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The Rohingya Crisis: "Myanmar's Enemy Within" with Francis Wade

November 13, 2017

Refugee camp in Rakhine State, Myanmar/Burma, September 2013. CREDIT: Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO (CC)

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City.

Today I'm speaking with Francis Wade. He is the author of a new book on the Rohingya crisis in Burma, also known as Myanmar. His book is called Myanmar's Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim 'Other.'

Francis, thanks so much for coming by to our New York studios from your base in London.

FRANCIS WADE: Thank you.

DEVIN STEWART: This is an extremely timely book. It is published by Zed Books and distributed by University of Chicago Press.

FRANCIS WADE: That's right, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: How did you come up with the idea of writing such a book? It seems so timely. What tipped you off to embark on this project?

FRANCIS WADE: I have been following the story of the Rohingya since before the first wave of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in West Myanmar. That began in 2012.

But for three years before then, from early 2009 to 2012, I had been working with an exiled Burmese media organization in Northern Thailand, called the Democratic Voice of Burma. That was composed of student activists, refugees, who had crossed over the border, most of whom had left Burma the early 1990s or late 1980s to seek sanctuary in Thailand. They set up a news organization. I worked as a sub-editor for that news organization.

DEVIN STEWART: Was that in Chiang Mai?

FRANCIS WADE: That was in Chiang Mai, yes.

I began there before that before the transition was even being talked about, so at the beginning of 2009.

The stories we would cover were quite, I would say, quotidian, in the sense that it was quite predictable. There was a dictatorship at the time, so the stories we would cover would be land grabs by the military, human rights abuses committed by troops, and so on.

From time to time, there would be a story about this community, the Rohingya, but they were very much off the radar. The only time they seemed to come to public attention was when an event happened that precipitated a regional crisis, so an event in Rakhine State that would cause Rohingya to flee the country, and then they would wash up in boats on the shores of Thailand, for example. Those are really the only times when the Rohingya came to public attention.

Then the transition began in 2011. There had been much adulation, much hope, that this would be the sort of final break with military rule in Myanmar and the country would be moving towards an inclusive society, and that age-old, long-running ethnic conflicts would be brought to a close.

DEVIN STEWART: Right.

FRANCIS WADE: So there was this sort of optimism.

Then, in 2012, an incident happened in Rakhine State in Western Myanmar, when three Rohingya men raped a Rakhine woman. That triggered four or five days of quite vicious violence between Rohingya and Rakhine. After that, Rohingya were confined to camps, confined to ghettos, confined to villages. This very strong apparatus of control grew up in Rakhine State that targeted Rohingya specifically. So, suddenly, this community that had not really received much attention before came to dominate coverage of the transition.

DEVIN STEWART: There was also an episode of rapes and murders in Mandalay, which has been agitated by the monk Wirathu, as you probably know. In that instance, the rape allegations were manufactured to incite violence, which took a few months to come out.

FRANCIS WADE: That's right.

DEVIN STEWART: Did you investigate the legitimacy of the allegations?

FRANCIS WADE: I hadn't at the time. The Mandalay violence happened, as far as I can remember, in the middle of 2014. That was two years after the first wave of violence broke out in Western Myanmar.

What had happened was the violence in Western Myanmar was between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. And the Rakhine was a very poor province.

FRANCIS WADE: That is correct. It is the poorest state in the country. The Rakhine themselves have long been victims of military abuse.

DEVIN STEWART: Also called Arakan.

FRANCIS WADE: Exactly, yes, Arakan.

That had essentially been, from what I could tell, a local contestation between two ethnic groups. The Rakhine, who believe themselves to be indigenous to the state; the Rohingya, who the majority of Rakhine believe to be illegal interlopers from Bangladesh who are trying to claim an indigenous status so that they could gain citizenship and, so the narrative goes, begin the Islamization of Myanmar.

But that local violence in Rakhine State seemed to have a contagious effect and was followed by eruptions of Buddhist-on-Muslim violence in towns in Central Myanmar that beforehand had never experienced such violence.

