You are here

Rohingya and the Burmese generals

Nov 17,2015 - Last updated at Nov 17,2015

Writing in the New York Times in the article titled “Myanmar generals set the state for their own exit”, Thomas Fuller expressed his and the media’s failure to recognise the total fraud that is Burmese democracy.

“The official results are still being tabulated,” he wrote, “but all signs, so far, point to that rarest of things: an authoritarian government peacefully giving up power after what outside election monitors have deemed a credible vote.” 

Fuller, who said nothing about the persecuted Rohingya minority and little about the other millions of Burmese who were denied the chance to vote, only managed to contribute to the seemingly baffling media euphoria about the country’s alleged democracy.

Reporting from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Timothy McLaughlin dealt with the Rohingya subject directly; however, he offered a misleading sentiment that the oppressed minority, which was excluded from the vote, can see a “glimmer of hope” in the outcome of the elections.

According to results, the National League for Democracy (NLD), under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, won a stunning victory over its rivals in the ruling party, garnering 348 seats, in contrast with only 40 seats obtained by the military-controlled party that has ruled Burma since 1962.

There is no real basis for that supposed “glimmer of hope”, aside from a non-binding statement made by an NLD official, Win Htein, that the Citizenship Act of 1982 “must be reviewed” — an act that served as the basis for discrimination against the Rohingya.

Win’s comments are disingenuous and non-committal.

The Citizenship Act “must be reviewed because it is too extreme... review that law and make necessary amendments so that we consider those people who are already in our country, maybe second generation, so they will be considered as citizens”, he told Reuters.

His comments promote the myth that the well over one million Rohingya are Bengalis, who came to Myanmar only recently as hapless immigrants.

While Myanmar, like any other ASEAN country, has its fair share of immigrants, the fact is that most Rohingya Muslims are native to the state of “Rohang” (originally a kingdom in itself), officially known as Rakhine or Arakan.

Over the years, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century, the original inhabitants of Arakan were joined by cheap or forced labour from Bengal and India, who permanently settled there.

For decades, tension has brewed between Buddhists and Muslims in the region. Eventually, the majority, backed by a military junta, prevailed over the minority, which had no serious regional or international backers.

A rising tide of Buddhist nationalism reached genocidal levels in recent years and is targeting not only Rohingya Muslims, but also Christians and other minority groups in the country.

The Rohingya population of Arakan, estimated at nearly 800,000, subsist between the nightmare of having no legal status (as they are still denied citizenship), few or no rights and the occasional ethnic purges carried out by their neighbours.

While Buddhists also paid a price for the clashes, the stateless Rohingya, being isolated and defenceless, were the ones to pay the heaviest death toll and suffer destruction.

Writing in the Ecologist, Nafeez Ahmed cited alarming new findings reached at last October by the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University in London, which “found that the Rohingya... face ‘the final stages of a genocidal process’.” 

“Leaked government documents show that plans to inflict ‘mass annihilation’ have been prepared at the highest levels,” he wrote.

Not only did the elections disempower and further alienate the Rohingya, it also empowered political groups that have openly sought the “mass annihilation” of the defenceless minority, most of whom are living in abject poverty within closed refugee camps; thousands perished at sea in a bid to escape the violence.

One of these nationalist groups is the Arakan National Party (ANP), which has incited and enacted violent pogroms against the Rohingya for years.

In fact, ethnically cleansing the Rohingya is a main rally cry for a group that now has a democratically elected 29 national level representatives in Rakhine, and is also in “decisive control of the state’s regional assembly”, according to Reuters.

The sad fact is that much of the reporting on the Myanmar elections stoked false hope that democracy is finally prevailing in this country, and either brushed over or completely ignored the plight of the Rohingya.

But how could anyone with a reasonable degree of knowledge of the political, constitutional and historical context of the November elections ignore the major discrepancies of the army-championed style of “Discipline flourishing democracy” programme announced in August 2003 by General Khin Nyunt? 

Myanmar’s generals have organised every facet of their sham democratic campaign since the early 1990s so that they give an illusion of democracy, while retaining power.

When the outcome of the 1990 elections did not work in their favour, they crushed their opponents and placed the leaders of the NLD under house arrests or in prison. This action, however, cost them international isolation outside the domain of China and a few ASEAN countries.

For years, the generals learned how to craft a system that would allow them to rule the country while making symbolic gestures to meet the West’s half-hearted condition of democratisation and pluralism.

The most recent elections have been, by far, the most successful of the generals’ democracy schemes in recent years.

This clever scheme is rooted partly in the 2008 Constitution, “which elevates core interests of the military (such as the military budget, appointments, business conglomerates and security matters) above the law and parliamentary oversight”, wrote Maung Zarni in the Guardian.

According to the controversial constitution, “the military serves as the ultimate custodian with the power to discipline any elected government or MP who dares to stray from the military’s chosen path and its definition of parliamentary democracy”, wrote Zarni.

In fact, just last June, the military defeated an attempt by parliamentarians to rescind its veto power. This is why the military retains the upper hand in the country, regardless of who wins the elections.

By reserving for itself a quarter of the seats in parliament, the military will continue to enjoy veto power.

Then, why is there all this excitement about Myanmar’s democracy?

Simply, the rivalry between China and the United States, and their respective allies, has reached a point where the massive amount of untapped wealth of oil and natural gas in Myanmar can no longer be ignored.

The US, UK and other countries are aware of and coveting the limitless potential of economic opportunities in that country, which boasts an estimated “3.2 billion barrels of oil and 18 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves”.

According to a UK government report, under the theme a “hotspot for exploration”, Myanmar’s “unproven resources may be vastly greater”.

With Myanmar climbing to the world top five countries in terms of proven oil and gas reserves, terms such as genocides, military juntas and human rights are abruptly and largely omitted from the new discourse.

Indeed, a whole new narrative is being conveniently drafted, written jointly by the Myanmar army, nationalist parties, Aung’s NLD, Western investors and anyone else who stands to benefit from the treasures of one of the world’s worst human rights violators.


The writer,, has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, author of several books and the founder of His books include “Searching Jenin”, “The Second Palestinian Intifada” and “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story”. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

49 users have voted.


Get top stories and blog posts emailed to you each day.