Mushroom cloud

Image source: Stuff.co.nz


Events in Korea over the past year have set East Asia, and the whole world, on edge. North Korea has tested nuclear weapons. America, in league with China, has responded with a crippling sanction campaign. Undeterred, North Korea continues to fire missiles and now claims to have one that can reach America’s very faraway east coast. America has toyed with the prospect of a military strike.

To be fair, this situation should be familiar. Ever since the Koreas were divided by occupying Soviet and American armies in 1945, North Korea has been antagonistic. It tried to conquer South Korea in 1950 and almost succeeded. In the decades since, it has tried to assassinate a South Korean dictator, kidnapped Japanese and South Korean civilians, blown up a South Korean plane, torpedoed a South Korean ship, and shelled a South Korean island near the border. Since the ’90s, it has had a nuclear program; since 2006, it has had nuclear bombs. It has constantly issued overblown, melodramatic threats against its neighbor and its other 2 enemies, Japan and America. America usually takes a hard line and has imposed international sanctions against North Korea since 2006.

But even against this background of threats and hostility, the past year has been an escalation. Gim Jeong’eun, the North’s dictator, has ramped up the pace of his nuclear testing, with 3 since he took power in 2011 and more than 80 missile tests. (His predecessors had 2 and 31, respectively.) Chinese participation is significant because it is supposed to be the North’s ally and has resisted harsh measures against it at the UN before; most Northern exports have now been cut off completely. Donald Trump, America’s blowhard president, has adopted Gim’s hyperbole by threatening “fire and fury” and mulling an attack to give the North a “bloody nose.”

The stakes are high, and it should be obvious, but I’ll explain anyway just in case. Both North Korea and America have nukes, which could kill millions of people. Seoul, a giant city with over 10 million people, is near the border and could get pounded by Northern artillery fire. American troops are stationed in the South and would come to its defense, since it’s a treaty ally. China might intervene, since although it opposes the North’s nuclear antics, it still prefers its regime to the American-backed one in Seoul. South Korea is one of Asia’s economic hotspots and a technological hub for the whole world; a Second Korean War would have a global economic impact.

These considerations should rule out a military strike for any but the most insane, fanatical hawks. North Korea may be an obnoxious, untrustworthy, aggressive tyranny, but conditions must REALLY be intolerable before another Korean War is willingly unleashed. (The first one killed around 5 million people, more than almost any other war since World War II.) America itself would likely suffer consequences since it’s now within range (theoretically) of the North’s missiles. And talk of a “bloody nose” attack is reckless; how many people give up and just slink away when they’re punched in the face?

Given these conditions, previous presidents have resorted to a policy of sanctions and focusing on other problems, quietly hoping that something gives in the North and the regime collapses (or at least acts peacefully). Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, called this “strategic patience.” It frustrated a lot of his opponents, especially hawks, who pointed to it as yet another example of Obama’s cowardice and passivity — but it’s the better strategy.

Still, it’s hard to argue that the policy worked. Gim Jeong’eun has kept testing weapons and amassing an arsenal of as many as 60 bombs. The North’s propagandists talked about turning Seoul into a “sea of fire” and compared Obama to a monkey. Trump’s patience has clearly run out — as have many other Americans (and Japanese).

But… what can he do?

In the ’90s and early ’00s, the South tried to approach the North with what came to be known as the “sunshine policy,” offering business ventures, badly needed food aid, and high-level talks. America was always skeptical that the North was just gaming the South for emergency supplies and money (thanks to its own dysfunctional economy) and never intended to abandon its nuclear dream. Sure enough, when the North tested its first nuke in 2006, the policy unraveled, and it is now spoken of mainly with scorn.

Nevertheless, I think it’s time to revisit the policy. North Korea feels isolated and insecure; with a subsistence-level economy, no real allies, and an enemy known to overthrow dictators, it has good reason to. Gim is probably confident that no country would dare attack him with the prospect of nuclear retaliation dangling overhead, and again, he has good reason to be. North Koreans are underfed and lack the military technology and numbers of their neighbors. A nuclear deterrent is their best hope.

