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Myanmar: Genocide, combatting radicalism or redistriting influence?

Photo: AP

In late August 2017, the world was once again shocked to see hundreds of civilians arrested, tortured and killed in Myanmar. One would think that the emergence of various international organizations since mid XX would put an end to crimes against humanity but the latest events in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and now in Myanmar have proved the opposite. But what is actually going on in that closed southeastern state? What were the causes of that conflict? And what will this all result in for the region and the world?

Rakhine State (formerly Arakan Province) is located in the west of Myanmar (Burma before 1989). The local Buddhist Arakanese (Rakhine) people call their country a Land of Rakshasas (Ogres) and are proud of their culture, Buddhist morale and ethics. Rakhine has a rich history and is even mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman chronicles. After the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824-1826, Arakan was annexed to the British Empire. In the late 1940s, the Arakanese launched an independence movement.

The British authorities were reluctant to let that titbit go - Arakan was the world’s second biggest opium producer (after Afghanistan) – so, they began pitting the local Muslims against the Buddhist majority. But in 1948, the newly independent Burmese authorities proved to be more efficient and annexed Arakan to their union.

According to the census of 2014, the population of Rakhine was 3,200,000 people. There are very many ethnic groups living in the state but generally they are classified into two bigger ethnic-religious groups: Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya. Officially, the latter account for 24% of the whole population. Unofficially, Islam may be practiced by as many as 35-45% of the locals. The Myanmar authorities do not regard them as aborigines and insist that they are the descendants of Muslim Bengalis from Bangladesh and that they should be deported back to that country.

Since the middle of the 20th century, there have been lots of ethnic conflicts in Rakhine. One example is the Rakhine War of 1942, when Japanese occupants armed Rohingya with a view to get rid of the Rakhine majority. Burmese historians say that almost 50,000 Arakanese Buddhists were killed then, with hundreds of thousands expelled.

According to a Burmese report, after that conflict, Arakan was occupied by Japan and turned into a Muslim region. In contrast, Bangladeshi historian Syed Aziz-al Ahsan claims that helped by the British, the Burmese authorities killed thousands of Rohingya and expelled 40,000 more to Bangladesh.

Officially, over 10% of people in Rakhine are jobless (unofficially, the figure may amount to 40%). Over 70% live in very poor conditions. Economic hardships make people aggressive and that aggression bursts into ethnic-religious conflicts.

When in 2014, ISIL proclaimed a new Caliphate over the territories occupied in Iraq and Syria, some radical Rohingya groups supported that initiative and joined the “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The Myanmar authorities reacted with repressions. In 2015, tens of thousands of Rohingya were forced to emigrate from Myanmar to Bangladesh. In 2016-2017, dozens of radical Rohingya leaders were killed, over 1,200 arrested. In summer 2017, Rohingya fighters organized a series of attacks on police and border posts. The Myanmar authorities responded with a punitive expedition.

In Sept 2017, a number of Muslim leaders accused them of a “genocide against the Rohingya people.” While speaking at a meeting of his party in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “There is a genocide there, and everyone is keeping silent.”

Yes, the Myanmar authorities did commit lots of crimes during that expedition: they violated human rights, lynched people, raped women and burned houses. But we have a rhetorical question: is it appropriate for the leader of a country that denies the genocides of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Yazidis, Arab and Molokan Russians in early XX to pronounce the “genocide” term.

Most experts say that this conflict has historical roots, but, perhaps, somebody is using it as a cover for the attempt to redistribute spheres of influence over oil and gas rich regions and drug business. We all know that such redistributions affect mostly ordinary people.

The fact is that the problem of Myanmar is becoming a global problem as imbalance in that region may cause a disaster in the whole Southeast Asia. A conflict in that economically poor and densely populated region may cause a new migration period. The leading global forces are interested in stable Myanmar. So, the local authorities will soon be forced to stop their punitive operations.

Andranik Oganisyan

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