Photo by John Owens of Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh, inhabited by over 30,000 Rohingya refugees following religious persecution in Myanmar.
Kim Jolliffe is an independent researcher, writer, and general resource person, specialising in security, development and humanitarian affairs in Myanmar, with the broad aim of contributing to peace, equality and rights for people affected by war. In recent years, he has conducted regular, extensive research in Myanmar in both state and non-state conflict-affected areas. He has written policy guidance, provided training and assisted programmes for local civil society and community-based groups, UN and other intergovernmental bodies, INGOs, research institutions, security think tanks and analysis firms.
Kim has an MA from King’s College, London’s War Studies Department. Recent employers include The Asia Foundation, Saferworld, IHS Jane’s, UNHCR, World Bank Group, Asian Development Bank, Danchurch Aid, Oxfam, and Control Risks, among others. Kim has written articles for IHS Jane’s, Asia Times Online, Journal of Contemporary Southeast Asia Studies, Frontier Myanmar, Foreign Policy in Focus, US Institute for Peace Blog, The Myanmar Times and the Democratic Voice of Burma among others. He interviewed with Gayle Lee CMC '20 on November 1, 2017.
Former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt has asserted that the Burmese military now supports the democratization for the sake of economic development – do you think this is credible, and how likely is the military able to expand its roles in improving the economy, and public policy in general?
There’s been a deep strain of thought within the military, since 2003 and to some extent since the late 1980s, that it has the responsibility to oversee the transition to democracy. The military nominally sees some form of democracy as central to the country flourishing, to uplifting the country and to mobilizing the economy and so. But, at the same time, it asserts that too much democracy too quickly will de stabilize the country. Thus, the military really sees itself as a guardian of a slow and steady process to “disciplined democracy”. And it’s been pretty consistent with that view, with that specific terminology since 2003, but basically saying the same thing since the late 1980s.
I think the international community is wrong to say it simply as: “oh they say they want democracy but it’s really just a trick – they just want what they’ve already got”. I think we need to understand that, no – they’re very explicit and very clear on what they want, and they’re doing exactly what they said they would do: a very slow and controlled transition to “disciplined democracy”. Some of the military ideologues who really care about Myanmar, in their own way, really value the idea of creating a space where people are able to come speak in parliament, but ultimately, still insist that the military is there to be a guardian, to assert certain principles, and to crack down on elements that they disagree with.
But, in practice, this continued grip on power allows a huge amount of space for individuals or cliques within the military to just build their own power base, to make a lot of money, or to act upon and spread chauvinistic and jingoistic ideologies that they have, to do with the ethnic make-up of the country.
So, the struggle for a more rational and incremental transition towards disciplined democracy is certainly in tension with the reality of powerful individuals simply abusing their power. These two sets of actions and ideas are in conflict within the military. But certainly, under the Thein Sein government, we saw the military-led political establishment were moving towards something that was more stable and rational and that incrementally allowed more voices into the fray. It also took actions in the interests of the economy, in the interests of uplifting the country and for regaining popular support as well. At the moment, it seems that some of those more progressive policies have become unhinged, and it’s not clear whether that’s because different forces have risen to power within the military, whether the military is just now untethered due to the weakness of the civilian arm of government, or whether certain military leaders just got carried away with their own divergent plans. But right now, that strain of rational long-term thinking in the interest of stability doesn’t seem to be quite so apparent.
In crucial moments of modern Myanmar history, a central force was needed to defend against outsiders, and often, it was the military. In light of this background how do the Myanmar people currently view the military? Are there any hopes of significantly weakening the military’s popularity and support?
That’s definitely the dynamic we’re seeing at the moment. What’s been quite surprising is that, until a few years ago at least, the military didn’t have this level of popularity at all. There was more a general feeling that the military were to blame for most problems. It was in this background that Aung San Suu Kyi became the national hero. Fear or skepticism towards the outside world definitely didn’t seem to shape the people’s opinions to the point we’re seeing that it does right now.
Now, people who come from south Asia, or even just people within Myanmar but who are deemed of deemed to descend from south Asia, are treated with hostility. This reaches back to the colonial era, when much of the civil service came from India, and those people got preferential voting rights for the first indigenous parliament among other benefits. That was all alongside the feeling, at least, that large numbers of Bengali workers were being moved from Bangladesh to western Myanmar. That’s the basis of the hostility towards the Rohingya people.
