It’s that time of year again — the very end, when every media outlet celebrates the New Year with retrospective articles and year summaries. My favorite has always been TIME Magazine’s “Man of the Year” series, which deems a person, group, or (unfortunately) concept the most influential of the year. It’s a fun tradition, although largely dictated by what would look best on TIME‘s cover. I like to make a more reasoned case for my selections and evaluate theirs too.

Let’s look at TIME‘s runners-up first. In general I think they made good choices, although as usual they are overly Americanocentric. Robert Mueller, the former head of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation and the special prosecutor investigating Donald Trump’s links with Russia, has been lurking in the background for the last half of the year and has charged 2 high-level officials, but I get the feeling that he will be more important next year. Colin Kaepernick shaped the news by protesting police brutality and systemic racism before the (American) football games he played in, and TIME relates how his protest spread to South Africa as well. But Trump played some role in rallying support for Kaepernick’s protest, and I’m not entirely convinced that either the original protest or the backlash against it has actually produced any meaningful, lasting change (a common problem with discussions about racism in America).

Kim Jong-un seems like a natural choice, given that his country, North Korea, has been in the news pretty much all year. Although North Korea has faded in and out of the news for 2 decades at least, it received the most sustained coverage this year, as it not only increased the tempo of its nuclear tests, but finally gained the long-sought capability to lob its nukes at America’s East Coast. This has jangled nerves around the world and led to ever tighter sanctions, even by China, North Korea’s only ally. But he doesn’t quite make my shortlist: as usual for these crises, there is much bluster and talk but little real action or change on the ground. It is entirely possible that Kim just wants to get nukes for his own protection, and the rest of the world will just leave it at that. It’s hard to see how Kim has effected real change.

One of 2017’s ongoing themes has been sexual harassment and assault, especially after the revelation of movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual predation in October. The torrent of accusations and revelations is unprecedented, and it’s no surprise that TIME would choose to recognize this. Yet I disagree with its choice to deem victims of sexual harassment who have come forward with their stories (“the Silence Breakers”) as People of the Year. For 1 thing, I dislike TIME‘s occasional trend of giving the honor to nebulous groups rather than a single person. Choosing a journalist who broke the story (like Ronan Farrow, who wrote a lengthy expose in The New Yorker despite much opposition) or a victim (like Ashley Judd, the 1st actress to come forward) would have been better. For another thing, it’s still too soon to tell whether these revelations will have a real impact. The story really only began in October (despite a few earlier scandals involving Fox News) — although I personally suspect that the MeToo movement is too far advanced and women are too fed up with sexual abuse for the proverbial genie to be put back into the bottle. Patty Jenkins, the director of this year’s hit movie Wonder Woman, is an interesting choice, but other movies outgrossed hers, and it seems like she was chosen mostly to continue the feminist theme. (In general, arts and culture is very diffuse and it’s hard to pinpoint 1 figure there to have significant global influence in 1 particular year.)

Now for some submissions of my own:

Qasem Soleimani probably deserves recognition. The head of Iran’s Quds Force, which directs foreign military operations, he is the mastermind behind many of Iran’s maneuverings in West Asia. This year, the Islamic State’s back was finally broken, enabling Syria and Iraq to take back control of their former territory — and for Iran to extend its own influence there. Iranian-backed militias were instrumental in defeating the Islamic State — along with Kurdistan, which doesn’t wield nearly the same kind of geopolitical influence as Iran.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, shaped much of the news in Europe this year. He stood up to both America and Russia (an important aspiration for the French, and some Europeans in general) and carried out important labor reform, always a tricky issue in France and a major stumbling block in economic reform in general. But most importantly, he not only defeated the National Front — apparently putting an end, or at least a long pause, to the xenophobic conservative surge in Europe — but ushered a new political party into power in France, La République En Marche! But it’s also a little early to deem him 1 of the world’s most consequential figures.

And now for my top 3:


This is the most conspicuous omission from TIME‘s list, despite his coming out on top in a reader poll. Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince has been pushing through real change and is making his mark in numerous areas. The most important reform in the long term is a reorientation of the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil, which is necessary as the oil price falls and global reliance on fossil fuels recedes. He is consolidating power by purging his opponents and older aristocrats resistant to change. He is realigning Saudi society to be more in tune with the younger generation that dominates it demographically, allowing women to drive, concerts to be held, and movies to be screened. He is also making a concerted push to challenge Iran and keep Saudi Arabia ascendant in its region by blockading his recalcitrant neighbor, Qatar, and battering Iran’s proxy militia, the Huthis, in Yemen (at the expense of Yemen itself). His belligerent foreign policy and reckless purge of Saudi Arabia’s elite has attracted a lot of criticism, but Saudi Arabia was long due for a shakeup, and he is providing one.


