Why even Burma’s democracy activists don’t stick up for the Rohingya


Photo: Rohingya refugee children watch a football game during sunset at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on Wednesday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

My friend Rhoda Linton, who will soon be contributing to this site, has been for some years going to Myanmar to help Burmese women-led organizing efforts. She tried, but could not post this article while in Myanmar because of the internet speed, so I am posting it for her. Reading this article, it strikes me that the British have a lot to answer for, as they wrapped up their empire with deals for nationhood that extended the ethnic and religious rivalries that colonizers took advantage of and encouraged. It's also a terrible reminder of what can happen to stateless people, such as refugees or immigrants and their offspring who can never become citizens of the place they're in. U.S. policy includes naturalization and citizenship at birth but these things are on the chopping block of many immigration conservatives. That would, for example, mean that the U.S. could bring in many immigrant workers, several generations deep, without ever giving them the rights and protections of citizens.


The Yangon School of Political Science, squashed into an upper floor of a grimy old apartment block, is almost as hard to find as the liberalism that it tries to teach. Inside, the head of the school, U Myat Thu, concedes that the small foundation he has created to nurture “tolerance, liberal individualism and freedom of conscience” suddenly finds itself out of step with the times. Beyond the walls, the rest of the country has largely given itself up to the easy certainties of prejudice, hatred and ignorance.

Yet Myat Thu has spent many years as a member of National League of Democracy (NLD), the party co-founded by Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 to challenge the murderous military regimes that hijacked Burma in the early 1960s. He thought, like many other members of the opposition, that he was fighting for those hallowed values of a liberal, tolerant and open society. In November 2015, his devotion finally seemed to have been vindicated when the NLD won a landslide majority in a historic general election, ushering in Suu Kyi as the de facto leader of the country.

He was hopeful. But a great deal has happened since then — above all, the military-led ethnic cleansing campaign that has terrorized hundreds of thousands of Burma’s ethnic Rohingya minority into fleeing the country. “It’s horrible, and people have no feelings for them at all, no sympathy at all.”

Sadly, he is right. But what most worries him is that none of his fellow political warriors in the NLD have spoken out in the same way. Indeed, merely his use of the R-word marks him out in contemporary Burma as something of a hero of our time. The term “Rohingya” is officially banned, and so cowed are most people by this edict that almost no one uses it in private conversation, either.

Myat Thu believes that one reason for the NLD’s silence is that party members have for so long taken their cue from the top. If Suu Kyi is not going to say anything about the Rohingya, then they aren’t going to, either. In this sense, he, and others, wonder whether the NLD was ever the human-rights-based democratic movement that its Western supporters took it to be. Today it looks more as if it was merely a Suu Kyi fan club all along. Now that she is in power, nobody seems interested in advancing the values that the NLD was supposed to have stood for. “The process of democratization has stopped,” laments Myat Thu.

Anti-Muslim prejudice has a long history in Burma. The British encouraged millions of South Asians, many of them Muslims, to emigrate to Burma during the colonial period to run and exploit the latest addition to the empire. Burmans bitterly resented this, particularly the consequent loss of cultural and political control even in the Burman heartlands. By the eve of World War II, Yangon, the political and commercial capital, was an Indian-majority city.

The independence movement, and radical politics in general, thus became as much an anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner struggle as it was a specifically anti-British one. Suu Kyi herself is only one NLD activist to have written eloquently about the existential threat that Burman Buddhists felt from the unwelcome, uncontrolled influx of Indian Muslims, particularly when the men, relatively privileged in the colonial pecking order, started marrying Buddhist women.

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