Given the forces arrayed against it — South Korea, Japan, and America — is it plausible that the North would launch an attack against them? Some worry about this, and it’s still a possibility, but it rests on the presumption that Gim Jeong’eun is some kind of madman who’s drunk on his own propaganda and completely oblivious to the outside world. I don’t buy into this theory — it is much more likely that he’s just acting that way to rattle his adversaries and impress (or intimidate) his own people. Why hasn’t North Korea started a war yet? It started the first one because it thought it had a chance to conquer the South. That chance is nonexistent now. South Korea alone is strong enough to beat the North at this point, leading some analysts to wonder if the alliance with America even makes sense anymore.

Therefore, I think the best strategy now is to hold high-level talks with North Korea, including a summit if possible, and drop the sanctions. Given the current balance of power, it is America in reality that is most threatening to Korean security. An American attack is the most likely flashpoint that would start another war. North (and South) Korea needs an assurance that America won’t start anything and has peaceful intentions.

In fact, I would argue that foreigners should go even further and try to trade with North Korea and loosen the barriers that isolate it. This won’t be easy, given Northern paranoia at subversion and contamination by liberal thought and capitalism, but it’s worth seeing how far it can go. The model should be the opening of China in the ’70s: even though China had been seen by America and its allies as a fanatical, ideological, implacable enemy, it turned out to be willing to reach an understanding and eventually to trade and open up to the outside world. With a growing North Korean middle class and a leader who might be more familiar with the world outside his borders, there might be an opportunity here too.

It’s not a perfect strategy. But none are. North Korea has been called “the land of lousy options.” America and its allies (especially Japan) are committed to halting nuclear proliferation, meaning keeping more countries from getting nukes. Their current strategy hinges on making North Korea give them up. But how would that work? Why would North Korea give up something it has worked so hard on for so long and at such a price? Iraq and Libya did it and were convulsed by invasion and civil war. Iran (apparently) has done it and Trump is talking about cracking down some more because the deal wasn’t harsh enough. Nukes are almost all North Korea has. There is a risk that South Korea and Japan would get nukes if North Korea never gives them up, something they could probably do quickly; North Korea’s precedent could encourage more and more countries to look into building nukes. But it’s a risk worth taking — after all, 9 countries now have nukes, and there hasn’t been a nuclear war yet.

Another problem is the sanctions regime. After 12 years of harsher and harsher sanctions, it would be impractical for America to suddenly back down without an excuse. This is a big problem, and it will probably keep a reconciliation policy from happening in the near future. But I’m not convinced that sanctions are working. It’s extremely hard to understand North Korea given its near-total isolation, but it’s lasted over 70 years and survived devastating war, horrible famine and punishing sanctions. North Koreans are used to hardship, and take pride in their stamina. The longer economic avenues are severed, the more likely they are to lash out and resort to criminal activity to get by.

There is the problem of rewarding bad behavior. It’s an understandable concern, but it’s not worth risking a nuclear holocaust over. In international relations, exceptions have to be made to avert tragedies or forestall problems from escalating. North Korean behavior might even improve if its enemies managed to convince it of their peaceful intentions. Human rights activists would object that a regime as brutal and totalitarian as Gim’s deserves no mercy, and frankly it doesn’t. But in reality lots of evil dictators get away with their crimes, and there’s no real way to hold Gim accountable.

A richer North Korea with trade and contact outside of its borders would also only happen if the elite that sustains the regime was kept secure and happy with lucrative contracts and dodgy kickbacks. The country would still be poor and isolated. Myanmar, which basically opened to foreign development 7 years ago, has headed in this direction. But it’s a common development, and this kind of system would be needed to ensure Gim’s cooperation and the elite’s support. Without it, North Korea would just stay angry and isolated.