China’s dictator usually shapes the world as much as anyone else in any given year, and it can be hard to determine when he’s actually the “Man of the Year.” 2017 seems like a good year for Xi. In October, he consolidated his already formidable power at home at the 19th Communist Party Congress, where his failure to designate a successor prompted speculation that he intends to be dictator-for-life. In a 3½-hour speech, he emphasized the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” effectively announcing China’s intent to become the next superpower. China’s military is undergoing rapid modernization and expansion, and a border dispute with India, ongoing island-building and militarization in the South China Sea, and an economic boycott of South Korea has demonstrated to the world China’s newfound strength. But Xi has put a lot of energy into diplomacy too: China’s diplomats are active and numerous at international conferences and forums, Chinese infrastructure plans in Africa and Asia are ambitious and generous, and Xi himself gave a very well-received speech at Davos (where the world’s economic elite gather each January) on free trade and economic openness. In issue after issue — climate change, reining in North Korea, global trade — China is central. And Xi’s personal power is also very significant; he doesn’t act as merely a member of a committee of oligarchs like his predecessors did. No wonder The Economist deemed him “the world’s most powerful man” earlier in the year.

But once again, I wouldn’t say it was Xi Jinping’s year juuuust yet. For 1 thing, the Party Congress was more about putting on a grand show and celebrating the Party’s achievements than an achievement in and of itself. It provided a nice opportunity for the media to talk about China and Xi in particular, but most of what was said there has already been articulated before, and should have been pretty obvious to China-watchers. In addition, the main dynamic feeding China’s rise is really America’s decline, which is abetted by…


I am not surprised TIME did not choose to name Trump Man of the Year again. Besides his public show of disinterest in the honor this year, TIME rarely chooses the same person twice. Trump’s 1st year in office has been shaped mostly by petty quarrels, minor issues and media hype. Some say that he lets Congress or cabinet departments handle the details. Some of his biggest promises, like repealing Obamacare and building a border wall, have gone nowhere. The so-called “alt right” movement that he energized is very minor. The backlash against his presidency is more prominent and will probably propel Democrats into Congress next year. His much yearned-for rapprochement with Russia has stalled, thanks to the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s collusion with it, and instead America is continuing sanctions against it and arming Ukraine. There is a sense, sometimes articulated clearly, that Trump is just a big baby and “underlings” like Rex Tillerson (his foreign minister), James Mattis (his defense minister) and H.R. McMaster (national security advisor) are the “adults” that actually run the show.

But overseas, I think Trump’s influence is more obvious. As I’ve written before, he is withdrawing America from the world stage. His worldview is almost relentlessly negative, pessimistic, cynical and narrow-minded; other countries are seen in terms of what they can offer America and how they can threaten it. Since the world is still partly organized in terms of the American alliance system, this undermines it. Europe in particular is struggling to come to terms with a new America reluctant to support it unconditionally. The American president’s traditional support for democracy, human rights and free trade is gone (unless it suits his purposes). Speeches given by Trump this year at the UN and APEC (an Asian international forum) promoted his “America First” ideology, even though it was designed to appeal to cranky American voters who see the outside world as a problem. International trade architecture in particular is in turmoil because of Trump’s personal interest in the issue and his questioning of all kinds of trading relationships, from China’s to allies’ like Canada’s and Germany’s. Even South Korea has been blindsided with a Trump threat to pull out of its free trade agreement — while he menaces the country by making empty threats at North Korea over Twitter and in his “fire and fury” statement this summer. His hostility to immigrants inspires xenophobic populists in Europe; his hostility to the media validates repressive tactics in dictatorships. The tax reform passed recently starves the American government of much-needed revenue, which will hobble America’s ability to project its power and maintain its competitive edge in the near future. His State Department (foreign ministry) is being gutted of career diplomats. (Admittedly, this is mostly Tillerson’s doing.) In the turbulent politics of West Asia — basically the part of the world America is most concerned about — policy is increasingly in Saudi, Iranian and Russian control. (Admittedly, this began under Obama.)

Some say that Trump is just making foreign policy more realistic and that it’s naive to think of the world in emotional terms like “buddies” and “enemies.” I’m not entirely convinced that the shift in American foreign policy will outlast Trump, or that he’ll be reelected. But in the narrow terms of just this year, he was the primary factor driving global events.



Bollywood dance

Image source: iDiva

India suffers from a bit of an image problem. Foreigners are likely to associate it with bleak poverty, squalor, caste discrimination, religious riots, and obnoxious scams, in common with other poor countries. But what India has to offer that other developing countries (for the most part) do not is Bollywood, its domestic film industry. It is the biggest in the world, one of the most influential, and a national obsession with a storied past.