Right now, on this particular issue in Rakhine state, it seems that people are willing to get behind the military. I think there is probably a level of relief: in that people want to feel like the military is serving their needs that they can be a strong country, and this is something the people have gotten behind. They’re happy to feel like a strong, united country is emerging.
But the issue is that the actions of the military – not only are they hard to watch from the outside from a humanitarian point of view – but they are really destabilizing in terms of the country’s future. This is a military that owns much of the economy, and controls much of the public administration and financial administration systems, with civil servants that maintain a military mindset and who are deeply loyal to the military.
It is a military that has complete freedom to undertake the defense and security policy on its volition. There is a real lack of any kind of movement against this, not just any kind of activist opposition movement, but not even much scholarly debate or engagement in the discourse around the security sector, laws of ware or engagement on the discourse around the military’s role in business. Such opposition used to be broadly organised under Aung San Suu Kyi and various student movements. But, right now, there is growing sense of comfort among former dissidents that cooperation between Suu Kyi and the military is in the country’s interest, and there seems to be little critical debate or movement against the vast power of the military. There really is a need for more critical discussion on the best way to govern the country and the best role for the military within it.
Do you think that the lack of controversy surrounding the military, shows that the military can continue to be a trusted force supported by the people?
First, there is a diversity of opinion even within Myanmar. Not only are there different ethnic and religious communities, and does the geography mean that there are quite different cultures between different regions. But there’s also been a history of competition between different strands of political thought among political activists in major cities. On the elite level, there’s always been those who are more drawn to the West, and those who lean more towards the East. Additionally, the military has been so powerful for so long, with many elite families working under different military governments for decades, so a significant chunk of society is broadly aligned with supporting the military and the existing establishment. Nonetheless there’ve always been student movements that have been typically against the military rule – sometimes coming from the far left, sometimes coming from a more pro-Western stance. And those forces seem to still exist in many forms.
It was only two or three years ago that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, was collecting signatures to remove the military from power – not in terms of dismantling the military as an entire institution, but placing it under civilian rule. Specifically that petition was to remove the military’s veto on constitutional change. And there’s huge support for that. So there is, generally in everyday conversation, a strong feeling that the military shouldn't have such a strong hold of the politics.
Nonetheless, it’s in specific situations like this where the military is deemed to be fighting outsiders, where public opinions seem to shift hugely. There has been a huge boom for the military in terms of popularity because it has positioned itself as fighting terrorists who are being backed by dark forces from across the Muslim world. But even on this issue, much of this support seems to be have emerged simply from the widespread desire to defend and show support for Aung San Suu Kyi.
Just in 2015, the military was able to stir up the same kind of national sentiment against the Kokang armed group in the north part of the country, which are essentially Han-Chinese, but who are actually accepted as one of the national races of the “Union”. This kind of support for the military is quite a new thing. And we haven’t yet seen if it can be mobilized to get support behind the military’s role in politics; but there seems to be the potential for this as the military gets more and more popular.
It is crucial to remember that much of this support is based on the level of support or respect for the military signaled by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. As long as Daw Aung Suu Kyi and the military can coexist in government, and for as long as she keeps making statements that back the military, people will be comfortable with the arrangement. This partially depends on how long she maintains a grace period, in terms of people looking up to and cherishing her regardless of the government’s practical results, and it also depends on her continuing this appeasement strategy, which could shift. It was a huge shift in strategy for her to become so accommodating to the military over the last couple of years. Many would say that this is part of a larger strategy to try to initiate change, but the question is whether that is really her intention, and whether she’ll be able to pull it off. So none of this is fixed.
The Myanmar government has traditionally not recognized the Rohingyas as a legal ethnic group within Myanmar. How does that relate to the recent resurgence of Burmese nationalism, and what might be a plausible solution to this crisis?
The situation for the Rohingya is completely different to those of the other minorities, because they are not recognized as among the 135 official national races. The Rohingya leaders began visible efforts in the 50s and 60s, to get the term Rohingya recognized as an ethnic group. Back then, there wasn’t such a rigid official list, but when that rigid list appeared in late 80s and early 90s, it didn’t include the Rohingyas, and that had already followed years of incremental marginalization and oppression and removal of citizenship rights from the group. This is a fundamental problem in the sense that people in Myanmar have such a different view of ethnicity and citizenship than in the West. It’s somewhat similar to others in Asia that there’s a link between indigenousness, and citizenship. But elsewhere in Asia, even where they have had large settler communities left over from the colonial area, most countries have found a way to deal with outstanding groups or disputes.