America has a historic tendency to favor firepower, muscle and bullying because those are its strong suits. When you have the world’s biggest stick, you look for ways to swing it. Anytime a situation calls for diplomacy or patience, Americans tend to get nervous that they are looking weak. They need to relax and remember how scary they look to almost everyone else. Lengthy hostility didn’t prevent America from coming to terms with China, Cuba, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Finally, it is important to consider South Korea. South Koreans have longed for reunification the whole time, and tend to take a sanguine view of their northern siblings. They are used to belligerent warnings and over-the-top boasts and don’t take them seriously. The South’s current president, Mun Jaein, wants to return to the sunshine policy and has reacted warmly to the North’s recent overtures like the joint Korean Olympic team and the visit by Gim Jeong’eun’s sister. Reunification may not be very realistic, but otherwise America and Japan should respect the South’s wishes for reconciliation and peace. Without being naive about Northern intentions, they should welcome any efforts at lowering tensions and accept the reality of a nuclear North Korea.

Gim Jeong’eun’s new strategy seems to be to try to drive a wedge between the hawkish Trump and Shinzou Abe of Japan and the comparatively dovish Mun. Trump and Abe should avert this by aligning their policies more closely with Mun’s. North Korea might be the single worst country on Earth with no real friends and a population desperate to get out. But I was in Hawai’i this year during the missile scare, and I can safely say the specter of nuclear Armageddon should make everyone think twice about acting tough in these circumstances.



India Pakistan

Image source: The Quint

The relationship between India and Pakistan is one of the great rivalries in international relations. On one level, it’s a fun, competitive rivalry: Indian and Pakistani soldiers strive to outdo each other in high steps and dramatic flourishes at the border-closing ceremony between Lahore and Amritsr, the 2 cricket teams attract especially wild enthusiasm whenever they face off, and Indians and Pakistanis overseas tend to get along well, just with lots of teasing and bickering. Yet on another level, it’s a deadly serious hatred: Indian and Pakistani soldiers shoot each other, the 2 countries go to war and interfere in each others’ affairs, and Hindus and Muslims are viewed with suspicion and contempt in Pakistan and India, respectively.

How did this relationship begin, and where is the rivalry headed?

It is important to recognize that India and Pakistan were once one country. (I frequently hear or read things that don’t seem to understand this.) That country was simply known as India, and it was ruled by Britain with the help of dozens of mostly tiny “princely states.” Before this, India hadn’t really been a united country (although some empires came very close). It was carved up by numerous small or medium-sized princes, emperors, rajas, sultans, etc. who warred with each other and came and went over many centuries of convoluted history.

Significantly, though, there was a major religious divide. Beginning in the 1000s, India had been the victim of several Muslim invasions. The Muslims won the upper hand and dominated India for centuries, especially through the Dilli Sultanate and Mughal Empire. Yet they were always a minority — by the time of independence in 1947 they made up only about a quarter of India’s total population. They developed a rich, prosperous and artistically inspiring culture that blended their own Persian background with local Hindu influences (the hybrid religion of Sikhism is an example of this). They also tended to persecute their mostly Hindu subjects.

By the time of the colonial era, communal relations had become combustible. India’s major Muslim rulers were dispossessed and Muslims became just another religious community within India’s tapestry of them. They longed for the days when they lorded over most of the subcontinent. Hindus also longed for the days when they had neither Briton nor Muslim to hold them back. The British exacerbated this antagonism as part of the time-honored “divide and rule” strategy of colonialism, although which community they favored basically depends on whom you ask.

By the 1930s, the tension was affecting India’s independence movement. Muslims grew concerned that an independent, democratic India would take revenge against its Muslim population and discriminate against them. A political party called the All-India Muslim League sprang up to push for India to be split into 2 countries. The new one would be called Pakistan as an acronym for Punjab, Afghania (referring to the parts bordering Afghanistan), Kashmir and Balochistan, Muslim-majority regions in northwest India. The name also means “land of the pure.”