First, we had Meiktila, which is a small town just south of Mandalay. There was a fight in a gold shop between Buddhists and Muslims. Then a monk was killed by Muslims, and that triggered three days of attacks that killed upwards of 40 people, completely destroyed Muslim neighborhoods.

Then the Mandalay violence happened a year later. In that period there had been a growing ultra-nationalist monk-led movement that agitated primarily against Muslims. Ashin Wirathu, who is the monk you referenced who conjured up these allegations of rape, had been, and is, a very vocal agitator against Muslims. He sees them as a significant threat to Buddhism. He believes that if Islam is not contained then it will be spread and it will be the ruin of Buddhism.

But he also has an agenda that is very closely aligned with conservative political forces in the country and the military. So there is a belief, although there is no smoking gun, that he is effectively doing the bidding of the military, of the deep state in Myanmar.

DEVIN STEWART: In what sense? In terms of fostering rumors and making people worried about security and, therefore, justifying the role of the military?

FRANCIS WADE: Exactly, yes. I think there is a sense that although the military has very much choreographed this transition, it knew that it wanted to retain effective control of the country, of the political system, of the economy, and of the security infrastructure. The military knows—and it is a tried-and-tested strategy—that violence that is more, I suppose, communal in its expression injects a sense of fear into society and it causes civilians to look to its supposed protector. They have very definitely raised the specter of a threat in the form of Islam that if it isn't contained, then it will dislodge Buddhism from its central position in society.

One could, I suppose, deduce or speculate—I think it is stronger than speculation—there is ample evidence that the violence was organized, that mobs came into Mandalay, came into Meiktila, from outside. That is a strategy that has been used by the military over the decades to stir violence.

DEVIN STEWART: Do they bring in thugs to get the violence going?

FRANCIS WADE: Yes. They have these networks of civilian thugs, often people from impoverished backgrounds. They will pay them—it could be $3, it could be a bowl of biryani or something—for a day's work roughing up communities.

Particularly when the uprisings occurred in 1988 and 2007, suddenly, from nowhere, amid these crowds of protesting monks or protesting students civilians would wade in and start beating people and then suddenly withdraw as magically as they appeared.

There is certainly a network of organized thugs. They are kind of like the Brownshirts that the Nazis used to break up opposition rallies.

DEVIN STEWART: One of the reasons I asked that is because it does seem that there is a lot of rumor and the military uses rumor to basically create a sense of anxiety. And sure enough, the military happens to be the solution to the problem, right?

FRANCIS WADE: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's go back to your actual research project. Then did you return to Myanmar? What does your research actually look like on the ground?

FRANCIS WADE: It varied. I spent several long periods in Myanmar, the longest of which was six months, researching the mechanics of the violence, and trying more latterly, in particular, to focus on the perpetrators. A lot of media coverage inevitably ends up focusing on the victims of violence. With this latest military campaign, because the media cannot go to Northern Rakhine State, they have homed in on the Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh.

But I have always been interested in what motivates people to participate in violence, particularly when it is against their neighbors or onetime friends. So I would go to Rakhine State after the 2012 violence, meet with Rohingya, but also try to meet with Rakhine civilians as well, and latterly try to meet civilians who participate in attacks on Muslim communities.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow.

FRANCIS WADE: That involved traveling with my Rakhine friend who is appalled by what is happening now. He is a very moderate, sympathetic Rakhine activist. We would go to villages just outside of the state capital Sittwe in Rakhine State that had served as a wellspring for mobs of Buddhist Rakhine who would board buses in 2012 that shuttled them into the town, they would attack Muslim neighborhoods, kill Muslim civilians, and then withdraw back to their villages.

We knew where these villages were, so we would hop on a motorbike and just ride up and down this road, going into villages, asking around to see if anyone had been affected by the violence. If we found people who had been affected by the violence, then we knew that they had probably witnessed the violence. If they had witnessed the violence, they may have taken part in the violence, and we tried to segue the violence towards their role in what happened.

