Brian C. Stiller: Finding Light in the Darkness of the Myanmar Tragedy

As I walked among the glistening gold-plated stupas of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Burma), it was hard to believe that just miles north, a genocide took place masterminded by the country’s military.

The Rohingyas, a people-name once unknown, is now a common point of our conversations. But even as we assume the worldwide accusations are self-evident behind the genocide of these ethnic Muslims in the heart of a Buddhist country, complexity rules—a fact of which the small Christian community there is well aware.

We wonder at the silence of the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. What are the factors in the social architecture of Myanmar that have contributed to this seemingly unforgiveable tragedy?

To begin, Myanmar is a country of 54 million people, divided into eight major ethnic races grouped by region, more so than language or ethnic affiliation. These regions camouflage its actual 135 distinct ethnic groups!

We too quickly assume that globalization is good, unifying people of all kinds of cultural strands. Democracy and human rights we value so highly are not necessarily embraced. Tribalism often rules, and Myanmar is a prime example. Mistreatment of ethnic or religious minorities is nothing new in what was formerly Burma. Internally, there are some 600,000 displaced persons, not counting the tens of thousands still in camps in Thailand and other surrounding countries.

The Military Rules

Although Myanmar is, nominally speaking, a country with a government of an elected parliament, it is still the military who rules. Myanmar held general elections in 2015; however, 25 percent of the seats in parliament are controlled by the military.

Even more important, the military, called Tatmadaw, appoints the Minister of Defense—which in turn controls all local police—and the head of the largest economic corporation in Myanmar. In addition, the judiciary is not independent. In short, there is nothing here that is independent in politics, law, or the economy. The Tatmadaw have a hammerlock on the country. In the 2008 constitution, they maintained rights, whenever they so choose, to take over and return the country to a military dictatorship. This creates a lingering fear among many, especially during the past months of the Rohingya debacle.

The Genocide of the Rohingyas

In this predominately Buddhist country, the Rohingyas have been a minority held in suspicion by the ruling powers for a very long time.

Living in the Rakhine state, with roots in Bangladesh, they trace ancestry in Burma to the eighth century. Even so, Myanmar law does not recognize them as one of the eight “national indigenous” races.

Seen as illegal immigrants, the government identifies them as “Bengalis”; not only do they lack basic rights, but antagonism and agitation were hyped by a Buddhist majoritarian religious nationalism. This inciting of hatred over the past decades turned the state of Rakhine into a powder keg.

We might compare it to Rwanda. There, as in Myanmar, the composite build-up of hatred among its people groups began with its former colonizer, which in the case of Myanmar was the British, who imposed identity based on race.

In August 25, 2017, the rebel faction, the ARSA (the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) attacked 30 security force locations and killed 12 military personnel. This was all the government needed to pull the trigger. The army moved in and it is estimated that within a month, 9,000 were dead, with reliable reports of rape, torture, and burning of villages. Today, over 900,000 Rohingyas have fled, mostly to Bangladesh. The charge of genocide against the military is uncontestable.

The European Union imposed sanctions against seven top Myanmar security officials, accusing them of violations of human rights, including killings and sexual violence. This is generating in the military a scramble to get these discomforting restrictions lifted. The United Nations has been asked to refer this to the International Criminal Court.

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Source: Christianity Today