The Myanmar Crisis is More Than the Rohingya

At Shabrang Harbor in Teknaf, at the Bangladesh border, newly arrived refugees just off boats from Myanmar, carry all that they have as they wait to register as refugees in country.

BANGKOK — In January of 1863, as the civil war in the United States neared its half-way point, southern Confederate soldiers in Madison County, North Carolina seeking to root out support for the northern campaign to save the union whipped two elderly women, shot a thirteen-year-old boy and twelve others, and then buried the men in a shallow grave.

The Shelton Laurel Massacre, as it became known, was one of the most appalling episodes of the American Civil War, but far from the only one. Today, the massacre is a little-remembered episode in a larger war that was defined less by its worst atrocities and more for the lasting legacy of division, distrust, and devastation that it wreaked on the entire country.

I thought about the Shelton Laurel Massacre last month when I saw Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto president of Myanmar, testify before the International Court of Justice on the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. The plight of the Rohingya — a Muslim minority group within a Buddhist-dominated province along Myanmar’s eastern border with Bangladesh — has rightly gripped the world’s attention.

Widespread reports of the systematic rape, murder, and burning of Rohingya villages at the hands of the military make clear that Burmese generals have sought (at best) to drive the Rohingya out of Myanmar and (at worst) erase them from existence. That Suu Kyi denied the atrocities without ever once uttering the word “Rohingya” was, to put it mildly, unconvincing (and, unsurprising, to those who know her best). It did little to deter the United Nations General Assembly from quickly passing a resolution that expressed alarm at the “gross human rights violations and abuses suffered by Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.”

But this cannot be the end of this story. In a very real way, the Rohingya tragedy is the Shelton Laurel Massacre of Myanmar: that is, as depraved and horrific as it is, it is just one small chapter in an unbroken string of depraved and horrific acts committed by the Myanmar military against 135 other ethnic groups in Burma since the end of World War II, the world’s longest-running civil war. What the Rohingya crisis has done is give Western eyes a brief glimpse into the kind of horrors that millions of ethnic minorities continue to experience every single day in places where Western cameras aren’t allowed to go. Not only does the truth about Myanmar put the lie its claims to “democracy” while further shredding Suu Kyi’s legitimacy as a moral leader, understanding the full story is critical if the world actually wants to help the Rohingya while preventing Burma from becoming a satellite nation wholly controlled by China.

This modern chapter of this conflict is rooted in the end of its colonial history. British colonial rulers since 1886 had controlled the country, considered a province of British India, through a divide-and-conquer strategy that pitted ethnic groups against one another, with some favored and others isolated as the British saw fit. This created a stew of lasting resentment and division.

During World War II, ethnic minorities were promised a leading role in the post-war government, but in the waning days of British rule in 1948, the Brits reneged. The ethnic Bamar, the largest of the country’s ethnic groups, dominated the newly independent government instead. Dissatisfied with their autonomy and status in the newly independent nation, many of the other 135 ethnic groups turned to armed revolt, beginning the civil war.

The reason the civil war still rages 75 years later is simpler: money. Or, rather, money made as a result of access to Myanmar’s many precious resources, from oil and gas to minerals, forests, and farmland. Problem is, most of the natural resources are located in the border regions that surrounded the country like a horseshoe, which is where ethnic groups live. Myanmar’s ruling Bamars, meanwhile, are concentrated in the center.

For more than seven decades, rather than work out an equitable sharing arrangement that would create a wide circle of prosperity, the Myanmar military has chosen to rob those resources by blunt force, control those outside areas to guarantee their continued dominance. More recently, China — by far the biggest outside investor in Myanmar — has also depended on extracting resources from these same areas. This toxic mix of interests has ensured that the civil war continues while keeping different ethnic groups divided from one another.

Resolving the Rohingya crisis, then, requires solutions that change the incentives that drive Myanmar’s Bamar government and military to repress ethnic minorities and the factors that have prevented anyone from stopping them for decades.

Those answers won’t come from inside the Myanmar government. While some wonder “what happened” to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was seen as an icon of democracy and moral leadership by many in the West after being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her opposition to the military while under house arrest. Since being elected the nation’s de facto leader in 2016, she has consistently defended the military’s actions while remaining completely silent about the plight of ethnic minorities. While a growing chorus has asked what caused her “fall from grace,” long-time observers (including this writer), will tell you that it’s quite simple. First, she has never been in charge — under the country’s constitution, written by the military, they have total power over everything important. And more importantly, second, she is a Bamar nationalist to the core and always has been — even in her darkest days under house arrest, she never championed the rights of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. When she championed freedom, it was entirely about her freedom, not theirs.

One long-time observer of this history is my friend Tim Heinemann, a former colonel in the U.S. Green Berets, dean at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College, and counter-terrorism instructor at the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School, who has served an advisor to the Karen, Arakanese, Kachin, and other ethnic groups, for more than a decade. The government, he tells me, is a “lost cause.” Instead of relying on Suu Kyi and her fellow Bamars to act, ethnic minority groups, together with international organizations, need to act to transform the facts on the ground in ways that force the ruling majority, China, and other foreign investors who enable Mynamar’s military to change their behavior.

Where to start? He suggests three places.

First, ethnic minorities need to embrace a tougher, more united approach that inflicts real pain on the Myanmar military and the Chinese.

The ethnic minority groups are often located near strategic and economic pressure points, such as infrastructure built by China to access resources in their areas. In recent years, some groups have become bolder about sabotaging and attacking these critical targets. Heinemann tells me that this “revolutionary spirit is on the rise as one form of backlash against Myanmar military and Chinese dominance,” but it is being undermined by factionalism among minority groups, a lack of important capabilities, and bribes paid by China to corrupt key leaders. International support should focus on ways to unite ethnic minority groups around the common goal of winning independence for all their people, rather than continuing to allow the Burmese generals to keep the opposition divided into 135 different groups.

Second, international organizations like the United Nations and development banks like the World Bank should unite around a development and investment plan that strengthens ethnic minorities. Ethnic groups “have an opportunity to serve as innovators of viable economic models that can improve local and national GDP,” Heinemann tells me. One example: “joint rare earth minerals development might serve as a point of unity, because of massive profit potential.” The leverage of bringing significant investment to Myanmar, coupled with the threat of increasing sabotage by minority groups, can help extract concessions from the government — including, for example, halting military operations against the Rohingya.

Third, and finally, ethnic political leaders need to go on a PR offensive — educating Westerners and other investors on the threats they face, what Heinemann calls “name, blame, and shame.”

Shame works: a UN fact-finding report last year exposed 59 foreign companies with ties to Myanmar’s military. Multiple major fashion brands who were revealed in the report to be sourcing material from Myanmar factories linked to the military were forced to stop or re-consider.

In the U.S. Civil War, when Confederate soldiers massacred civilians in North Carolina, hanged people in Texas, or executed unarmed Union soldiers in Missouri, these were war crimes. But there was little the Union could do about each individually. It had to bring the civil war to an end on its own terms — while changing the reality on the ground, battle by battle.

In Myanmar, stopping just one atrocity isn’t enough. Lasting peace will require a new approach from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities — one that unites their cause, leverages their strengths, and acts in a way that Aung San Suu Kyi has never aspired to for her country: as one nation.

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