That is how the book really opens. I speak with a Rakhine person who in 2012 took part in an attack on a Muslim neighborhood called Nasi in Sittwe and laid waste to several hundred houses and forced thousands of Muslims to the refugee camps that sprung up.

DEVIN STEWART: This was burning them down?

FRANCIS WADE: Yes. They would travel on buses from their villages into the state capital Sittwe.

DEVIN STEWART: Who was driving these buses?

FRANCIS WADE: No one knows. This guy just called them "the organizers."

DEVIN STEWART: Do you want to speculate on who the organizers are?

FRANCIS WADE: One person I spoke to said that the village administrator organized the buses or organized groups of men in his village to board these buses. Some say that local Rakhine political parties organized the buses. There is anecdotal evidence that Rakhine activists, NGOs for example, helped to organize some of the violence as well. It was very much a grassroots effort with, I guess, a nod from the military.

They would be armed with machetes or sticks before they got on the buses. They would travel into town. They would be divided into teams, some to steal into the quarter and torch houses, others to mass exit points outside the neighborhood, and attack any fleeing Rohingya. Then a call would go up half an hour later and they would withdraw from the area, jump on the buses, and go back.

DEVIN STEWART: Are these people paid as well on the buses?

FRANCIS WADE: I don't know if they were paid. They were offered food by a local monastery in the town for a day's work, I suppose we can call it.

So this differs from the organized mobs that attacked towns in central Burma, in the sense that there are these very deep and bitter communal antagonisms in Rakhine State between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. That provides a strong motivation to participate in violence.

I think it is important to state that both Rakhine and Rohingya attacked one another, although the Rohingya took a hugely disproportionate share of the violence. But there are very palpable fears among Rakhine that have been cultivated by the military, very deliberately I think, of what an empowered Rohingya Muslim minority might do in the state to Rakhine supremacy.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get into more of the details about these two claimants going at it, I am really curious about what are the motivations that you found that are driving people to violence?

FRANCIS WADE: It varies. In Rakhine State you have two communities that are both deeply impoverished, but one, the Rakhine, is accepted as citizens of the country, as indigenous to the country, and they claim to be the hereditary sons of the coastal state. Whereas Rohingya are, according to the very popular narrative in Myanmar, illegal Bengali immigrants who provide the vanguard of a crusade to Islamize Myanmar—either Islamize Myanmar or form a breakaway state in Northern Rakhine, and therefore break up the local society in Rakhine State. Rakhine often articulate their animosity or their antagonism towards Rohingya as a product of fears that Rohingya are going to overwhelm their resources, that they are going to break up local Rakhine society, that these Muslims are marrying "our" women and they are forcing them to convert to Islam.

That was largely confined to Rakhine State until the transition began, and then it started to be echoed amongst communities elsewhere in the country that probably had little to no contact with Rohingya, yet still Rohingya became the source of national hysteria, and these very existential fears emerged, with Myanmar being a sort of last bastion of Buddhism in the region, with it having been eroded in India by Islam, and in Indonesia and Malaysia and so on. Were these Muslim communities to be enfranchised by the democratic transition, then they would grow in prominence to a point where they could really challenge the supremacy of Buddhism.

These fears vary. In Rakhine State, they are often more material in nature; generally, outside of Rakhine State, they have a strong existential element to them.

DEVIN STEWART: Take this question however you would like: Do they have any merit to them, these anxieties and these claims?

FRANCIS WADE: The great irony is that Rohingya, in particular, are the most persecuted minority in Myanmar. They are the most powerless minority in Myanmar. They are effectively quarantined in a quarter of the country from which they are unable to move, on the whole. They are subject to restrictions on movement unlike any other community in Myanmar. They have been systematically weakened over decades. They are heavily reliant on international assistance when that is allowed through. They struggle to access health care, they struggle to access education. Yet, they still somehow become the sort of chief threat to society in Myanmar. That is one of the great ironies, and I think one of the crowning achievements of the military's ability to manipulate ethnic religious identities in a way that raises this specter of a threat in the form of a powerless Rohingya minority.

