December 18, 2012
Too often the spotlight of international attention alights on a particular situation only after years have passed. The barbarous excesses of the Assads, both father and son, against their own people, for instance, were well-known for decades. So too, with the Muslim Rohingya of Rakhine state in western Myanmar, a community that has suffered under various rulers, varying from the unsympathetic to the brutal to the criminally apathetic - which is the most charitable description of the current government's attitude towards violence against the Rohingya.
This has been the state of affairs since the original kingdom of Arakan, as the region was historically known, was annexed by the present-day state of Myanmar in the late 18th century.
The world is now taking notice of their plight - 100,000 people displaced, villages torched and scores dead since the rape of a Buddhist woman in May sparked the latest rounds of violence. The attention is because of the opening of Myanmar, both in its political and civil society spheres.
The country was until recently seen entirely in black and white terms. One of the many charges laid against the military regime that took power in 1962 - which only relinquished control (in name only, some would argue) when a former general, Thein Sein, became president in 2011 - was its continuing persecution of Myanmar's many ethnic minorities, particularly in the border regions. The list of atrocities the army stands accused of runs from systematic rape to forcing locals to clear fields of landmines by walking across them.
A Myanmar that has begun the process of democratisation and is loosening the grip of one of the world's most notorious police states has been embraced by western nations, but perhaps precipitously. With Aung San Suu Kyi free, able to stand for election and at last accept her Nobel Peace Prize in person, all would be well, seemed to be the view. One of the most admired women on the planet would surely usher her country into the community of nations as a peaceful, liberal, enlightened state, living in harmony with its neighbours and internally with the mosaic of ethnic groups.
But the clarity of "good" and "evil" has given way to the shades of grey that colour most political landscapes. Ms Suu Kyi has been notably unforthcoming about the aggression inflicted on the Rohingya, and the injustice that a community dating back centuries has been denied citizenship since 1974 by Myanmar. Officials routinely declare Rohingya to be Bengali immigrants.
Ms Suu Kyi is a politician now and has to take note of the realities, which include the prejudices of her fellow Burmese against the non-Burmese who make up 30 per cent of the population. While she has mouthed platitudes about "people getting along with each other", the spokesman for her party, the National League for Democracy, was more direct. "The Rohingya are not our citizens," said Nyan Win in June, a position he has since maintained.
There is a lazy, sentimental western stereotype that Buddhists are peaceful people with a somewhat otherworldly predilection for constant meditation. But of course, they are quite capable of inflicting violence, as both the Muslim minority in neighbouring Thailand's south and Rohingya in Myanmar know all too well.
Myanmar is an example of a state whose boundaries are more fixed in international law than they ever were historically. The Shan States in the north-east, for instance, may have paid allegiance to the Burmese throne, but their princes enjoyed considerable autonomy and, according to the country's post-independence constitution, had the right to secede from the Union of Myanmar after 10 years (General Ne Win's 1962 coup put paid to that).
Geographically isolated by the mountain range that cuts it off from the rest of Myanmar, Arakan had been home to a Muslim community since at least the 16th century. While their numbers were undoubtedly swelled by those who crossed over the relatively porous border with Bengal, their language and identity were and are distinct.
The 1931 census recorded 130,000 Muslims in the area and there are now about 800,000 Rohingyas in Rakhine State, as it was renamed in 1989. They are not troublesome immigrants, but a persecuted ethnic group in a country where the majority has never accorded equal status to the many minorities.
Democracy in itself is not going to be enough. Indeed, it can perpetuate majoritarian attitudes by sealing them with the approval of the ballot box. If Ms Suu Kyi is to a fulfil her potential as a politician, both she and her party must lead the way in changing not just the system of government but the attitudes of Burmese towards non-Burmese, and of Buddhists towards those of other religions.
For decades, the country's woes could be blamed entirely on the generals. As they slip into the shadows, however, it is time for the new Myanmar to prove it is worthy of the international community's friendship. Recognising the Rohingya as citizens and extending to them the protection of the state would be a good start.
Sholto Byrnes is editor of Think, the quarterly international magazine of Qatar Foundation, and a contributing editor of the New Statesman