Myanmar ‘needs to reinvent itself’ to accept Rohingya: historian

By Carlos Sardiña Galache

Bangkok, Nov 5 (efe-epa).- Burma needs “to reinvent itself to become a home for people of different races, religions and cultures” such as the Rohingya, prestigious Burmese historian Thant Myint-U said in an interview with EFE ahead of the country’s Sunday elections.

Author of the 2019 book “The Hidden History of Burma,” Thant Myint-U said Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de-facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains popular among the country’s Bamar ethnic group due to “their history of personal sacrifice,” all but securing her reelection.

An advisor to former Myanmar President Thein Sein between 2011 and 2015, the historian is in a privileged position to analyze a country that, after almost five decades of military dictatorship, embarked on a tightly controlled democratic transition nine years ago.

In the interview, Thant Myint-U, grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant, analyzed from London the various conflicts and problems facing Myanmar, a country that, he said, “needs to change its society “to face the challenges of the future.”

QUESTION: Despite the shortcomings of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and the seeming stagnation of the democratization process, she remains hugely popular at least among the Bamar majority. How would you explain that?

ANSWER: For the Burmese-speaking Buddhist majority, she represents first and foremost a path away from half a century of army dictatorship. She is loved for her steadfast resistance to military rule and what is seen as a story of extreme personal sacrifice for the good of the nation.

There has been considerable disappointment with her government within the political class, but most ordinary people will compare her to the former generals, see in her someone they trust, and who they believe is the first leader in their lifetimes genuinely working on their behalf.

Q: In recent years the conflict between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw has escalated and Arakan has become the theater of the bloodiest war right now in the country. Why would you say the conflict has escalated at this particular conjuncture?

A: It’s been a slow-burning fuse. And the war in Arakan now is the biggest insurrection against the central government in a generation. Like many minority peoples, ethnic Rakhine people feel discriminated against by Burmese-speaking elites and in addition see little if any benefits from Burman-majority rule. Arakan is one of the poorest parts of a poor country.

But the escalation of the conflict has been dictated to a large extent by the Arakan Army and, its ability to exploit local grievance, the army’s so far failed counter-insurgency operation, and the government’s arrest of Rakhine civilian leaders and absence of any political strategy.

Q: Due to the war with the AA, the elections have been canceled in wide areas of Arakan. How do you think that will affect their credibility?

A: The elections will be legitimate in the sense that they will reflect the desire of the Burmese-speaking Buddhist majority, who are the majority of the electorate, to see Aung San Suu Kyi continue as the de facto leader of the government.

They will disenfranchise well over 2 million overwhelmingly ethnic minority voters. The first-past-post system will make it nearly impossible for ethnic minority parties to do well. In Arakan and in many other minority areas, the elections will not be seen as a legitimate reflection of their democratic will.

Q: After the mass expulsion of the Rohingya in 2017 by the military, and the seemingly prevalent racism towards them in the country. What do you think would be the solution to the problem?

A: Over the short term, what’s needed is maximum protection for vulnerable people, especially the children, whether they are refugees in Bangladesh, or Muslims left in Arakan, or non-Muslims affected by ongoing conflict, or poor people generally, who face such extreme hardship every day.

Over the longer term, it’s hard to see any solution that doesn’t involve changes in Burma (Myanmar) as a whole and a re-imagining of the country as home for people of different races, religions, and cultures. It won’t be easy. I think a big starting point is teaching kids history in a much more creative and critical way, from global as well as many different local perspectives.

Q: Regarding the Rohingya, what are the points in common and the divergences in outlook between the generals on the one hand and Suu Kyi and her party on the other?

A: I think Aung San Suu Kyi came to office hoping for a ‘solution’ to the Rohingya crisis that was in line with international human rights norms, which is why she asked Kofi Annan to set up the commission he then chaired 2016-7.

I think she would have tried to implement many if not all the recommendations. The army was very much against the involvement of international figures like Kofi Annan and the recommendations of his Commission.

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