“Bollywood” is so-called because it is based in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), India’s biggest and most hectic city. A melting-pot and magnet for the ambitious from all over India, its main language is Hindi, even though the part of India it’s in mostly speaks Marathi. This has sparked some resentment from native Mumbaikars, who complain that their local culture is overshadowed by a giant industry that caters to all of India, and there is a small Marathi film industry in Mumbai as well. In fact, Bollywood is just 1 of many film industries in India, and the south especially has significant industries of its own in each major state. Bengal and other regions of north India also tend to do their own thing. Although the international profile of other Indian film industries is growing, this post will only focus on Bollywood; that is, the Hindi industry.

Bollywood has quite the long history. Indian cinematographers took up filmmaking almost as soon as the technique was invented, and they found an audience for it. India has an ancient theatrical tradition and a love for storytelling, melodrama and choreographed dance numbers. These elements quickly became staples of Indian film. Hindu epics have influenced Indian movies both directly (in adaptations of the stories) and indirectly (in similar characters, motifs and themes). Bollywood movies’ long, long running time probably also owes something to this.

Ram Rajya

Still from Ram Rajya (“Rule of Rama”), a 1943 adaptation of the Hindu epic Ramayana

Bollywood came of age alongside the Indian nationalist movement, and its movies helped feed the growth of Indian national consciousness and the notion of Indian uniqueness and purity. Old Bollywood movies would have titles like Mother India and The Land Where the Ganga [a holy river] Flows and song lyrics like “My shoes are Japanese, my pants are British, the red hat on my head is Russian, but my heart is Indian.” They also tended to speak to the nationalist movements’ social concerns. While Mohandas Gandhi, a stubborn traditionalist, hated movies and saw them as corrupting and degenerate, India’s other founding father, Jawaharlal Nehru, loved them and saw them as building up audiences for his socialist dogma. A popular actor in the ’50s, Raj Kapur, won fans by portraying a lovable, roguish tramp with a heart of gold, and films often showed the plight of India’s impoverished farmers at the hands of greedy landowners, moneylenders, the weather, and bad luck. Villains were usually cutthroat dacoits (rural bandits) but sometimes corrupt officials or cops. The representative films in this vein are the aforementioned Mother India (which opens with a hammer-and-sickle logo) and the tragic, neorealistic Do Bigha Zamin (“Two Acres of Land,” basically).

Of course, these old movies were pretty modest. With cheap special effects, minimal production values and creaky sound, it’s not hard to tell that they came from a Third-World country with a sluggish economy. But Indians appreciated the catchy songs, the relatable actors and the dramatic stories, and eventually the industry began producing impressive epics for a newly independent country, like the lavish historical drama Mughal-e-Azam (“The Great Mughal”) and Sholay (“Embers”), an action movie inspired mostly by Westerns (and Once Upon a Time in the West in particular). By the ’70s, Bollywood’s production values had noticeably improved and it had become a fixture in Indian society. Although the old emphasis on rural and lower-class themes remained, movies took on a harsher tone as the idealism of the post-independence era faded. As India’s economy stagnated, Indira Gandhi resorted to dictatorship and corruption seemed intractable, the hero of the age was Amitabh Bachchan, whose characters were usually angry young men who rebelled against authority and resorted to their fists to solve problems. Movies helped give despairing audiences an outlet for their frustrations.

The big turning point in Bollywood history came in the ’90s, when 2 movies, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (“Who Am I to You?”) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (“The Big-Hearted One Takes the Bride”) prompted a shift in emphasis. Both were focused on families and weddings, which are standard themes in Indian culture but have since become Bollywood cliches. Both focused on young couples — cute, mischievous, sometimes sassy, always extremely good-looking teenagers or young adults who start off bickering and end up madly in love, but must conquer misunderstandings or their parents’ opposition first. And both depict lifestyles of the rich. From then on, depictions of slum-dwellers or farmers receded more and more, as producers realized the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful spoke more to India’s growing middle classes and were loved by the poor anyway, who saw the lifestyles as something to aspire to. This decade was also when India’s economy really took off after Manmohan Singh’s liberalizing reforms, making conspicuous consumption something lots of Indians could identify with. The new superstar of Bollywood was Shahrukh Khan, who absolutely nails the “troublesome jerk your parents don’t want you seeing but is actually a good person and quite the hunk to boot” role, and has demonstrated his versatility in comedic and dramatic parts too.

