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Myanmar’s civil war and the Rohingya tragedy

With countless thousands killed in the past 70 years, the world has become inured to the tragedies in Myanmar

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Myanmar’s civil war and the Rohingya tragedy

Pope Francis waves to people as he arrives for his weekly general audience at St. Peter's Square on Nov. 15 in the Vatican. (Photo by AFP) 

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Pope Francis is to visit Myanmar Nov. 27-30 at a time when serious questions have arisen about the government's treatment of the Rohingya people. In this section, we touch on the deeply complex political minefield that is modern Myanmar and why the church must tread delicately in what observers say is an increasingly pro-Buddhist nationalist environment.



Burma was suddenly cut free from the British Empire following World War II. The significant minorities in Myanmar were under the generally highly oppressive military rule in various guises from 1962 to 2015 — despite elections being held in 2010 — reducing the once prosperous country and the rice bowl of Southeast Asia to one the least developed nations in the world in just 60 years. 

For decades, the country has been in a state of usually multi fronted, permanent civil war. More than half a dozen significant conflicts and myriad other smaller, deadly disputes and conflict zones stand out.

Myanmar’s east, now in ceasefire for almost a decade, has seen about 120,000 refugees living in camps across the border in Thailand, some for decades from majority Christian Karen and Kayah states. The civil war in Kachin is occurring in a majority Christian state whose population are Baptist, Assemblies of God and Catholic, in order of popularity. Their kinsmen in neighboring Shan state revived a war in 2011 after 17 years of an uneasy ceasefire.

About 120,000 people form the region now live in dozens of internally displaced persons camps.

The world has become so inured to the tragedies of Myanmar with their forgotten refugees and deadly civil wars. Countless thousands of people have been killed in the past 70 years, and the multi-generational tragedies, many among majority Christian ethic groups such as the Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni, have received only spasmodic attention from the global media.

For almost 50 years from 1962, these conflicts took place behind the opaque walls of a cruel regime that ran one of most isolated nations on earth. The church however has been vigilant in Thailand on the Myanmar border and the Jesuit Refugee Service active in two camps that house approximately 12,000 people.

More recently, as the country has opened up, the Myanmar branch of Caritas, known as Karuna, has been heavily involved in caring for internally displaced people in the camps in Kachin and northern Shan state.

Despite the horrors that Myanmar’s military has inflicted upon the country for six decades, even they have managed to surpass their worst excess in the past five years, the last two under the nominal civilian government lead by the apparently hapless Aung San Suu Kyi. 

The final push in a five-year concerted campaign begun in 2012 is the military led, sectarian determination to drive out (and into Bangladesh) about 1.1 million ethnic Muslims. They self-identify as Rohingya but are described by Myanmar’s government as Bengalis or Rakhine Muslims who live in northern Rakhine state adjacent to Bangladesh.

The group has a complex history in the region that dates to the Arakan Kingdom that covered western Myanmar and southeast Bangladesh and whose numbers inside Myanmar grew during the British colonial period.

The Rohingya ethnicity is not officially recognized by the Myanmar government as one of its 135 official ethnic groups.

About 120,000 have already been trapped in camps in their own state since the beginning of the latest round of military backed violence in 2012 and where most remain stateless and without identity cards. They were cut adrift by a repressive 1982 Citizenship law imposed by the junta, which the civilian government seems unable or perhaps even unwilling to change for fear of the political damage it would do to them.

Since Aug. 25, when the military launched its latest campaign in response to a localized terrorist attack, the world has watched in horror as at least 500,000 Rohingya joined the 300,000 already in Bangladesh refugee camps in what the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has called a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. In forcing roughly half the Rohingya population from their homes, it is hard to call it anything else.

At the same time, the world has been bewildered, then dismayed, as arguably the most internationally (and domestically) beloved Nobel Peace Prize Laureate since Nelson Mandela, has remained all but silent. When she has opened her mouth, it has only to put her foot in it by introducing red herrings such as the complicity of NGOs in the insurgence, a refusal to point the finger at the military perpetrators, and for displaying a disturbing lack of compassion.

She remains unable, for largely political reasons, to utter the word Rohingya or even to make comments about the fate of the latest victims of one of the world's most murderous militaries.

Myanmar's military also controls the police force and the border force. It likewise holds 25 percent of the seats in all Myanmar's federal and state parliaments, unelected.

Few have bothered to dig into the deeply complex political minefield that is modern Myanmar, where Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, despite winning the country's 2015 poll in a landslide with almost 80 percent of the vote, are very much the junior, powerless partners in an invidious power sharing arrangement.

Yet it is Suu Kyi, helpless to stop any of the military's continuing attacks on citizens around the country, who has been almost universally slammed by Western media always keen to be quick with their moral judgments.

One thing rarely mentioned is the fact that there are 2 million largely ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who also live in the state that bears their name. Decades of propaganda from the military, and the hard-line groups of Buddhist monks they fund, have fanned the flames of Islamophobia in Rakhine and much of central, largely Buddhist, Myanmar.

While the many ethnic groups have fought their own battles against the center, it is they that are the clear majority of Myanmar's citizens and Sun Kyi's supporters. For her to speak up for the Rohingya in any meaningful way and oppose the military operation, as distinct from the military itself, would be to shun her own support base. This is her invidious bind.

While Pope Francis has been outspoken on behalf of the Rohingya several times in recent years, rarely has the full tragedy of their plight — unwanted and even hated in their own country — become apparent. Cardinal Charles Bo has cautioned that the Church must tread delicately in what observers say is an increasingly pro-Buddhist nationalist environment.

Yet, as author Thant Myint-U noted recently: "While world opinion is focused on the humanitarian tragedy along the border with Bangladesh and allegations of horrific human rights abuses mainly against the minority Rohingya, the view inside the country is not only different but diametrically opposite.

"In Myanmar the overwhelming focus among not only in the government but also the general public has been on the threat from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and fears of Islamic extremism. Since ARSA's attacks on Aug. 25, Myanmar social media has been brimming with reports of alleged ARSA atrocities against Buddhist and Hindu minorities, tens of thousands of whom have fled south away from the country's Muslim majority areas."

The fear is perhaps rightly rising that, as in Bangladesh, radical Islam may gain foothold. But if it happens, it will very much have been a problem created by the military.

To be continued.

For a comprehensive understanding of Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh and to read the entire article "Myanmar and Bangladesh: Two Nations in the Heart of Asia" subscribe to La Civilta Cattolica available in both print and digital formats. UCAN publishes La Civilta Cattolica in English. The monthly is a highly popular and non-specialist review of religion and theology, culture and science, literature and art, politics and society and has a reputation for being the best barometer of thinking inside the Vatican.

#popeheartofasia #PopeFrancis

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