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Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar- a Complicated Country

By Fraser Cameron

29 January 2018

While much of the outside world expresses outrage over the fate of the Rohingya, it is difficult to find anyone in Myanmar who sympathises with their situation. The government line that the recent troubles were started by ‘Muslim terrorists’ is widely shared. Most locals accept that there might have been an over-reaction from the armed forces but the common view is that the Rohingya (often described as ‘West Bengali’ or ‘Muslims living in Rakhine state’) had no right to be in Myanmar anyway. These widely-held views are reinforced through social media, especially Facebook, which Western diplomats say is full of anti-Rohingya sentiments.

Throughout history, there have been several waves of Rohingya immigrants to Burma (the name Myanmar was only introduced in 1989). Britain, the former colonial power, typically moved borders and peoples without much thought for local feelings. Many Rohingya fled to Myanmar after the bloodshed surrounding the establishment of Bangladesh in 1971.  This is why ‘West Bengalis’ is a common term for the Rohingya who have faced discrimination for many years. For example, they are denied citizenship.

Outside criticism of the Myanmar government is not welcome. ASEAN typically does not interfere in the internal affairs of a member state but the predominantly Muslim countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, have spoken out in support of the Rohingya. Relations with Malaysia in particular have cooled. The military junta in Thailand has stayed silent and is thus regarded as a good friend of Myanmar. It seems unlikely that Singapore, the new rotating chair of ASEAN, will seek to raise the issue

When, last week Bill Richardson, the respected former US governor of New Mexico, a long-standing friend of Myanmar, and a member of the advisory panel on the UN recommendations on Rakhine state, resigned in protest at a ‘whitewash’ he was roundly condemned in the largely state controlled media. He said that when he raised the question of the two imprisoned Reuters journalists with Aung San Su Shi she flew off the handle and was ‘incandescent with rage.’

Myanmar is a large and very complicated country.  It is as big as France with over 140 ethnic groups in a population of 53million. It is still a very poor country with a GDP per capita of just over €1,000. The government is unable to control all its borders, especially with China, where insurgent groups have sought refuge. Myanmar is also emerging from a lengthy period of isolation when the army was in control. The military, of course, have not given up complete control. They have a lock on parliament and are in charge of key ministries including the interior, and thus control the police.

Under these circumstances, Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, the former darling of the West, has a difficult role to play. Spending a decade under house arrest is not the ideal preparation for the burden of government. She is still popular at home while her star has sunk in the West. She has a difficult relationship with the military and has to navigate a complicated political path. Although she has a good team of advisors she tends to takes decisions alone.

On the bright side, the economy is doing well with growth of over 5% in recent years. Many young ‘repats’ are coming back to engage in start-ups bringing useful experience gained in the West. There is a certain buzz in Yangon, full of swish hotels with more under construction.  Tourism is growing rapidly and all flights to Myanmar are full. A decade ago a mobile phone cost $3,000 and the internet was almost non-existent. Today almost everyone has a mobile phone and the internet is widely used. The streets are clogged with traffic. 

Investment is pouring in, mainly from Asia. The Chinese are back, seizing the current political opportunity. Japanese, Thai and South Korean companies are much in evidence. Apart from the tourism sector, there has been little European investment.

The West is in a difficult dilemma. On the one hand it cannot be seen to ignore what the UN described as ‘textbook ethnic cleansing.’ But on the other it recognises the geopolitical stakes, notably the danger of Myanmar falling into the Chinese orbit, like Cambodia and Laos. The EU and US are thus preparing a mild slap on the wrist, imposing travel bans on some military associated with the excesses of the expulsions of the Rohingya.

Although Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement covering the return of the refugees nobody believes this will be anything other than a long drawn out affair. Meanwhile there are worrying signs of the rise of jihadism in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Myanmar is thus likely to continue along its own path and largely ignore outside criticism. For the EU it will be a challenge to come up with the right policy mix that addresses the plight of the refugees while not ignoring the geopolitics of the region.