Myanmar, a relatively large Southeast Asian country that is about the size of Italy and Germany combined, the country’s central core is the long and flat Irrawaddy Valley, home of the Burman ethnic group majority (traditionally known as the Bamars). The country is home to an incredible variety of ethnic groups. To the east of the country lies the concentration of the Shan ethnic groups on the hilly region; to the north and northwest lies the ethnicities such as the Chin and Kachin. This particular area is covered with mountains and hills that continue all the way to the Himalayas. The South East and South are home to primarily the Karen ethnicity groups. The region is highly valued by the government for its abundant mineral resources like the precious jade stones apart from various other resources. The western region is home to the Rohingyas that is also known as the Rakhines. These people were deemed to be “the most persecuted minorities on Earth”. The Rohingyas’ remain the predominant source of personnel for the Arakan Army (Myanmar Separatists). Factions of the Arakan Army are notorious for upholding extremist values and they are primarily funded by foreign money with various interests in the resource-rich country. The Arakan Army have fought the Myanmar government for a long time, attacking civilians and the Myanmar army alike. They have also in the past crossed borders into Bangladesh and carried out attacks on the Bangladesh border guards and civilians.
The different ethnic groups in Myanmar after decolonisation were promised federalisation by the founder of modern Myanmar Aung San. Aung San was also the leader of Myanmar in its earlier post-colonial days who was assassinated by the opposition. Myanmar however went through military dictatorships ever since and has not carried out the promise made to its minority ethnicities with aggressive strategies used against the indigenous population that increased resentment towards the government in Naypyidaw (capital of Myanmar).
This unrest had significant impacts in the western area of Myanmar, subsequently giving rise to the anti-muslim sentiments and various crimes carried out by Fundamentalist Buddhist monks in the last few decades with the help of some Myanmar army personnel. In addition, a rise in extremist propaganda like Al-Qaeda and Daesh (modern neo-extremist Muslim groups) and smuggled weapons and monetary resources have made minority groups to retaliate against the government. This consequently has made the situation more embroiled with chaos. As a response to the rising levels of abuse from the Myanmar government and some extreme monks, there has been ‘retaliations’ from a minority of the Rohingya people as well as Karen people in the North as they fight to survive a possible ethnic cleansing. The current situation of the Rohingyas under Myanmar authorities remain one of the worst in contemporary times.
The ethnic groups such as the Shan, Chin, Kachin, Karen and Rohingyas make up about half the total population of the country while the area they inhabit is particularly rich in natural resources. These areas have been proven to have huge reserves of copper, silver and minerals, including several important trade routes of neighbouring countries. This unique combination has made Myanmar susceptible to continuous skirmishes among the military-controlled government and its many minorities who are supported by various foreign players for about seventy years. The importance of the resources in this area explains the importance of the foreign support for the minorities and Myanmar government’s harsh policies towards them.
In order to get a deeper understand of the war-torn country, it is necessary to discover a brief history of the Rakhine people. The Arakan Army (consisting predominantly Rohingya people) currently is fighting for the rights of the Rakhines and a separate Rakhine state. The area of Rakhine is bordered with Bangladesh and highly mineral-rich. The Rohingyas make up around 5.53% of Myanmar’s total population. A large portion of these people have also resided in South-Eastern regions of Bangladesh since the 16th century and are known as “Marmas” amongst the Bengalis. Another group of them lives in the Tripura state, India and their presence there dates back to the time of the “Arakanese” or Rakhine Kings.
The Rakhine history can be traced back to the Dhanyavadi Kingdom, which started off around 3525 BC. Buddha himself visited this kingdom and thus sprung the roots of this region’s tight relationship with the religion. During the Lemro period (818 to 1430 AD) the region became highly prosperous from international trading and major cities were built. The Golden Age of the Rakhine province started under the rule of King Mong Saw Mon in 1430 AD and they rose to be one of the strongest kingdoms of the region. The Rakhine state also had a historical connection to Bengal as the Sultanate of Bengal ruled over it for a period. However, the independent kingdoms steadily declined in influence during the 17th century after the European imperialists (Portuguese) started trading in these regions and gained a piece of the Arakans to consolidate their early presence in Asia. Internal fights and instability were common in the Rakhine state from that point as the Europeans have followed the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy in Myanmnar.
