Rohingya stalemate tests Myanmar

This column was published at The Myanmar Times on Monday, 1 June 2015

Myanmar’s brittle international reputation has taken a pounding the past month, with countries across Southeast Asia calling on the leadership to do much better.

Last week the government was forced into a regional dialogue that seeks resolution to the immediate migration crisis around the Andaman Sea countries. But Myanmar’s leadership is dragging its feet, seeking any excuse to divert attention from the dire conditions facing Muslims in northern Rakhine State.

The reason that desperate people have fallen prey to human traffickers is that conditions for the Rohingya, whether in Myanmar or Bangladesh, are designed to be intolerable. Is it any wonder that thousands take to the sea, risking their lives for a small chance at a better future?

What we now know is that too many never finished that journey. Starved and abused, unknown numbers – possibly hundreds — ended up in mass graves across southern Thailand and Malaysia. This evil in our midst requires a serious response from the governments of ASEAN, and the wider community of respectable international citizens.

In a world of increasing inter-connection, information transfer and cultural enmeshment our responsibilities might start at home but they can’t stop there.

In this case the international outcry is directly connected to the internal management of Myanmar affairs. For a generation, diplomats and officials have relied on the old mantra that ASEAN’s preference for non-interference precludes meddling in domestic political and security affairs.

Yet the scrutiny that Myanmar faces right now goes well beyond attention to government policy. Many are beginning to ask hard questions about Myanmar social attitudes and the anti-Muslim views that have become mainstream.

During the dark decades of military rule it mattered little what the Myanmar people thought. Resistance to the generals sparked many times but never came close to toppling their dictatorship. The mass of people obviously had their ideas, but there were few outlets for broadcasting them and only limited opportunities to get hold of good information.

Since the liberalisation unleashed by the government of President U Thein Sein the entire system has shifted. Nowadays information comes in unstoppable waves, much of it funnelled through the echo chamber of Facebook. People who grew up without ready access to any uncensored news now struggle to judge the authority of a million different voices.

The algorithmic logics of the Web, combined with the power of popular endorsement, ultimately determine the visibility of different ideas.

This changes the equation for leaders as their every gaffe, grimace or grin can be repackaged for consumption by thousands, even millions, within a matter of hours. This multiplication effect is new everywhere, but it has specific implications as Myanmar seeks to manage the ongoing fallout of violence and desperation in northern Rakhine State.

We learn online that some Myanmar citizens hold unflinching views about Rakhine State. They see their country at risk from illegal migrants from Bangladesh and have been told that the Rohingya are “Bengali” interlopers. They are unwilling to accept negotiation with such foreigners.

Such sentiments are put aggressively by Rakhine State’s elected leaders who have determined that no compromise is possible. Their State is officially home to one “national race” that professes the Islamic faith, the Kamein, but there is no space for those claiming to be Rohingya.

Hate speech is one of the outcomes and today’s internet allows unfiltered views, no matter how ignorant, to get plenty of attention. The nationalist zealotry that has accompanied today’s more open political climate means that moderate ideas and more tolerant perspectives are quickly elbowed aside by the most brazen, and often spiteful, interpretations of events.

Yet none of this fully explains why Myanmar – a multicultural society premised on the inclusion of dozens of major ethnic groups with different traditions, languages and ambitions—is so unwilling to accept a relatively modest number of people, almost all of whom live in a distant corner of the country that most people will never have the chance to visit.

It is precisely because of a lack of exposure to conditions for the Rohingya that the picture of northern Rakhine State has been popularly distorted. So much effort is expended on trivial distaste for the “R” word that the requirements of humanitarian compassion are too often overlooked. And demands for “balance” miss the fact that the keel was broken long ago.

It’s fair to assume that Myanmar still wants to build a reputation as welcoming and inclusive. Tragically, the Rohingya, and some other Muslim groups, are dehumanised to the extent that even horrific crimes against them fail to generate public or official sympathy.

It is unclear that such attitudes will change without leaders in Myanmar taking big risks to move public sentiment, including online. A solution to the ongoing humanitarian and citizenship crisis won’t come from pandering to instincts of exclusion and fear.

Nicholas Farrelly is a Fellow at the Australian National University.