The new party wasn’t treated seriously at first, but it gained popularity among Muslims. Pro-Pakistan rallies were attacked by Hindu mobs furious at their betrayal of Indian nationalism, sparking communal riots and adding evidence to the Muslim League’s dire predictions of a future Hindu-ruled India. India’s founding father, Mohandas Gandhi, begged with Pakistan’s, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, even offering him the post of prime minister. But Jinnah was unmoved, and the British were getting worried about India’s political stability, so the plan for partition was approved.


Image source: AP

The new India and Pakistan were born one day apart in August 1947. The colonial provinces of Sindh and East Bengal (confusingly located in east India far away from the rest of Pakistan) were transferred to Pakistan basically intact, but the big province of Punjab was split along religious lines. This did not go smoothly. Trainloads of migrants heading for the country matching their religion attacked each other. Columns of migrants heading on foot did the same. Minorities in Indian and Pakistani cities were sought out, harassed, raped and murdered. Looting, arson and kidnapping were rampant. Gandhi fasted in a bid to put an end to the violence, but only ended up shot by a Hindu extremist. (The movie Gandhi, by the way, is an epic and moving depiction of these events.)

The bloodshed of ethnic cleansing eventually led to the bloodshed of war. India and Pakistan started off on bad terms, with India spitefully withholding the financial assets that had been earmarked for Pakistan. Indian leaders like Vallabhbhai Patel talked about strangling Pakistan in its infancy, convinced that the experiment was crazy and destined to fail. While the princely states were allowed to choose which country they could join, most of them ended up in India. While some of these would have been impractical any other way (for example, there was a Muslim-ruled state in southern India, Hyderabad, that would’ve been surrounded by India if it hadn’t joined it), the big sticking point was Kashmir. This was a big state at the northernmost part of India famous for its cool weather, spectacular mountain scenery, and multireligious population. It also sat on the border between the 2 countries, and both of them really wanted it. Kashmir’s maharaja preferred independence, but India pressured him to join instead in 1948. Outraged at yet another territory slipping away, Pakistan invaded Kashmir, using guerrilla warriors as a front. A short war raged, with the result that Kashmir was also partitioned between India and Pakistan — although the Vale of Kashmir, the state’s most important part, remained within India.

Kashmir map

Note: Kashmir also has large Hindu and Buddhist communities outside of the Valley proper. Image source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Despite these odious beginnings, Indo-Pakistani relations weren’t so terrible in the early years. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, opposed Partition and tried to maintain cordial relations with his neighbor. Travel across the border was common; many wealthy Muslims maintained houses in both countries for a while. A 1960 treaty arranged for the use of the waters of the Indus River, all-important for Pakistan even though its headwaters were in India and China.

But the Kashmir dispute festered. Kashmir’s population is mostly Muslim (hence the “K” in Pakistan), so Pakistanis were convinced that India had strongarmed them. For its part, India was eager to keep it, partly to taunt its neighbor but mostly to show that Pakistan was wrong and a Muslim-majority state could thrive in Hindu-majority India. In 1965, encouraged by India’s crushing defeat by China, Pakistan infiltrated Kashmir again. This provoked another war, leading to impressive tank battles in the Punjab but a tie with no territorial changes as the final result. Then another war broke out in 1971, when India intervened in a ferocious revolt in East Pakistan to beat the Pakistanis in 2 weeks and force them to surrender their eastern segment, which became independent as Bangladesh.

These disputes and wars obviously weren’t good for relations, and they have remained terrible ever since. Pakistan came to see India as a greedy state bent on subcontinental domination and itself as a heroic, virtuous bastion defending the faithful. Given India’s massive superiority in size and wealth, Pakistan had to compensate with a bigger, stronger military, and that meant fat budgets and military control of the government. Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq also pushed for a deeper Islamization of Pakistan in the ’80s, supporting madrassas (religious schools), aspects of sharia (Islamic law), and a narrow version of Pakistani identity. Pakistan’s few infidels felt themselves less and less welcome; the struggle against India took on the character of a jihad.

