Soon after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made her first visit to strife torn Rakhine province, the New York Times editorial in its week end edition of 4-5 Nov last came down heavily on her muted comments on the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority group . It’s statement – “To visit and to say nothing about the crimes that occured there is an act of complicity’ is nothing short of outright condemnation of the Government of Myanmar’s position in the Rohingya issue and the steps taken to restore normalcy and more importantly to facilitate return of the Rohingyas to Rakhine.
This is somewhat unfair because the Editorial in the same breath admitted that ” in Myanmar , the Generals still retain absolute control over security and civil service” which severely restricts the power that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could exercise to deal with this situation. One must note that under the present constitution made in 2008 the Armed forces control ” Home, Defence and border Affairs” over which as the State Counsellor, she has no real control as she could at the most suggest a course correction but not a change in either strategy or basic policy in crucial issues like the citizenship laws enacted in 1982 which made the ethnic Rohingya ineligible for citizenship as they were deemed to have migrated from the erstwhile British ruled Bengal after 1824 when the East India Company launched the first Anglo Burmese war that led to annexation of Lower Burma including today’s Rakhine and made a part of Bengal Presidency. Unless this 1824 ” cut off” date for citizenship is changed by amendment to a later date acceptable to both the parties- the majority Buddhist in Rakhine and the Rohingya minority there is no way to resolve the crisis and to facilitate the return of the Rohingyas to Rakhine. And given the fact that the Constitution allows Armed forces 25 percent of total seats in the Legislature without their consent no such initiative could even be considered.
Despite this severe constraint Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met the Rohingya Muslim representatives and assured them of starting a “registration” process which is a no doubt a positive development. We must note Daw’s problem that way back in 1962 the junta abolished the judiciary that the British left behind in Myanmar on the Indian model and set up military courts which means absence of a real civil and criminal justice system which constrains enforcement of any Civil right including entitlement to citizenship. However,some facts cannot be ignored. First, the Rohingyas are a ” geo political minority” that is, a minority in the whole of Myanmar but majority in northern Rakhine bordering Bangladesh ; and this strategic location emboldened them even during pre Partition of India period – especially after 1945 to demand merger into East Pakistan in 1947.Probably because of their support to the British during the second world war , the noted Myanmarese scholar Thant Myint-U observed in his fascinating account of Burmese history- The river of lost steps that the Rakhine Muslims thought that they too, like the Muslims under the Muslim league in India might succeed in partitioning Burma.
Even after Burma attained independence the separatist demand was raised by them in the Burmese Constituent Assembly in 1948 and a low intensity insurgency was started by the Mujahedin in the same year and continued since then in some form by Armed groups like Hay- Haraka- Al- Yaqin. This created a severe trust deficit between the Rohingya Muslim minority and the Buddhist majority and led to cancellation of ” White cards” issued to the Rakhine Muslims earlier in 2015 , non inclusion in the list of 135 recognised ethnic groups and the severe ” 1824 cut off date” that turned Rohingyas as illegal immigrants unless they could provide their continuous residential status from before 1824- a condition most Rohingyas would never be able to meet.
This being the ground reality, It is tight rope walking for the nascent democracy – a fact known to the West and even then the West is talking about” sanction ” against Myanmar and why. Perhaps the outcry over human rights violations in Rakhine in western media has a deeper message and it could be a signal to the estranged Muslim world to reconcile and to renew the bonds which enabled the West to dominate the resource rich Muslim countries for over a century by now . President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia to reaffirm friendship despite Saudi agenda of promoting Neo Wahabi extreme variant of Sunni Islam world wide with focus on South Asia, the fall of Raqqa, the capital of Daesh, the Islamic Caliphate and Muslim insurgencies in Philippines elsewhere have created a ground for a new power game.
To this may be added the West’s concern about USD 7.5 billion Chinese investments in Myanmar to build oil and gas pipeline linking Yunnan province to Myanmar’s Kyaukphyu Port on its West coast and the influence China holds in the economy of Myanmar, an ASEAN member and a willing partner of China’s one Belt one Road initiative. Rebalancing in Asia requires restoration of old partnerships with the strategically important Muslim states and hence the concern for the Rohingya plight.
Thus there is more in sudden media blitz of the West on the Rohingya problem than what meets the eye . It is time to recall Lord Palmerston’s dictum that in international relations there’s no permanent friendship but only ” permanent interests “.
( The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam – Meghalaya cadre and has served as Scientific Consultant in the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India)