The British imperialists (East-India Company) arrived in the 18th century and the Burmese were defeated in three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824 to 1885). All of modern day Myanmar was under British control from 1886 and Rangoon became the capital of this British Burma (now Myanmar). Major changes during this period occurred, large numbers of Indians moved in along with swarms of Englishmen who dominated civic and commercial life. Resentment amongst the Burmese was strong and the lack of respect shown by the British to their culture and religion further fuelled the discontentment.
British Burma gained status as a separate colony from British India on April 1st 1937 with Ba Maw as its premier but he was forced to resign and arrested when he spoke up against Burma’s participation along with the British in the Second World War. The war turned out to be a defining period for Burmese independence.
Burma became a major battleground during the war and the whole country was devastated as initially the Japanese gained complete control of the region and formed the Burmese Executive Committee, headed by Ba Maw. The Japanese helped the separate Burmese cause, hence there were support from the locals for the Japanese against the British imperialists. The British and Americans countered through the military intervention known as the Chindits and Merrill’s Marauders, who were long range penetration troops. They operated deep behind Japanese lines to defuse any Japanese influence and the independence movements of colonial Burma. By late 1944, the American and British forces had started a major push and laid waste to some 150,000 Japanese troops with huge local casualties around 200,000. The Burma Independence Army had been formed with Japanese help in 1940 by Aung San and had fought alongside the Japanese along with the Arakan National Army during 1942 to 1944 against its colonial forces. However, at near the end of the war they switched allegiance in 1945 to help the independence cause.
After the war ended, Aung San negotiated the Panglong Agreement (of federalisation of the different ethnic regions of Myanmar) with the ethnic leaders to gain support for the independence of Myanmar as a unified state. In 1947, Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Myanmar, a transitional government and has been regarded as the Father of the Modern Burma (Myanmar) since then. But in July 1947, political rivals assassinated Aung San and several cabinet members and political chaos ensued.
The Panglong agreement has not yet been carried out by the central government since Myanmar’s independence. Therefore, the minorities keep fighting against the central government in Naypyidaw. The Shan leaders were promised the option to split from Myanmar a decade after independence if they were unsatisfied with the central government. This was, however, not carried out by the post-independence government following Aung San’s assassination. During the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar Armed Forces) heavy militarisation of the state in the late 1940s and early 1950s, locals accused them of mistreating, torturing, robbing, raping, unlawfully arresting, and massacre of villages. This worsened the situation in Myanmar and leave it disordered. In 1949, the Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw General Smith Dun, an ethnic Karen, was fired because of the rise of Karen opposition groups, which further increased ethnic tensions. He was replaced by Ne Win, a Bamar nationalist who would go on to become the dictator of Myanmar after enacting the coup d’etat in 1962.
After the coup, the Tatmadaw government faced accusations of rape, looting and torture by the military. Also in this time major parliamentary members and ethnic leaders were arrested and detained without trial. Major rebel factions were formed during this period as the country dived deeper into chaos. General Ne Win sat down with the rebels for peace talks twice but his refusal to adopt a multi-party system failed and the minority groups insisted on autonomy and negotiations were not fruitful. Under his 26-year dictatorship Myanmar became an isolated hermit state as they adopted extreme socialist policies such as abolishing all private property. Economic progress was severely disrupted and in a few decades Myanmar turned into one of the least-developed countries in the world.
The decline resulted in much discontentment which came to fore during the “8888 Nationwide Popular Pro Democracy Protests”. Like in many other revolutions against oppressive regimes, this movement was started off by students, this time from Rangoon Arts and Science University and Rangoon Institute of Technology. The students’ protest and their message spread throughout the country as thousands took to the streets to voice their anger towards the government. Variety of individuals took part including children, buddhist monks, housewives and many others that came out to fight against oppression. Aung Saan Su Kyi, the daughter of Aung San became the new icon for the country and the face for struggle against the military dictatorship. As a result to the uprising, General Ne Win’s forces retaliated and broke down the movement. There were heavy casualties believed to be in the thousands though the government claims that the number of death to be around 350.