The Kashmir dispute continued to fester. Since it was obvious that Pakistan couldn’t defeat India in a conventional fight, it found ways of gaining leverage. Sponsoring an insurgency in Kashmir, which erupted again in 1990, was one way. Another was nuclear weapons, which were developed beginning in the ’70s (after India detonated a nuke of its own) and first tested in 1998. This locked the 2 brothers into a stalemate: outright war was out of the question, but Pakistan could still bleed India with its insurgency and needle it with terrorism (particularly in the ’00s), and its nuclear arsenal would keep India from doing much about it. It was a cheap, apparently effective way of keeping the conflict alive and India agitated, and later used to similar fashion in Afghanistan against the Western coalition there.

And so it has continued, more or less, to the present. Pakistanis have become stock villains in Indian films (and likewise Indians in Pakistan’s much less well-known films). Pakistani agitation reached the boiling point around the turn of the millennium, when an infiltration into the high mountains of Kashmir sparked a 4th war in 1999 (with no real lasting results) and a Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacked India’s parliament in 2001. Another nerve-wracking episode occurred in 2008, when a group of members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-Indian terrorist organization, attacked the Taj, Mumbai’s swankiest hotel, along with other parts of Mumbai. Lashkar-e-Taiba is also sponsored by Pakistan, leading to a brief war scare, although nothing happened in the end.

It can be hard to predict which government is more interested in reconciliation. Despite their military ties, Zia and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan both made moves toward normalization, and despite his Hindu nationalist background, India’s Atal Vajpeyi held talks with Musharraf before the Parliament attack scuttled them. Similarly, India’s current PM, Narendra Modi, surprised many observers by reaching out a hand to Pakistan despite his fiery Hindutva ideology — he invited Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration and visited him in Lahore in 2015.

Modi Sharif

Modi (left) and Sharif (right). Image source: PIB

Nevertheless, the relationship seems fated to swivel automatically back to a state of contempt and bile. Usually Pakistan is the culprit; it has not abandoned its policy of supporting and encouraging infiltrators to attack Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir. One such attack in September 2016 on an army camp froze whatever progress had been made in recent talks. Although Pakistan has been under civilian rule since 2008, the army maintains a tight grip on society and is widely suspected of pulling the strings behind the scenes. Its intelligence service, the ISI, maintains links with a medley of terrorist and extreme Islamic groups, prompting unending unease in India.

Meanwhile, developments in India also make the outlook for peace look grim. While it may still be too soon to say how lasting these changes are, Indian society is moving rightward since Modi’s election in 2014. Hindutva ideology sees India as a fundamentally Hindu state, casting suspicion on Muslims and other minorities and associating Pakistan with those old Muslim overlords. The details are obviously murky, but Pakistan claims that India is fomenting insurgency in Pakistan’s restive western desert as well; an Indian named Kulbhushan Jadhav was sentenced to death last year in Pakistan for this, although his sentence has been stayed. Kashmir remains a source of unrest and headaches for India; although it’s not quite clear that Kashmiris want to join Pakistan, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Indian government there, leading to ongoing protests which are usually suppressed violently. This only feeds Pakistan’s narrative of India as diabolical, unscrupulous and bigoted.

The international situation unfortunately adds to the pessimism. While America was previously a major power broker between the 2 sides (especially after the Kargil War), it’s now soured on Pakistan and its unending duplicity and cut off military aid last month. Simultaneously, it’s tilted more toward India, which it recognizes as an enemy of its enemies (militant Islam and China). As for China, it wants to keep India weak and distracted, and fosters a very close relationship with Pakistan to enable it. Saudi Arabia also has a warm relationship with Pakistan and helps fund all those madrassas. And as Western power recedes in Afghanistan, Pakistani paranoia of a growth in Indian influence there only increases.

