Former UN chief Kofi Annan is travelling in Myanmar to assess the human rights situation of the Rohingya ethnic minority. DW spoke to analyst Jacques Leider about the aggravating communal hostility in the country.
Ethnic tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have been going on in Rakhine state in western Myanmar for decades. The latest riots started on October 9, when militant Muslims attacked several border guards on the frontier between Myanmar and Bangladesh, killing nine policemen from Myanmar. Since then, Myanmar security forces have been targeting what they call terrorists. The Rohingya, in turn, accuse the military and police of using massive force and committing torture and rape. About 30.000 Rohingya are believed to have fled to Bangladesh.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) advocacy group and John McKissick from the UN's refugee relief organization UNHCR in Bangladesh have sharply criticized Myanmar's handling of the conflict. HRW published satellite photographs allegedly showing Rohingya houses which have been systematically burned down by Myanmar's military. In an Interview with the BBC, McKissick spoke of "ethnic cleansing."
A spokesperson of the Myanmar government rebuffed the accusations. The country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been extremely cautious in her remarks concerning the Rohingya issue, but appointed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to chair the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state in August 2016. Annan has travelled to the conflict-ridden region and is presently there.
The crisis has also recently attracted increasing attention worldwide. On Friday, November 25, about 2,000 people protested in front of Myanmar's embassy in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. And Aung San Suu Kyi postponed a trip to Indonesia due to the ongoing crisis. Meanwhile, Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak is set to take part in protests in the country's capital Kuala Lumpur within the next days.
In this context, DW spoke to historian Jacques Leider who has been studying the history of Rakhine state for many years and worked as an advisor for the UN in 2015.
DW: What can we say with certainty about the ongoing situation in Rakhine state?
Jacques Leider: As long as journalists have no access to the region, we cannot assess what is exactly happening there. However, the events in Rakhine state tend to have a similar pattern: There is an outburst of violence. Then the military interferes seemingly without much coordination and using excessive force. This leads to panic and wild rumors start spreading. Subsequently, the Muslims take flight - often without knowing exactly what is happening. Usually they turn north, in order to cross the border with Bangladesh. The districts of Maungdaw and Buthidaung are especially affected, where the majority is Muslim.
On Tuesday, November 29, the UN said that there were probably massive human rights' violations in Rakhine state. A few days ago, an official of the UNHCR in Bangladesh used the term "ethnic cleansing." In recent years, some people spoke of a "genocide." What's your take on that?
The US government has rejected accusations that a genocide is happening in Rakhine state. I agree with this assessment. I don't think that there is a plan in place to systemically annihilate the Rohingya people. The term "slow genocide" or "slow-burning genocide" was introduced in 2013. But it was based on a notion that diverges from the mainstream understanding of a genocide by historians.
Such terminology just leads us in the wrong direction and makes it difficult to resolve the conflict between the different ethnic groups, the government and the military. Allegations of a genocide do exactly the opposite: They stoke up the conflict on and on.
What would you call the events which are happening right now in Rakhine state?
The recent campaign by the security forces was triggered by a coordinated attack on various police posts by a hitherto unknown militant Rohingya group that saw 9 policemen killed. The attack may have an Islamist background. Yet the "enquiry" of the events has led to a broad campaign of army forces. Repression and intimidation have visibly taken the lead over investigative work and considerate political planning. Military hyperactivity signals weakness and lack of coordination rather than professionalism.
There is a civilian government in place in Myanmar for some time now, under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Western NGOs, in particular, have massively criticized her when it comes to her handling of the issue. What could the government do to improve the situation in Rakhine state?
The problems in the region are deep rooted and have been there for many decades. It's too much to expect Aung San Suu Kyi to resolve all the problems in such a short time.
It's the army that has been in charge of the border region since the 1950s. Its foremost aim has been internal security and censuring the population, not ethnic harmony. By nurturing the cultural and political gaps between the Buddhists and the Muslims, they were able to exert control. Political demands were repressed and tensions implicitly reared.
Poverty and lack of development have only been acknowledged as root sources of the conflict in recent days. The present government is only just beginning to think about a new policy containing elements that had already been presented by President Thein Sein's administration.
There is criticism that the government is not doing enough and that it doesn't tell the military to exercise moderation. Do you agree that the ruling NLD party does not address the problem?
The current government is just as overwhelmed by the problems in Rakhine state as the previous government was. That's because there is no open and constructive discussion in the country on how to resolve the problems in the region. There is clearly a lack of critical voices to overcome the prevailing Buddhist-nationalist narrative.
The public in Myanmar, and in the West as well, is trapped in a black and white approach. It is widely known that the Myanmar public has a very negative attitude toward the Rohingya, which is mashed up with a general hostility toward strangers and Muslims. On the other hand, the Rohingya are too often seen collectively as passive victims, lacking agency and outside of any historical complexity.
Compared to the Rohingya, other ethnic conflicts in Myanmar don't get the same attention in the West. What do you think are the reasons?
The Rohingya have a very professional media and public relations strategy. There is hardly any region in Myanmar like the north of Rakhine state, a region with hardly any visitors, but where even the smallest incident in a hamlet gets coverage on the internet. This fact proves that the Rohingya networks are working very well.
Since 2012, the international Muslim community has shown great interest in the fate of the Rohingya, especially in the Middle East. After all, a third of the people who claim a Rohingya identity live outside of Myanmar, in countries like Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh. This explains the high level of solidarity in the Middle East as well as in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
The problem is that the international media has adopted the views of the network without any additional research. The reports only show the position of the Muslims, but not the position of the Buddhist Rakhine. That's why non-Muslim groups think the Western media are partisan. In addition, the coverage of events is very simplistic. The Rohingya are portrayed as the stereotype Muslim victims.
What would it take to defuse the situation?
You cannot talk away serious human rights violations that have overwhelmingly hit the Muslim population and need to be addressed. Yet, you have to realize that not only one side is responsible for the triangular conflict in Rakhine state. It is also quite unfortunate that journalists tend to quote people voicing extreme nationalist positions.
Many people I talk to give me the impression that, for example, moderate Buddhists in the region don't like to expose themselves. Just imagine, all Germans would be portrayed by the international press as supporters of right-wing, xenophobic movements. That's the way, many Buddhists in the region feel labeled by the international media. They feel denounced and that their own needs and interests are ignored.
Maybe Kofi Annan and his advisory commission will contribute to a new way to discuss the Rakhine conflict, since there are also Muslims in his group. But there won't be any quick and easy solution. We have to face the fact that it will take many years until the general situation improves.
Jacques Leider is historian and has been studying the history of the Rakhine state for many years.
The interview was conducted by Rodion Ebbighausen.