DEVIN STEWART: What about the Rohingya militia? They have this Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which the military points to as evidence of this growing threat.

FRANCIS WADE: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the state of ARSA right now?

FRANCIS WADE: It is difficult to know. They first came to public attention in October 2016, when they launched a series of coordinated attacks on security posts in Rakhine State.

DEVIN STEWART: They were attacking police stations?

FRANCIS WADE: Yes, that's right, local police stations, border and security posts.

Before then, no one had really known anything about them, although they are believed to have started mobilizing, or planning mobilization, after the 2012 violence.

Their strategy, which I think indicates their level of organization and resources, was to attack security outposts, in part so that they could seize weapons. Because they didn't have weapons in the first place, they attacked with machetes. I think that indicates really that they are quite an under-resourced group, or at least they were. They were able to mobilize a network of Rohingya cells in villages, but it is very much a ragtag army.

After the attacks happened in October, I got the sense from what I've read that—because that forced the exodus of 80,000 Rohingya across the Bangladesh border, which didn't receive much international condemnation—I think Rohingya were very much aggrieved and upset that this group that supposedly represented their interests had basically pulled a move like that, which was essentially suicidal for them. I think several hundred were killed.

Now we have this latest eruption, which happened in August. Because they don't pose a security threat to the state in Myanmar—I think it is ludicrous to think that they pose a real threat—their strategy seems to be "we trigger a response from the military and the world starts to take notice of the plight of the Rohingya."

Yet, what has happened now is that 615,000 people have crossed into Bangladesh, the most concentrated refugee flow since the Rwanda Genocide. The government and the military have essentially used an attack by this ragtag army as a pretext to, I guess, intensify a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you make of Myanmar's political leadership? I know that Aung San Suu Kyi is often blamed for not doing enough about the Rohingya. I think a lot of people who actually go to Myanmar are skeptical of that viewpoint. What is your take on what the government can do, and particularly Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counsellor—she is not actually head of the country, but she is the de facto head?

FRANCIS WADE: Right, she is exactly de facto head. She is not allowed to be the president of the country.

There are two things. When she came to power, or de facto power, she acquiesced in a very delicate power-sharing agreement with the military. So the military still retains control of the key ministries, retains control of the economy. That was all part of the deal—I guess almost agreed, whether there is anything on paper—with the government. The government knew that when it came to power the military would still hold de facto power. So there is a strong contingent of military MPs in parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy are to a degree beholden to the military. They operate autonomously from civilian rule. She is also beholden to quite a powerful Buddhist nationalist lobby, which makes up a huge chunk of her support base.

What I think has been quite shocking for many is the fact that for so long the population had steadfastly resisted the divisive politicking of the military, had for so long opposed military abuses, and now, because all political forces in society seem to be aligned on this one issue—which is that the Rohingya are a threat, are a danger to society, and need to be rid of the country—suddenly we had this upending of a long-held conventional view of Myanmar, which was almost virtuous society in opposition to a bad military.

Now we have this bizarre alignment between the two forces. But I do not think anyone had really foreseen the extent to which the population would flip almost and want to, at least on this campaign against the Rohingya, effectively join hands with the military in forcing this population out.

DEVIN STEWART: Would you say that democracy has been a good thing for the country?

FRANCIS WADE: That is the million-dollar question.

DEVIN STEWART: That is a hard one, right, because you could make an argument that things are just kind of a lot more chaotic and divisive, and a lot more deaths, that's for sure. How do you grapple with that? It is a puzzle for people like you and me, people who grew up in democratic countries who are having our own problems with democracy at home, and then we are thinking about, "Oh, is this something we really want to promote all around the world?"

FRANCIS WADE: Well, I think if it is going to be promoted, it needs to be promoted very carefully. I think what happened in Myanmar is that Western nations had an incredibly romanticized view of the country and of the pro-democracy movement—and that is our own fault entirely—and we raised Aung San Suu Kyi to this pedestal that was so high that any sort of —

DEVIN STEWART: Any mortal or human being couldn't live up to it?