The sad thing is, in many respects, India and Pakistan are brothers (or sisters). The border cuts across ethnolinguistic lines; people on both sides of the border speak Punjabi, and Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, is very similar to Hindi, India’s main language. There are Hindu and Sikh sites in Pakistan and Muslim monuments in India. Indians for the most part recognize and enjoy Pakistani food. Indian movies have an avid audience in Pakistan (although they are often banned there). It would be hard to tell an average Indian and Pakistani apart. Domestic issues, like power and water shortages and a difficulty in building up an industrial base, are also shared. More trade would help economic growth in both countries. Despite the strong atmosphere of animosity, there are also big constituencies in both countries (especially India) that would support reconciliation. The Google India ad below, which shows an old Pakistani man reuniting with his childhood friend in India after 66 years, touched a nerve as Desis on both sides of the border remembered their old ties.

But hatred remains deep. As long as 64% of Indians have “very unfavorable” opinions of Pakistan, Indian politicians have more to gain by being tough on Pakistan than conciliatory. And as long as Pakistan remains wedded to its strategic conceptions of India as a threat to be undermined and pestered, conflict will continue and negotiations will stagnate. It may not be fair to lump the Indo-Pakistani conflict in the same category as bitter disputes like the Arabs vs. Israel, but a real breakthrough in bilateral relations remains almost as unlikely.


Rohingya fire

Another village goes up in smoke. Image source: Getty Images

The Rohingya of west Myanmar eke out a living on the margins of society, making do with subsistence farming and fishing in primitive conditions. They live in a state of smoldering enmity with their neighbors, the Rakhine, who occasionally pillage and murder them. But the real terror strikes when the soldiers arrive. Hardened by decades of indiscriminate violence against Myanmar’s minorities, they torch whole villages, gun down fleeing villagers, ravish the women, shoot the livestock, and force the Rohingya out of the country altogether.

The persecution of the Rohingya has gone on for a long time, although since Myanmar was such an obscure and isolated country, it was out of sight of the outside world until recently. The current crisis, though, is a serious escalation of their oppression, and it could have (other) dire consequences.

Myanmar is an old country; its history stretches back to the 800s. But it is a country dominated by the Bamar ethnic group, who conquered the fertile and hot Ayeyarwady Valley and subjugated the other ethnic groups that ring it. The Bamar are proud of their history and especially of the military prowess of their kings, and usually react to any uppitiness among the minorities with ferocity. This tendency has carried on into Myanmar’s modern history, since the country is dominated by its army, which reacts to any problem or threat or hint of a threat violently and ruthlessly.

But even though the Rohingya share this bitter relationship with the Myanma military with other ethnicities, they are different. They are closely related to the Bengalis, the ethnic group that dominates Myanmar’s western neighbor, Bangladesh. How exactly they came to Myanmar is a matter of heated dispute today; the Rohingya stress their heritage in the independent Kingdom of Arakan, when they were invited to serve in a royal court heavily influenced by Islamic culture. Most probably migrated to Arakan later, when the region was conquered by Britain and annexed to its huge Indian colony; the new colonists needed menial laborers for their tea plantations, and Bengalis had a lot of experience with that, especially in the area around Chittagong in southeast Bengal.

So the Rohingya originate from Bangladesh (which used to be Pakistan, and before that, India — but the point is, a foreign country); they are Muslim, while Myanmar is deeply Buddhist; and they are Aryan, while the rest of Myanmar is Mongoloid (basically, they have darker skin and rounder eyes). Their language is closely related to Bengali. They are seen as foreigners by the rest of Myanmar. Worse, they have links with the hated British overlords: as part of the classic imperial divide-and-rule strategy, the Rohingya were favored as enforcers in the colonial regime, which tended to admire Muslims as fierce warriors and loathe Myanma as duplicitous, scheming weaklings. When British rule was overthrown by Japan in 1942, ethnic riots broke out in Arakan as the local Arakanese got their revenge on the Rohingya, with the tacit approval of the Japanese.

