The surprising move in 2010 by a repressive Burmese military regime to begin ceding power to the nation’s people was just the beginning of a tangled story. The new democracy held its first credible election less than two years later — an election that catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi, barely 18 months free of house arrest, into parliament as leader of the political opposition.
But the sudden opening that brought free speech to the country and a democracy movement into government also exposed to the world the country’s deep fissures and complex tensions, and these are threatening international support.
Since early 2012, Vijay Nambiar has been Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s envoy and special adviser on Myanmar (which the United States still calls Burma, in deference to Burmese democracy advocates). It has been Nambiar’s job to liaise with the major players in Myanmar, travel to areas of concern and help UN agencies re-establish their presence after years of sanctions that prevented the organization from running development programs and interacting with the government, with few exceptions.
“Now they are engaging directly with the government,” Nambiar said, “and we have about 17 or 18 specialized agencies, funds and programs in Myanmar who are operating quite regularly.”
Nambiar, 70, brought a wealth of experience and knowledge of Burmese and regional history to his appointment. Born and educated in India, which shared a British colonial history with Burma, he had spent years in the Indian national security apparatus and foreign service as an Indian envoy in key countries in the wider region and later at the UN, serving over the years as Indian ambassador to Pakistan, China, Malaysia, Afghanistan and at UN headquarters in New York. After leaving the Indian foreign service, he was appointed Ban’s chief of staff in 2007, a position he held until his appointment to Myanmar.
In an interview by phone at his UN headquarters office between trips to Myanmar, Nambiar spoke about the many fundamental challenges the country faces, and why some issues that seem of prime importance to outsiders, such as the current constitutional restriction blocking Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president in 2015 national elections, may actually be easier to overcome than others. The relevant constitutional provision bars anyone with close foreign relatives from the highest office. Aung San Suu Kyi’s two sons are British citizens.
“That, I think, is something which is relatively of a lesser order,” Nambiar said. “Of course it will become important politically. They have to find some nondiscriminatory way in which everybody can access the top job. But the larger constitutional issue is not this one. It is the issue of the role of the army — how to dilute the role of the army progressively in the structure of the state and of politics.
“The second, and as important issue, is the question of federalism, or of the devolution of authority between the central government and the periphery, particularly now that the conflict with the ethnic groups in the east — the Kachin, the Karen and others — is slowly winding down and they are beginning to talk on national reconciliation,” he said. “The success will actually depend on what kind of a power-sharing arrangement they will get. That would mean a redefinition of federalism, both in terms of power to the states and the ability to integrate some of the armed forces of these ethnic groups into the army. This is going to be the big problem.”
Ethnicity and national diversity — and the reluctance of the ethnic Burman Buddhist majority and its leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, to share meaningful power — underlie the explosive crisis facing the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state in the west of the country.
About 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have been displaced by interethnic attacks (part of the half million or so people from numerous ethnic minorities displaced nationwide, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees). Several hundred Rohingya are reported to have been killed in recent years.
The Rohingya are a special case because they have been denied citizenship since Burmese independence in 1948. Nambiar explains the complicated situation by starting at it roots. The Rakhine Buddhists, who have been responsible for attacks on Rohingya Muslims, are a separate local ethnic group, not part of the Burman Buddhist majority, he said. In their view, they see the region being overrun by the Rohingya, whom they (and the national government) call Bengalis because they have migrated over centuries and are still pouring in from the part of former British Bengal that is now Bangladesh, Nambiar said. So Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims both claim victimhood.
Adding to the UN’s problems in Rakhine state is the longstanding Rakhine Buddhist perception that international aid was going only to the Rohingya, a misunderstanding of the terms set by the government and by international sanctions under which the UN was confined largely to humanitarian work, some of it by the World Food Program.
“Our own reaction is that these [the Rohingya] were the vulnerable communities,” Nambiar said. “We do realize that we have to change the perception, and we have been recalibrating our work in some ways. Even developmental programs are now being brought to Rakhine so that there is a general perception that all communities are being helped.”
Unicef, the UN children’s fund, is one agency that has begun work across ethnic lines in Rakhine, along with national programs to teach children about peace and reconciliation.
Ethnic distrust and obstruction, however, still intrude. In April, the first national census in three decades, supported by the UN Population Fund, could not complete a tally in Rakhine because the Rohingya refused to identify themselves as Bengalis. The government acknowledged that many were largely left out of the count because, officials said, allowing them to use the Rohingya category (which they demand to be added to the list of 135 recognized ethnicities in the country) could lead to more violence, presumably from the Rakhine Buddhists, who were also sporadically attacking international aid workers. Before the census began, the government promised that people could identify themselves as they wished.
On a national level, Muslims have also come under attack in several places, but not on the scale of violence in Rakhine state. Nambiar said that the issue of citizenship for the Rakhine Muslims needs to be addressed urgently.
“We have to find some way where the existing 1.3 million people inside Muslim communities, mainly in the Rakhine, can be regularized, given citizenship status and all those things immediately,” he said. “And then you [move] to how to control the influx of further populations — border management, things like that. I think that is probably the best. But there are some people inside the Muslim community in Rakhine who say no, we have to be recognized as Rohingya, we have to be made into an ethnic group like the other 135. That, I think, is perhaps a bridge too far.”
Nationally, there is a historical prejudice against Bengali migrants — some of whose ancestors have lived in the country for almost two centuries. A similar problem faces the states of the Indian northeast, which borders Bangladesh and has experienced an influx of immigrants.
The Burmese also hold a grudge against Indian migrants. “Burmese are highly conscious that they have over 135 ethnic groups and they have always been a little worried about an influx from the west, that is India, and also from the east, because there is also a strong sense or fear of influx of Chinese population,” Nambiar said.
The fears of the Buddhist Burmese and other ethnic groups, which include many Christian communities, are heightened by news about Islamic militancy elsewhere in the world. At the time of Burmese independence, Nambiar said, mujahedeen groups among Rakhine Muslims asked to be made part of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, but Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, dismissed those requests. The movement for special treatment of the Rohingya has continued “up and down,” Nambiar said. There is lingering paranoia among Rakhine Buddhists that the Muslims’ ultimate goal is to carve out a state for themselves.
“The central government has actually put down some of these political, sometimes violent activities in the 40s and 50s, even in the 90s” he said. “Almost every 10 years, 12 years, there’s been an upsurge.” Ironically, opening up democratic discourse has created an opportunity to recharge narrow stereotypes, he added.
The distrust of Muslims and the foreboding about their future role in Myanmar is shared by even the leaders of the democratic movement. The proportion of Muslims in the national population of 60 million is expected to jump to 6 or 7 million from just over 3 million, when census results are known later this year.
“Even Aung San Suu Kyi, when you talk to her, she says that while you keep saying that Muslims are a minority here, actually in the region Buddhism is in the minority,” he said. In the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member, there are about 300 million Muslims, mainly in Indonesia, Nambiar said.
“And the Buddhists are what? About 200 million or perhaps less than 200 million.” But Buddhist Burmese see Muslims as exclusive communities “unwilling to integrate with the traditions of Buddhism or Myanmar society,” he said.
Nambiar shares the widely accepted view that Aung San Suu Kyi’s reluctance to support beleaguered Muslims as she hopes to become a presidential candidate next year “is partly because of a very shrewd political calculation,” he said. “But I think it is more than that, more than acting for the sake of expediency. She in a sense thinks that it is morally the right choice that she is making.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.