FRANCIS WADE: Yes, exactly.

I think what we need to be clear on is that one should not breathlessly endorse an opposition that has not really been tested. In Myanmar there was an assumption that because the pro-democracy movement, as we came to know it, stood against military rule that meant it stood for democracy and democracy meant equal rights for all.

That has been completely upended. I think the fault was that there was no interrogation of the ideals of the pro-democracy movement, particularly its senior figureheads in the National League for Democracy who are now espousing deeply hateful views of the Rohingya, and no deep questioning of what vision that opposition had for society in Myanmar beyond the installment of Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy in power.

I suppose, ultimately, it is not our place to judge whether democracy has been a good thing or a bad thing for Myanmar. Authoritarian rule denies people agency. They deserve to have that agency.

But then, what they do with that agency is another question that we had not really grappled with when Western nations were formulating policy for Myanmar. We did not look at the grassroots; we did not look at the hidden fault lines in society, and I think we are suddenly realizing that they have been there all along, that we should have noticed them beforehand, and that we should have prepared for their eventual eruption.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like things that we might have thought about before for other countries, like Iraq or other places.

FRANCIS WADE: Exactly. I think it is a universal lesson.

DEVIN STEWART: Absolutely.

Francis, this has been an incredibly interesting conversation about your book.

Maybe could you just give us a last word about—well, anything you would like to say finally, but also kind of what is at stake here? I remember in some of my visits to Myanmar I heard something surprising—and I would like to get your assessment—which is that this Rohingya story could actually foster an incredible breeding ground for terrorism or terrorist violence in Myanmar. When you think about global Islamist terrorism, this story of the Rohingya turns Myanmar into a potential target.

I do not want to put that in your mouth, but what is at stake here? What are the paths that could roll out in front of us?

FRANCIS WADE: I think that there is a risk that this could take on a new dimension as the situation advances. There is now a population of 600,000-plus newly displaced refugees in Bangladesh. They join an existing Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh of 300,000-plus. There are almost a million stateless people in Bangladesh. Their chances of being able to go home are very slim. Those that can go back to Rakhine State are likely to be placed in what the government has said will be repatriation camps, which I think will become replicas of the internment camps that 100,000-plus Rohingya live in elsewhere in the state and from which they are not allowed to leave.

I guess it is Conflict Studies 101 that if you persecute a population, if you remove any institutional channels through which they can negotiate their grievances, if you block them off from positions of power or from being able to voice their desires for power, then the only option that really is left to them, unless they want to continue this incredibly powerless existence, is to move to a more aggressive stance. Certainly, the insurgents within the Rohingya community, who are very much a minority—I think we need to be clear on that, because often we talk about Rohingya as a sort of collective entity—the insurgents are a minority, but they obviously realize that there is potential for exploitation of these grievances amongst the Rohingya population. If it becomes the case that international terrorist groups try and do the same, then we could have a very worrying situation on our hands.

I think the situation is already extremely bleak, deeply concerning. If groups try to move into the camps in Bangladesh and try to recruit, then it becomes an international crisis of a magnitude beyond what we have already. I think that is something we need to be prepared for.

The Rohingya have long eschewed violence. The irony is that they are the last minority group in the country to give birth to an insurgency. Ethnic minorities all over the country have had insurgencies in full swing for half a century. I guess the question is, why and how the Rohingya managed to stave to that off for as long as they did, given the conditions they faced. But now a turning point has happened and we need to look to what I think is a very concerning future.

DEVIN STEWART: Francis Wade is author of Myanmar's Enemy Within, a brand-new book on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and worth everyone's attention. You can obtain his book on Amazon.com. I really hope everyone checks it out. It has been getting all kinds of great praise from Los Angeles Review of Books, Time Magazine, The Economist, and other outlets.

Congratulations, Francis, and great to see you today.

FRANCIS WADE: Thank you, Devin.

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