Myanmar* gained its independence in 1948, giving the Bamar a chance to restore the national glory that had been tarnished by their humiliating conquest 60 years earlier. This meant seeking revenge against the many Indian migrants who had flocked to the colony and gotten rich at their ancestors’ expense. The Indians were encouraged to go back to India, especially forcefully after the army seized control in 1962. Their wealth made them a tempting target. The Rohingya, on the other hand, were too poor to bother with. They remained in Myanmar, laboring away in their neglected corner of the country and launching an insurgency to unite their area with Bangladesh. The local Rakhine, descendants of the Arakanese, held them in contempt and avoided having much to do with them. In 1982, the Rohingya were even stripped of their citizenship, and to this day are considered Bengalis by the rest of the country (although Bangladesh does not recognize them as such).

The army’s harsh and authoritarian regime, by all accounts, ran Myanmar into the ground. Its socialist, then corrupt capitalist economy impoverished the country. Its xenophobia and paranoia isolated Myanmar from even its neighbors. Its violent impulses dominated its interaction with its subjects. By 2011, the regime could no longer be sustained, and Myanmar has undergone a groundbreaking reform since then that has opened up the country and given its people democratic rights and a better standard of living.

On the other hand, the reform has also exposed how volatile Myanmar’s ethnic relations are. In 2012, a riot broke out in Sittwe, Rakhine’s main city, after a Rohingya was accused of raping and murdering a Rakhine. Dozens of Rohingya were killed, but the main effect of the violence was to drive the 2 communities further apart, with the Rohingya forced into concentration camps (“internally displaced persons camps”). It might be helpful for their own protection, but the camps are poorly guarded, squalid, and by most accounts saturated with an atmosphere of hopelessness and boredom and afflicted by the usual woes of poverty (domestic abuse, substance abuse, petty theft, hooliganism).

Rohingya map

These problems pale in comparison to what happened when the army showed up in October 2016. The Myanma army has a long history of using brute force and terror to subdue rebellious minorities, and it has used the same tactics against the Rohingya. Hundreds of villages are put to the torch; families are terrorized and driven out; torture and rape are frequently used. Children and the elderly are gunned down.

The whole crisis has understandably sparked an outflow of refugees from the conflict zone. In earlier years, Rohingya would brave the Andaman Sea in flimsy boats and set sail for Thailand or more distant but also more Muslim countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia). Now most just head out on foot for nearby Bangladesh, accessible by crossing the narrow Naf River. All face the woes of refugees everywhere: locals unable or unwilling to help them; crowded, dangerous and filthy conditions; difficulty in finding jobs or integrating into society; a tendency to fall into the clutches of unsavory and unscrupulous characters who abuse them in exchange for money or food. Bangladesh has done what it can to provide for their needs, but it is overwhelmed by the latest inflow: over 400,000 since August 25. Bengalis are sympathetic to the Rohingya’s plight, but Bangladesh is very poor and crowded already, and most locals hope or assume that the refugees will go back to Myanmar at some point.

Rohingya refugees

Refugee camps are so overcrowded that food (biscuits, in this case) is thrown out of trucks into the crowds. Refugees have died in the stampede. Image source: Reuters

The situation has provoked an international outcry, especially from Muslim countries sensitive to religious persecution. The UN has carried out a fact-finding mission under former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and puts the onus on the Myanma military. Protests have been held in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia against the repression. Myanmar is facing increasing international isolation and condemnation. Some NGOs and media outlets, less cautious and diplomatic than governments, label the conflict ethnic cleansing or even genocide. Ayman az-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, mentioned the Rohingya in a rant against persecution of Muslims in South Asia, and there are fears that the Rohingya will be radicalized and gain support from jihadists eager for a war with infidels.