In Myanmar, this issue has been so poorly managed that it has created a decades-long crisis of a completely unnecessary scale. Even the rights that Myanmar says it gives to Rohingya as supposed descendants of settlers from Bangladesh, are rarely provided in practice. Technically, these people should be able to sign up for a naturalized citizenship, if they confirmed that they’re from Bengali descent, and as long as they’re willing to have that on their I.D. card. But, in reality, even if they choose to do that, they find it extremely difficult to do so and gain those rights. The second problem is that most of those people don’t even want to do that, because they’re not actually, entirely, a settler community and they are adamant that full recognition of their group is the only means to gaining basic rights.
The border that was drawn by the British is arbitrary, and there are a lot of claims and counter claims about to what extent the Rohingya people living in Myanmar now were settlers or not. What’s clear is that that line is completely imaginary and there has been movement back and forth among both communities over the years, which is also why there are numbers of Rakhine Buddhists within Bangladesh.
Nonetheless there’s this narrative that the line is somehow fixed: that people from one side of it are indigenous, and people from the other are not – even when applied to people’s great-great grandparents. At heart, it really it has little to do with the legal definitions and geography but has everything to do with ethnoreligious identity. This is so ingrained in people’s minds, that it is very hard to see a way for people to suddenly agree on a way to frame it, legally.
There are also some practical implications. If the Rohingyas were accepted as the 136th national race tomorrow, they would probably qualify for a Self Administered Area under the current constitution, which is something similar to what that they nearly achieved in the 60s before the military took over. So all of this brings up legal questions. But it seems to be a stalemate at the moment where at one side, you have a group who are absolutely demanding that they are accepted as a national race, and thus viewed as full citizens, just the same as anyone else from Myanmar – both symbolically and legally. On the other, there is the narrative that there’s no way that they can be viewed as such, and they can either sign up for a lower-tier citizenship or they can be subjected to this kind of hostility. It’s very hard to see a way forward on this.
Articles in mainstream Western news outlets have been focused on how Aung San Suu Kyi has been quiet on the Rohingya issue as her strategy in retaining power. This seems converse to what you said about how Aung San Suu Kyi is taking this strategy to form a stronger bond with the military. Could you speak more on Aung San Suu Kyi’s position on the Rohingya issue might change her relationships with the majority and the public in Myanmar?
It’s hard to say. You’re absolutely right, that she’s made that calculation but its not clear how much this is about the public and how much about her relations with the military. Mostly, I think she doesn’t want to overstep the constitutional boundaries with regards to the civilian-military separation of powers. Nonetheless, it definitely seems to be based on this issue of popular sentiment. It’s very hard to know how much she needed to make such concessions, or how politically risky a different stance would be. In 2010, the Rohingya had MPs running under the military-backed party because the military-backed party knew it’d be a good way to get extra seats. In 1990, the first election the NLD won, there were Rohingya MPs as well. None of this caused uproar. There’s always been a lot of skepticism towards people from south Asian descent and these tensions have always been there but they've never been the dominant narrative that shape popular political thinking until recent years.
What’s more, is that religious nationalist groups rallied against Aung San Suu Kyi during her recent election period, calling her all kinds of names, and saying some horrendous things – but the people just ignored everything, despite their parallel support for the Sangha. When it came to down to the vote – it was a vote for change and a vote for Aung San Suu Kyi, and the criticism thrown at her didn’t seem to make any difference. So it was a real disappointment to see that the party didn’t pick any Muslim candidate at all, and that there wasn’t even any attempt to shift the narrative on her part.
My feeling is that she’s so popular she could that helped shift the narrative. At least to something like ‘we are a peaceful country, and we will host these people gracefully and we will not be a country that succumbs to hatred.’ There is some terminology that she could have invoked that suit her puritanical outlook that could have shifted the narrative and put the onus on the military to not embarrass themselves on this issue. There’ve been different stories coming out in the media, but the bulk of mass popular movement is still in favor of her. The people stand behind her, implying– ‘If she is saying that she is doing the right thing, the international community shouldn’t criticize us.’ Other rallies against her policies, such as against repatriation of the Rohingya refugees, have been much smaller. Just a couple of days ago she convened an interfaith rally in the thousands.
