Why Myanmar must look in the mirror

A UN probe of military atrocities against the minority Rohingya also points to the country’s need to unify around a national identity, preferably one that is inclusive.

AP Photo
Myanmar's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, speaks with university students at Yangon university Aug. 28.

Not every country has had its identity challenged by the United Nations. Nor had Facebook remove the social media accounts of its most powerful figures for hate speech.

Yet that is exactly what happened to Myanmar on Monday with the release of a UN investigation into the killing of more 10,000 Rohingyas by the military last year and the forced exile of nearly 700,000 of the minority Muslim group.

The UN report accuses six top generals in the Southeast Asian nation of “genocidal intent” and recommends they be prosecuted in an international tribunal. But with little chance of such trials soon or the Rohingya refugees being able to return safely, the report makes a point of highlighting possible reforms within the country itself.

Notably, it cites this blaring need: “There is no unifying ‘Myanmar’ national identity.”

Indeed, of all the countries lately trying to define their identity mainly by ethnicity or religion – such as China, Hungary, and Israel – Myanmar stands out in the extreme. Its military has long seen itself as the only institution representing the majority Burmese, who are largely Buddhist. Few in its rank and file are non-Burmese. And despite limited moves toward democracy since 2008, the military remains the dominant political force. That fact has greatly restrained the reform efforts – and any criticism of the military – by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party on the civilian side of this hybrid democracy.

Yet nearly a third of Myanmar’s 52 million people consist of other ethnic or religious groups. For decades, many of them have fought for autonomy or independence, chafing at the military’s control of their resources.

The Rohingya, who were considered citizens after independence in 1948, have been treated as stateless since 1982. They are also easy targets of hate for the top brass who feel a need to boost their public standing. Last year the commander in chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, posted on Facebook that the task of getting rid of the Rohingya was an “unfinished job.”

The military’s atrocities reflect Myanmar’s struggle as a nation-state to form bonds of loyalty based on civic rights, such as the protection of individual liberties and respect for ethnic or religious differences. Myanmar has yet to see diversity as central to its identity. The UN report recommends that it promote a concept of the state and nation that is “inclusive, based on equality and respect for the human rights of all.”

In her position as state counsellor, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has held several national dialogues among the ethnic groups to come up with a new distribution of power. In July, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate described her efforts to design a democratic federal union this way: “Our approach has to be holistic and inclusive.”

When recently asked if the military deserves amnesty for its past wrongs, she said, “The term we use is “national reconciliation.” One indication of possible change: The military has lately begun to recruit a few officers from minority groups.

It may be a long time before Myanmar will hold its military accountable for the recent mass atrocities. Yet both the national dialogue and the military’s halting reforms are signs that it is at least trying to find its integrity and identity. Or as Aung San Suu Kyi puts it, Myanmar is constructing a nation “founded on a lasting unity created out of diversity.”

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