Why is Myanmar oppressing the Rohingya so much? In part it’s because they have never really been accepted as Myanma. To a large extent it is a religious conflict: militant Buddhism has been on the rise in Myanmar, and like others, they see little distinction between ordinary Muslims and terrorists. Wirathu, an outspoken monk with a huge fan following, likes to remind his audiences that Indonesia used to be a Buddhist country until it was swamped by the forces of Islam, and claims (unrealistically) that Buddhist Myanma are being outbred by hordes of Muslim infiltrators. For the Rakhine, they are seen as illegitimate competitors for their state’s scarce resources. I visited Yangon in March to conduct a research project on the conflict, and the Rakhine I spoke with were mostly unsympathetic to the Rohingya. They were well aware of the international sympathy for them and claimed that they were burning down their own houses in hopes of getting food aid. They claimed that there was a thriving black market within the camps. They had little comment on the military assault that provoked the recent refugee outflow, and focused much more on the Rohingya attacks that had provoked it. Most refused to call them “Rohingya,” preferring “Bengali” in an obvious attempt to deny them a separate identity from Bangladeshis.

Rohingya cartoon

A mainstream Myanma view of the conflict (Aung San Suu Kyi being the figure on the right). See this article if you’re interested in more anti-Rohingya Myanma cartoons. Image source: Okka Kyi Winn Facebook

The Rohingya do have an insurgency fighting on their behalf: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. It is shadowy and poorly understood. (I have noticed this report is the main source for most articles on the subject.) It is mostly funded by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and carries out attacks on police and army outposts. It might receive support from the villagers that the army targets. It might grow as the conflict heats up, but for now it is outmatched by the army and the Rakhine militias that pillage the Rohingya alongside it, and it is surely reliant on outside assistance.

The case of Myanmar is an excellent example of the complicated results of a long-repressed society suddenly awakening to democracy and the realities of the modern world. A people long oppressed and terrorized by their army can rally to the same army’s side when it turns on those it considers outsiders. Conscious of the dangers posed by radical Islam, it is easy to see local Muslims as sleeper cells ready to carry out terrorist attacks and bring down Myanmar’s old Buddhist civilization. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader and a world-renowned icon who endured decades of house arrest for winning an election in 1990, now must heed her people’s demands to stand up to meddling foreigners. She has no wish to confront an army that still controls 25% of the national legislature and a big part of the economy and could easily take over again. And hey, the Rohingya can’t vote anyway.

What can the outside world do? It’s hard to say. Western and non-Muslim Asian countries have been reluctant to press Myanmar too hard, out of fear of imperiling its fragile and very young process of democratization. Reviving the national economy (including Rakhine too, maybe) seems to be a higher priority than a million or so Rohingya. China, annoyed at losing influence in Myanmar since its opening, sees an opportunity to regain favor by not criticizing the government for its crackdown and maybe even mediating the conflict with Bangladesh. India, under the Hindu nationalist regime of Narendra Modi, has become unfriendly to Muslims in general and wants to deport the Rohingyas that have ended up there.

Given the widespread popularity for Aung San Suu Kyi, hostility toward Muslims, and resentment of foreign criticism, there might be little that the outside world can realistically do to sway Myanmar. This might be a golden opportunity for Indonesia to exercise its latent political power: an NGO I spoke with claimed it has a reputation as an honest broker with experience in quelling ethnic unrest and a distaste for the sort of grandstanding favored by, say, Malaysia’s Najib Razak and Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan (who have both used the issue to whip up their voters). Helping Bangladesh, which shoulders most of the burden for caring for the refugees, would also go a long way. And of course, countries could take in Rohingya refugees themselves — although the international climate does not seem very receptive to accommodating Muslim refugees these days.


Myanmar was known as Burma until 1989. I have avoided using “Burma” in this post to avoid needless confusion.