So, I’m surprised that she made the calculation that popular sentiment wouldn’t be on her side, even on something as contentious as this.
Just to extend more on how you mentioned the repatriation of the refugees, is this a sign of Myanmar bending under international pressures, and do you think we can expect more policies to improve the state of the Muslim minority within Myanmar?
It’s very hard to know. First of all, Myanmar probably realizes that it doesn’t want a protracted camp situation of that scale on its border, both in terms of its relations with Bangladesh, and the potential security risks. It doesn’t seem to have outwardly succumbed to international pressure, such as from the U.S.. It’s been very focused on saying ‘this an internal affair, we’ll take care of it our own way.’ There has been no communications effort to present the plans in a way that match international standards, and there’s been very little public cooperation with the UN refugee agency or others.
Another reason for this stated effort on repatriation is that Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have decided that this is her way of taking steps, without overstepping the boundaries of the constitution – not lingering on the past, and instead demonstrating that ‘this is how we’re going to move forward, this is how I and my civilian government is going to get out of this mess.’ Some anonymous comments from one of her advisors reflected that sort of position, and that surely seems to be the subtext of her speeches.
Nonetheless, the actual plans that are being drawn up are heavily influenced by the military and by departments linked to the military. The nature of the plans that we have seen are completely archaic, and seem to involve pushing people back into more camps. We already have a lot of camps around the Rakhine state: these are essentially large internment camps are dressed up as IDP camps.
People are very unlikely to go back unless they are given access to their old lands, and in many cases unless they get citizenship – which seems to be an impossibility. So it’s very hard to know how they plan to actually move those people back. It’s unclear whether the military truly believes that it is going to happen, or whether the military is creating smoke and mirrors, by saying that ‘yeah we are willing to take them all back and Bangladesh is dragging its feet and we’re willing to do the responsible thing after our counter terrorism,’ and that sort of thing. It’s developing every day and there are many unknowns.
How Myanmar can stay so strong against outwardly pressures, who are its allies, and what does it have that makes it so confident against these backlashes?
I think to a large extent, its overconfidence. I think there’s really a deep strain of skepticism towards the international community, and particularly towards the west, which comes from the colonial era, and the way they were treated by the British. There’s a lot of well-established military doctrine, much of which is extreme in its patriotism, and based on an aversion any kind of help from the outside that comes with strings attached, from the West especially.
By 2011, Myanmar had become pretty dependent on China and Russia for backing within the security council, and for aid, and for military support. A number of military leaders knew that that had to change. So, the country’s existing and long-planned transition into a disciplined democracy took a swift turn toward outwardly trying to get support from the West, removing sanctions, to balance its geo-strategic relationships. The Thein Sein government had made great progress in gaining the country that ability to balance different partners and maintain access to more opportunities globally. Today though, the way that Aung San Suu Kyi and the general public seems to have responded to international criticism – by dismissing it simply as lecturing and saying they just need to look inward and focus on unity – is markedly brash, and seems to be overly confident. The result of this could well be a return to a dependence on China and all of the obligations that come with that, such as less than preferable natural resources and construction projects. So being so strong and resilient isn’t necessarily in Myanmar’s interest if it is not measured and realistic.
I really think Myanmar’s attitude is based on an overconfidence and a misreading of best way to manage geostrategic relations. Right now, there’s a real risk that this balance achieved by Thein Sein, which could have been consolidated by Aung San Suu Kyi given her popularity in the west, might just be lost.
You mentioned that the leaders have sort of kind of trying to overturn the dependency on China and Russia to turn more towards Western countries. Could you talk about how China has been strengthening Myanmar relations, and how this would influence the reputation and the power of the military government.
Just to clarify, the military has so many different parts to it, and it's a very big institution so it’s hard to read. But there certainly were strands of the military and particular people who were really making that lean away from China towards the West.
China is just so embedded in the economy, has such a historic relationship and is obviously a much bigger country, and so it maintains a huge amount of influence. I think overall, it seems like Myanmar was starting to do a good job of balancing relations between all the big global players. And it was being quite strategic in using that to propel itself forward, to try to catch up with others in the region. China has continued to show itself as a friend of the Myanmar government, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been very strategic in making sure that she was visiting Russia and China and other big countries in Asia, before she started her tour around the West. What we are seeing more and more now are strategies and short-sighted policies that will potentially force it back into dependence on just one or two global blocs.
Featured Image by John Owens (VOA) (Source Source article) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons