Myanmar is fast returning to its previous status as a pariah state as thousands protest across Asian cities to denounce the persecution of its Rohingya minority in Rakhine State.
Domestically, views are hardening and the Buddhist majority returns to its familiar isolation, indifferent to foreign attitudes.
More than 270,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled northern Rakhine into Bangladesh since August 25, according to the United Nations refugee agency. And more than 400,000 Rohingya were sheltering in Bangladeshi camps before the current crisis.
Around 1,000 people are thought to have been killed in the violence, according to the UN, although Nay Pyi Taw prevents independent journalists and aid agencies from reaching the area. Thousands in Bangladesh, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Pakistan have protested against the persecution of fellow Muslims.
The military-controlled authorities in Rakhine claim Rohingya militants killed 12 security officers in border post attacks on August 25 but the reports cannot be independently verified. If an Islamist groups did conduct the attack, it chose the worst possible time, just after former UN secretary general Kofi Annan released a report demanding an end to state persecution of the Rohingya and citizenship rights for the group.
The violence, conveniently for the government, silenced debate about the hard-hitting report.
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is coming under increasing international criticism, including an emotional open letter from fellow Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu. He wrote: “My dear sister: if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep…
“It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain.
“As we witness the unfolding horror we pray for you to be courageous and resilient again. We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people,” the South African archbishop wrote.
It should be remembered that Suu Kyi did not really win power when she won the November 2015 election.
The military fully controls the crucial ministries of home affairs, defence and border security, meaning it has almost total dominance along the Rakhine border and can jail anyone who criticises its actions there. The military-drafted 2008 Constitution gives the armed forces a quarter of parliamentary seats and these officers can veto any attempts to change the charter. For Suu Kyi to take on the military’s ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, she must threaten to resign from government unless sweeping constitutional changes are made.
This would run contrary to her collegiate approach towards the generals. Instead she is trapped in the role of puppet leader, attracting international condemnation for the brutality of a military over which she has no control.
Meanwhile, other former friends have deserted her.
The BBC’s veteran reporter Fergal Keane wrote of Suu Kyi: “We did not calculate that the stubbornness which refused to concede to the military junta might, if she came to power, prove equally forceful when confronted with foreign criticism.
“Her greatest strength in adversity could prove a defining weakness.
“Anybody who has spent time in her company knows that shifting her mind when she is set on a course of action is extremely difficult,” Keane argued.
A brief glance at the domestic media can help explain why Suu Kyi would be so reluctant to concede that genocide is being committed under her powerless administration.
It rapidly becomes clear that there are very few votes for Suu Kyi in Muslim rights if she wants to win the next general election.
The independent Eleven Media Group is an English-language example of how Myanmar’s media is whipping up anti-Muslim hatred with repeated tautological references to “ARSA Bengali extremist terrorists”, using the controversial term for the Rohingya minority that implies they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The Rohingya claim to be descended from Arab traders who arrived in the region centuries ago.
In reality, no group of more than 1 million people has ever shared identical origins.
ARSA refers to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which suddenly appeared last October after a series of raids on police border posts. As ever, details were scant and almost all come from the deceitful authorities.
The Eleven has been repeating unverified statements from the government’s shadowy “Information Committee” as fact without attribution and publishing unedited stories, riddled with errors, bypassing its foreign editing team. It is determined to pursue a Buddhist nationalist agenda and is no longer interested in international niceties.
During the last few years, the military has pursued an extremely successful strategy. It now operates in a “democratic” country and strict sanctions have been removed, while it continues to dominate all aspects of society.
It is difficult to know what is happening in Rakhine State. As blood leaks from below a locked door, the world should be suspicious of sources that detail events with confidence. But the Asean Economist will bravely make two predictions.
When the bloodshed stops and the Rohingya have been driven from the border region, the military will control the Muslim land and the fuel pipelines to China will be completed. It is a cliche to say that no one wins in war but the military and its Chinese allies will probably prosper from the persecution of the Rohingya, not the impoverished Rakhine Buddhist community.
Another prediction is that the anti-Muslim violence will spread beyond Rakhine. In the next year there may well be a rape that is blamed on a Muslim gang, with flimsy evidence, or a bomb that is claimed by a supposed Islamist “terror” group and crowded, diverse Yangon will collapse into sectarian conflict.
The lies and propaganda pushed by sections of the Yangon-based media could end in their Muslim neighbours burning. Then these so-called journalists who are repeating the state’s anti-Muslim agenda will have blood on their keyboards.
Crowded, multicultural Yangon is vulnerable to sectarian conflict. Picture credit: Asean Economist