The 'Forbidden State' | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 11, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 08:51 PM, December 10, 2013

The 'Forbidden State'

THE Union of Myanmar in our south eastern neighbourhood is a strange and complex country, going by its nature as a state and record of the past few decades. It has multiple domestic problems, which it has not been able to solve over many decades now. It also has issues with some of its neighbours, and its handling of those cannot be praised. Largely secluded in the past, the nation is in a state of transition without much clear indication of the direction it is heading, with the military very much holding on to its grip over the state both tacitly and explicitly despite handing over power to a controversially elected president who also happens to be an ex-general. It has recently allowed the most popular political party to operate again and also opened up to the rest of the world, in a limited way though.
For Bangladesh, being a neighbour, especially being one with issues with a state like this, hasn't been a pleasant experience. For an oriental country in democratic transition, it is often difficult to ascertain the real and would-be power centre. This is the case with Myanmar these days and it's puzzling to determine whom to talk to. Bangladesh appears to be in such discombobulation with this bizarre neighbour.
Myanmar military, like their Pakistani counterpart, occupied their own country instead of the enemy's. The taste of blood (read undue power and authority) is a thing hard to give up easily for the Myanmar military. Democratic propriety was no object to them. But the Myanmar military has realised the hard way that in this age of globalisation and economic growth, the latter mostly in the in the East where it belongs, it would be difficult for them to meet public expectation and deliver accordingly, being in the government and being taboo to the democratic West and many others.
Then came this pseudo democracy, leaving aside the long proven popular leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi and her party. But they have opened the flood gate of foreign investment and the immense potential for more. A share of the revenue is needed by all, including the men in uniform. Everyone wants the glittering shine of prosperity. Military-socialism just can't satisfy the appetite anymore. But freedom for Suu Kyi and her party was the pre-condition set by the international actors. The Myanmar military had no choice but to swallow the bitter pill for the time being. Temptation for wealth reigned over obsession for totalitarian power.
But what's next? Could there be a proper democracy in Myanmar where all kinds of people of this diverse nation would be represented? If Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) wins the next election, which they very much are poised to do, would the military relinquish real power to the elected representatives of the people? What about institutional reform? Presently, about a quarter of the members of the powerful lower house of the parliament are designated by the military from its officers corps. This is an unprecedented state of affairs in a parliament and nothing but a mockery of democracy.
The answer to these questions could not be ascertained as of now. There are also lingering insurgencies in many ethnic minority inhabited parts of the country; the Shan and Kachin insurgency in the north and the Kiren in the east along Thai border are the notable ones. Bamar-Buddhist chauvinism is on the rise, very much similar to the Sinhala-Buddhist one in Sri Lanka many years back. Bamars, also popularly known as Burmese, are the predominant ethnic group consisting about 67% of the populace. They live in the deltaic flood plains and in the central region. The Rakhine majority in the Rakhine/Arakan state of the country belong to the Bamar family broadly, although they have a dialect of their own. The peripheries in different directions of Myanmar are inhabited by various ethnic minorities who are largely the excluded groups in the state and society.
A quarter of the population in eastern Rakhine/Arakan state is Muslim Rohingyas. Despite living there for centuries many Rakhines and Bamars like to consider themselves as Bengali infiltrators and don't want to be recognised as Myanmar citizens. They are persistently discriminated against and persecuted. Few hundred thousands fled to Bangladesh in late 1970s and in the 1990s. Many had been returned through diplomatic and UN agency efforts. Thousands of them still live in UNHCR refugee camps in Cox's Bazaar of Bangladesh. Recently, a few hundred thousand more have fled their homes and started living in domestic refugee camps in the Rakhine state after rioting against them by the majority Rakhines. Hundreds of them were killed, thousands injured and their homes and villages destroyed.
Incumbent Myanmar authority turned a blind eye to this humanitarian catastrophe and keeps reiterating the old clichés about the citizenship of the poor Rohingyas, who never saw any other place than Arakan for so many generations now, and even have their own language that is different from Bengali. The majoritarian notion among the establishment and certain powerful quarters of the populace is so pervasive that none dares to speak out in Myanmar in favour of this suffering minority. This inapt approach may play into the hands of intending Jihadist from South Asian countries, ever ready to twist the already deteriorated situation further. However, fortunately, they could not find headway yet; thanks to the caution and vigilance of the Bangladesh government and agencies.
Bangladesh is still struggling to establish a proper connection with the Myanmar leadership with the hope that they would take a judicious stand on the Rohingya issue. That has so far seen very little ray of hope. Even a towering figure like Suu Kyi is careful not to antagonise the military and the majoritarian chauvinists on this matter despite watching the pathetic miseries of these hapless beings. Everything, including a solution to this, appears to be tied with the transition to a proper democracy and real transfer of power to liberal democratic forces. Unfortunately, the time line for this cannot be predicted by anyone.

The writer is an Associate Research Fellow at Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies. Email:

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