Even after General Ne Win’s government was removed from power, they were replaced by another junta government. General elections were held in 1990 and though Aung Saan Su Kyi’s party won by a landslide, the military men in power refused the authority of the election and placed her under house arrest. She refused the opportunity given by the government to live with her family abroad as she stayed back to fight for the rights of the people in Myanmar under a house arrest. She was rewarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her attempts to bring democracy. The army continued its actions against the ethnic minorities and there were high levels of restrictions placed compared to the previous military government. As the 1988 movement was politically motivated, the ethnic minorities and their plights did not get any proper exposure. Major levels of abuse continued as the ethnic groups such as the Karen faced persecution as the army ravaged their land for the wide variety of resources.
The bravery of the Karen people deserves stories of their own as they have fought the oppressive Myanmar military for decades and remain one of the tragedies unheard of within the international community. These people have been forced out of their homes, pushed into exile, have their women and children raped and the men being used as slave labour. They have been forced into exile camps where they have managed to set up resistance movements and taken up arms against the tyranny of the current Myanmar central government and its military. As they are denied their ancestral lands, they continued to fight back in order to reclaim it. This include children as young as twelve years of age that have been found to be leading their own guerrilla troops against the Myanmar forces.
Similar to the Karens, the Rohingya people are facing what looks like an ethnic cleansing where recently, the Myanmar’s Military General have labelled them as Bengali” intruders and warned the UN Human Rights Council against sending their investigative committee. The Rohingyas continue to be denied their rights and their ancestral Arakan lands. The crises gave rise to an anti-muslim mindset among the local Rakhine fundamentalist monks. Reports have emerged of some monks who have taken up arms against the Rohingyas, as they helped organise their communities against the Rohingyas in an ethnic dispute. Like many other places in the world, the result of Muslim persecution gives rise to the ugly face of Terrorism and neo-extremist ideologies. The Myanmar government in turn has used it to their advantage for its scaremongering tactics that they use to influence the Rakhine monks against the Rohingyas. The number of deaths among the Rohingyas continues to rise as a result of refugees trying to escape on small boats to safer lands in neighbouring countries.
Aung Saan Su Ki, the Nobel laureate, has become the unofficial head of Myanmar’s recently formed democratic government but has been shown to have no real power to stop the military’s actions. She has rejected the UN’s probe regarding the Rohingya situation by saying “would do more to inflame, rather than resolve issues at this time”. It is also necessary to mention that the parliament in Naypyidaw has an odd requirement, which is to reserve a significant amount of parliamentary seats to be possessed by military officials.
Since its independence, like many other former European colonies, the military have filled in the void of the imperial power. As the military wields too much power, like many military governments there has been a lack of acceptance for minorities and they were continued to be persecuted. The exploitation by the military and central government matches the tune with other post-colonial military dictatorships. The two major regional powers India and China continues the supply of modern weapons to the Myanmar military. Also Pakistan and some gulf states have supported the Arakan Army for its separatist cause. Unless the military’s power is vastly reduced or the central government tries in establish the Panglong agreement of federalisation change looks very unlikely in the situation.
The region is placed in a very strategically significant position with most of its borders shared with the two future global superpowers, India and China and volatility in Myanmar could well cause major disruptions in the region. It is therefore very important for all its neighbours including India, China, Thailand, Bangladesh and Laos to handle Myanmar carefully and restore stability in the country. The crisis continues to grow and this may spill into the region and disrupt the trade routes of the neighbouring states. Despite this, forces outside of India, China and other neighbouring countries have had influence in the continuous civil war. It is argued that it was an attempt to keep the destabilisation rolling as a way of keeping a hold of influence in the region thus this should not be ignored. For now, the destructive civil war that started all the way back in 1948 continues. What will be the outcome of the civil war? Will the emerging powers of Asia find a peaceful solution to Myanmar’s crises?
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Edited by – Ahmed Ashfaque Shahbaz