interview, she said, “I would appreciate it so much if the international community would help us … instead of always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment.”
She went farther, adding, “It doesn’t help if everybody is just concentrating on the negative side of the situation, in spite of the fact that there were attacks against police outposts,” which sounded to some as if she were excusing the government’s crackdown and legitimizing genocide.
How can we help people in Myanmar, when the most likely advocate isn’t on board? The United Nations set up an official inquiry in March, but the Myanmar government said it would refuse entry to investigators. Perhaps with the intent to influence the United States, the UNHCR earlier this month said, “It’s important to work on granting citizenship to the Muslim community, that has been deprived of citizenship for many years.”
Three days later, on July 10th, U.S. officially urged Myanmar to allow an inquiry by the U.N., hoping to reverse the decision. “It is important,” said Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., “that the Burmese government allow this fact-finding mission to do its job.”
– Laurie Gold