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Boycotting Myanmar

In July 2015, the then still relatively new Australia Myanmar Institute held an international conference at Yangon University. It was the first time that an international conference had been held at that university and the first time that politics had been openly discussed there since 1962.

It was a great moment, before the elections which ushered in a civilian-led government and as Myanmar was still testing the limits of freedom of speech. My paper to the conference, on the first morning, was on Myanmar’s transition from military rule. Speakers were advised not to use the word ‘Rohingya’.

As a privileged outsider, it was easier to test the boundaries further than for most. Shortly after starting the presentation, power was cut to the hall in which I was speaking, so that the microphone and a Powerpoint presentation were made inoperable.

This was not a major set-back, as an academic should be able to project and speak without Powerpoint. The talk focused on the continued role of Maynmar’s military, ethnic insurgencies and making special note to discuss the continued banning of the word ‘Rohingya’.

The sky did not fall, I was not arrested and, surprisingly, power was restored very quickly. The three day conference proceeded uninterrupted thereafter.

The Rohingya issue had been a controversial topic in Myanmar since the 2012 riots that left hundreds dead, both Rohingya and ethnic Burmans, and many villages destroyed. The Rohingya had been a persecuted minority since losing citizenship status in 1982, despite Rohingyas having been represented in Myanmars first post-colonial government.

As Myanmar has thrown off the absolute control of its military, there has been a corresponding rise in ethnic Burman nationalism. This has been conflated with a politically restrictive interpretation of Buddhism, which it shares with Sri Lanka (and which in that latter case helps explain decades of conflict with minority Hindi Tamils).

This rise in Burman nationalism had led to anti-Muslim riots in some of Maynmar’s central towns. It has also led to a hardening of positions in ‘peace’ (surrender) talks with Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups, who have been fighting for autonomy or independence since independence 1948. Myanmar may have a civilian-led government, but it is a government primarily for ethnic Burmans and much less for those of Myanmar’s numerous non-Burman minorities.

Recent attacks against Rohingyas in particular has led, inevitably, to an armed backlash. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has perhaps 500 fighters and hoped their attacks on border posts would show that persecution was not cost-free.

ARSA’s strategy was, however, a mistake if intended to somehow improve the lot of the Rohingya community. The Myanmar military and its local militias have used the attacks as an pretext to cast aside all previous restraint and complete an ethnic cleansing process that had been underway since 2012.

Of approximately two and a quarter million Rohingyas, a million had long since fled and in recent weeks almost half of the remainder have also left their homes, fleeing for the relative safety of the Bangladesh border. Behind them has been a military orchestrated campaign of murder, destruction and terror.

The remaining Rohingya cannot be far behind. The campaign of ethnic cleansing of an area that had been inhabited by Bengali speaking Muslims for centuries – well before Burmese imperial occupation – is almost complete.

The world, horrified at these events, had turned to Nobel Peace Prize winner and Mynmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi has, along with Myanmar’s Burman dominated media, marched in lock step with the military and its militias, promoting the nonsense argument that the Rohingya are illegal migrants and that they are the agents of the death, destruction and displacement of their own people.   

The international media’s long love affair with Suu Kyi, admiring her courage in difficult circumstances, had always ignored her elite-driven, Burman nationalist blemishes. Love is, as they say, blind. But when the blemishes ultimately cause the love affair to end, the truth can be ugly. In Suu Kyi’s case, the love affair is over and the truth is indeed ugly.

For many years, Myanmar was regarded by much of the rest of the world as a pariah state, consistently having among the world’s worst human rights records. After a brief moment of hope, Myanmar – and Suu Kyi – are returning to type.

When Myanmar was a pariah state, many people boycotted it so as to not further line the pockets of the generals and their cronies who controlled the economy, which they still largely control. Much of the international community also imposed trading sanctions on Myanmar to protest against its appalling human rights record and to encourage positive change.

The Australia Myanmar Institute, of which I was a founding member, was established to create opportunities for dialogue and mutual understanding between Australia and a transitioning Myanmar. I stepped down from the institute’s board in 2015 to allow for wider representation, but retained a commitment to Myanmar’s transition, coordinating Australian observers to Myanmar’s historic 2015 elections.

That commitment is now ended. Myanmar’s transition was always compromised by the continuing role of its military and Burman racism towards the country’s minorities.  The hope that positive change could continue has been reversed.

Visiting Myanmar now only sends a message that its appalling behavior, and that of its fallen Nobel laureate, is in some way acceptable. It is not.

Perhaps I could return for the next international conference in November and perhaps we could again go through the little charade over cutting power to the microphone and Powerpoint presentation. But perhaps, with this increased ugliness, there would be less choice about shrugging off the requirement not to name, much less document, the plight of the Rohingyas.  

Perhaps I could seek to, and no doubt fail, to persuade a couple of hundred ethnic Burman students that the security, progress and human rights of all is best guaranteed by the security, progress and human rights of the most vulnerable. Instead, to the limited extent that it might have meaning, I will not endorse Myanmar’s actions by my presence.

It may be a limited gesture, but it is again time to boycott Myanmar.