This review was originally published in Australian Army Journal, xv: 2 (2019), 135-137.
The conflict and resulting refugee crisis of Myanmar’s Rohingya people has involved repeated and long-lasting violence, including claims of state-sponsored genocide and crimes against humanity. It is a massive humanitarian crisis with different groups contesting the causes and potential solutions of the troubles. There are over one million Muslims from northern Rakhine in Bangladesh, including the world’s largest refugee camp. Nobel Peace Prize winning leader Aung San Suu Kyi has for decades claimed her leadership would champion human rights, but now appears silent on this issue. She leads a multi-ethnic country, but the Buddhist majority have little sympathy for the Muslim Rohingya. The challenges and dilemmas are huge for political leaders, aid and development workers, and peacemakers. Suggesting simple solutions is not helpful, which is why Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya’ Conflict by Anthony Ware and Costas Laoutides is a welcome analysis pointing in constructive directions.
Anthony Ware is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at Deakin University and Director of the Australia Myanmar Institute. He has had many years of personal involvement in community development training in the country. Costas Laoutides is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University. His background research expertise is in separatist conflicts and he first visited Myanmar with Ware to contribute to a human rights training workshop. As they observed local conflict dynamics, they developed their combined interest in research and advocacy for getting beyond the multi-layered hidden agendas to identify the real causes of the conflict and point towards peace-building possibilities.
The ‘Rohingya’ conflict is a complex ‘intractable’ situation. The conflict is multi-polarised against Rohingya Muslims, by Rohingya against the Tatmadaw Burman-dominated military and the local Rakhine Buddhists, and among the Burman and Rakhine. The government is in a power struggle with the military who control military, police and border regions without government oversight. Furthermore, the international community joins the conflict with public shaming and humanitarian action, not always with non-partisan awareness.
Ware and Laoutides refuse to accept popular expedient explanations of the origins or solutions to the problems. They unpack the four different (all often distorted) historical narratives presented by the different actors. This underlines why detailed historical background study is important, but also shows how actors adopt speculative history when faced with a struggle for survival. Basically, the Rohingya ‘Origin’ narrative emphasises their deep historical pre-Burman and pre-British roots, thus seeking to establish their right to be called taing-yin-tha or ‘indigenous national race’.
The Rakhine-Burman ‘Independence’ narrative asserts their antiquity in the land while ignoring Muslim presence. The Burman ‘Unity’ narrative suggests Myamnar has historically been a family of races living in harmony, which is then used to marginalise other groups. Finally, the Rakhne-Burman ‘Infiltration’ narrative suggests Bengali Muslims have been illegally ‘infiltrating’ Myanmar over the last 100-200 years, and furthermore became allied with the British colonial administration.
After explaining (and critiquing) this competing ‘stalemate of stories’, the writers offer different lenses to analyse the conflict – as a security dilemma, minority complex, greed or political economy, as well as identity and territory grievances. These frameworks help unravel the causes and pathways for any intractable conflict that may seem to be based on religious and/or ethnic difference. For Myanmar, the authors conclude the key issue for explaining the conflict is contested political inclusion and control over governance. They suggest a territorial (rather than ethnic) definition of citizenship is needed to validate the Rohingya (and the Rakhne). They applaud the various recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Committee on Rakhine State but acknowledge they need courage of leadership to implement (for example, new citizenship pathways and open an inquiry into atrocities).
Furthermore, they suggest the situation needs more action including protecting economic interests of returning refugees, advocating for justice for all groups, making the Tatmadaw accountable, and provide avenues for dialogue and reconciliation. They thus appeal for a negotiated solution to avoid more loss of life, but also point in constructive directions for the kind of courageous leadership this will take (and more than confrontational international public shaming).
The book helped me learn much about Myanmar, as well as principles and frameworks that apply in other intractable conflicts. It also modelled for me the potential of well-grounded research – to look carefully at history and point productively forward into the future with constructive recommendations and conclusions. One of the challenges for military leaders is understanding the context in which they are deployed, including a region’s cultural values, history and religion, and the part those factors play in a conflict. Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya’ Conflict is invaluable reading for anyone wanting to understand dynamics beneath the surface of the conflict, the politics and refugee crisis of Myanmar, or indeed to consider implications for other similarly complex situations.