Update: Myanmar and Muslim Violence, with Military Leadership Framing the Crisis

Last week I wrote about Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence in the face of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing, and international criticism from other Nobel prize winners around the world. New sources point now more to the challenges of military leadership, dominating this crisis on both sides of the conflict.

webmapViolence and discrimination against the Ryohinga Muslim population and other minorities in Myanmar is not new.  “The generals who ran [the country’s military regime from 1962 to 2011]  suppressed almost all dissent – symbolised by the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – and stood accused of gross human rights abuses, prompting international condemnation and sanctions. Although, a gradual liberalisation process has been under way since 2010. The country [was] expected to see a major shift after the government changed hands early in 2016.” However, even though Aung San Suu Kyi and her party now has a central place in the government, the military assault on the Rohingya people demonstrates that hoped for shift is not happening quickly or easily.

Long running rebellions, meeting the military crackdowns in guerrilla warfare labeled terrorism by the government, have been common. The Rohingya are one such group.  According to the NY Times today, “From its start four years ago as a small-scale effort to organize a Rohingya resistance, ARSA — which is known locally as Harakah al-Yaqin, or the Faith Movement — has managed to stage two deadly attacks on Myanmar’s security forces: one last October and the other last month. But in lashing out against the government, the militants have also made their own people a target. And they have handed Myanmar’s military an attempt at public justification by saying that it is fighting terrorism, even as it has burned down dozens of villages and killed fleeing women and children.” Read more…

220px-Flag_of_the_Myanmar_Army.svgIt’s fair to say, then, that military leadership approaches dominate the crisis. Although there is strength in the hierarchical, highly trained, focused, and crisis-centered military style, there are also limitations, especially the real possibility of dictatorial and nationalist solutions that only generate a deeper crisis. In the conflict in Myanmar, democratic leadership with diplomatic and inclusive solutions has no real footing yet.

Myanmar’s military leadership, in place for four decades, is more deeply entrenched culturally than others in the world. According to the BBC, “Burma’s military dictatorship is different for four historical reasons – a strong military tradition, a relatively weak civil society, a long-standing fear of national disintegration and an equally long-standing fear of foreign intervention.”

As a result, few of the strengths of military leadership are visible in the top-down, pervasive structures of government and culture in Myanmar. In this context, we need to step back and ask if rebellion (and its backlash) can be described as terrorism as we understand it now.

myanmar-karen-rebels-jan-2006If “the aim of terrorist tactics is to frighten and demoralise a population by visibly threatening their security and demonstrating that the State is unable to protect them,” the Ryohinga attacks on the Myanmar military seem more like civil war with extreme violence shaped by dictatorial leadership.

Should our assessment of Suu Kyi’s silence change in the face of this entrenched leadership structure? Or is the assertion of democracy, and the power of one leader representing truth to power really the most transformative resistance to the shadow side of military leadership?

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