Generals continue to divide and rule 

Aung San Suu Kyi is becoming a fig leaf for the military’s ongoing political and economic dominance. Source: YouTube

International coverage of Myanmar is dominated by the abuse of the Rohingya community in Rakhine State. 

It is often depicted as ethnic tensions between Buddhist Rakhines or Arakanese and the Muslim minority. But a wider historical perspective suggests it is a simple policy of divide and rule introduced by the generals who still control Myanmar’s economy and continue to profit from the resource-rich province.

The government in Nay Pyi Taw says it will “investigate” a video which allegedly shows police officers beating Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.

The video, apparently filmed by a police officer, is further evidence of the brutal crackdown of the oppressed minority in the western province.

Nay Pyi Taw now faces allegations of war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide, which it rejects while media and aid groups’ access to the area is denied. If the authorities believed their own pronouncements about Rakhine State, like the claim that Rohingya villagers were burning down their own homes, they would presumably not restrict access.

The estimated one million Muslim Rohingya are regarded by many in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar as illegal “Bengali” migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. They are denied citizenship by the government despite having lived there for generations. The Rohingya say they largely descend from Arab sea traders.

Scholars have argued that the rise in Buddhist nationalism that erupted in large-scale attacks on the Rohingya in 2012 was a consequence of the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007 where monks protested to demand that the former junta pass reforms. The generals then tried to find common ground with the monks by targeting the Rohingya and other Muslim communities, to distract the religious lobby from progressive politics.

Unfortunately the Buddhist majority, democracy campaigners, monks and the Muslim minority cannot find common ground by opposing their real adversary: the military.

Hundreds of thousands of undocumented Rohingya are now estimated to be sheltering in Bangladesh, while Dhaka has increased patrols along the border to turn back boatloads of further refugees.

The recent Rakhine State violence erupted after alleged attacks on three police border posts in Maungdaw on October 9, in which nine police officers died. Because media and NGO access to the area is blocked, none of the government’s claims can be independently verified and its other statements are regularly exposed as lies, casting doubt on its description of the October attacks. Regardless, the Tatmadaw or military response has been internationally condemned as disproportionate.

The recent video shows villagers sitting in lines in front of police officers. One officer beats a man, while another kicks him in the face.

The State Counsellor’s Office of Aung San Suu Kyi said action would be taken against officers who violated police rules. The chance of any action being taken appears slim.

The 2008 Constitution gives the military control of the home affairs, defence and border security ministries, meaning anything to do with the judiciary, Myanmar’s vast, unstable border zones and military activity is controlled by the generals. Suu Kyi’s scope to challenge this is limited in the extreme.

She cannot alter the Constitution because the military has a veto on constitutional change with its guaranteed 25 per cent of parliamentary seats.

The mistake that people made was assuming Suu Kyi had won power when she triumphed in the November 2015 election.

But while civil wars erupt throughout Myanmar’s periphery and thousands are driven into refugee camps, Suu Kyi has been largely silent or confined to her trademark platitudes.

To mark Karen new year, which falls on December 28, she addressed the nation: “We want to establish the union, but we must sow seeds first. All of us must nurture the seeds. All of us must take part in sowing the seeds, nurturing them and reaping the plants. All of us must participate everywhere. This means union spirit. Without lending a hand, we should not eat fruit and blossom. Therefore, if we want to enjoy the benefits of the union, all of us will have to help the union by doing our bit.

“If we work together for unity, peace and prosperity, the fruit and blossom from the seeds we sowed must be enjoyed in the future,” Suu Kyi told the nation.

It is hard to find tangible evidence that Suu Kyi is struggling to wrest power from the generals in speeches like this.

Meanwhile, the chief editor and CEO of the independent Eleven Media Group have been held in prison since early November for offending her party’s chief minister in Yangon Region.

An editorial on November 8 questioned why the National League for Democracy’s Phyo Min Thein was wearing an expensive watch and why a recently released prisoner had just been awarded a major development deal.

The two men were arrested under the Telecommunication Law’s contentious Section 66(d).

Any citizen can use the section to sue for alleged online abuse, regardless of whether they were the subject of the remarks. It carries a threat of up to three years in prison and suspects are normally refused bail, which is deeply controversial for alleged defamation, meaning it is often used to jail journalists and political activists during prolonged trials.

When a Nobel peace laureate’s party colleague is having journalists incarcerated for months over libel allegations, the electorate might be entitled to ask for their money back.

The large, looming issue for Suu Kyi is the Myitsone dam decision. Universally opposed in Kachin State and widely seen as being purely in China’s interests, if the parliamentary committee that has been mulling the issue gives it the all clear, it will amount to the final hammer blow to what is left of Suu Kyi’s reputation.