Hrithik Roshan, another hunky, glamorous actor who tends to play romantic leads

Overseas, Bollywood is probably most known for its music. There is good reason for that: the Indian pop music industry is closely tied to movies, and the titans of Indian music (Lata Mangeshkar, A.R. Rahman, Mohammad Rafi, etc.) spend their careers working for movies. From the advent of sound, it’s been obligatory for Indian movies to include at least 3 or 4 songs, and since they tend to run for more than 3 hours, they usually have more than that. As movies grew more and more ambitious and well-funded, the dance sequences that accompany these songs also got more impressive, well-choreographed, and lavishly costumed. For the most part, they are not very well integrated into the overall plot, serving mostly as vehicles for the singers (who are dubbed over the actors, usually quite obviously). This has tried the patience of foreign viewers, who have mostly lost interest in musicals, but in recent years Bollywood is moving past the obsession with singing and dancing, and some movies have omitted it entirely (or just insert the song in the background).

This dance number combines Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan and a catchy bhangra song (bhangra being a Punjabi folk music especially popular in Bollywood movies).

For most of its history, the standard formula for Bollywood movies has stayed pretty much constant, fluctuations in taste notwithstanding. This is called masala (“mix”), much like the spice mixtures Indians love to eat. There is usually some sort of action, whether it be against murderous dacoits, super-cool Mumbai gangsters, scheming officials or stubborn patriarchs. In general it is bloodless, but some movies are more violent than others and in the 3rd millennium Hollywood-style action flicks with lots of guns and explosions have become more common. There is almost always romance; sometimes it’s a subplot, other times it’s developed carefully over the course of the movie. Thanks to India’s tradition of arranged marriage, opportunities for drama and heartbreak are never in short supply. There is usually some sort of tearjerking tragedy like a parent or love interest who suddenly dies, but also usually some sort of comedic relief (a goofy character, slapstick sequences, comic misunderstandings, wacky hijinks, wordplay foreigners don’t understand, etc.). The idea is to get as much bang for your rupee as the film allows, and to please the widest range of filmgoers possible. This has led to some extremely cheesy and formulaic drivel over the decades, and it’s probably wise for the uninitiated to choose their first Bollywood movies carefully.

Bollywood’s formula means there are some gaps in its coverage. Although foreign locations are increasingly used for exotic and romantic backdrops, foreign countries are rarely depicted in depth, and the linguistic limitation means that whatever action takes place there is strictly fixated on the Indian characters. Caste, an ongoing issue in India, is virtually never discussed; even in the old days where social issues were more prominent, it was implied or marginalized. India’s problem with sexism is reinforced by Bollywood; male characters get more screentime and there has been much more emphasis on feminine purity than holding men to the same standard. Despite India’s wide range of skin colors, dark-skinned characters are seldom seen in Bollywood movies, and actors tend to be very light-skinned. Bollywood’s infatuation with posh, ostentatious sets and dapper actors can present a skewed portrait of modern India, where these things are definitely valued but still far out of reach of most of the population.

But Bollywood movies have changed a lot in recent years. Their subject matter is getting more diverse and they are getting bolder about confronting and depicting once-taboo subjects. The 1995 movie Bombay shows the 1992 riots in Bombay which tore the city apart on religious lines. (To be fair, Bollywood has a history of being fair to Muslims; many of its songwriters have been Muslim, and the 3 biggest actors now, including the aforementioned Shahrukh Khan, are Muslim.) Rang De Basanti (“Color It Saffron”) daringly equates the modern Indian government with the imperial British and has a shocking, pessimistic ending. Dil Se.. (“From the Heart..”) depicts Shahrukh Khan as a journalist falling in love with a terrorist, with a similarly hair-raising ending. Storylines are getting more inventive and less predictable; a good example of this is the 2012 mystery-thriller Kahaani (“Story”), about a woman searching for her missing husband in Kolkata. Budgets and special effects are beginning to approach those of Hollywood; the 2015 historical epic Bajirao Mastani, about a macho general from the 1700s, cost ₹1.45 billion (about $23 million). Some movies focus more on women and develop them as well-rounded personalities; some include characters from remote regions of India or Adivasis (India’s native inhabitants). Chak De! India (“Go! India”) does both (although it’s mostly a by-the-numbers sports movie).

Bollywood’s blockbuster trilogy is the Dhoom (“Kaboom”) series, about a badass cop who partners with a doofus who knows a lot about motorcycles and Mumbai’s underworld to catch master thieves in high-octane chases. Image source: IMP Awards 

How much influence does Bollywood have overseas? This is hard to say. Historically it’s found an audience in Russia (where Raj Kapur was much admired in the ’50s), West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (where Bollywood’s stricter sense of female propriety and avoidance of explicit sex scenes appeals to conservative tastes). But in the West, box offices are harder to crack. Outdated prejudices remain entrenched; some Western movies have been influenced by Bollywood (like the musical romance extravaganza Moulin Rouge!), but generally it’s window dressing over substance. Bollywood films are easier to find in Western theaters these days, but they’re usually targeted at the Indian diaspora. Americans in particular are reluctant to watch foreign films.

Still, it seems that Bollywood is brimming with potential, and could become an arm of Indian soft power elsewhere in Asia. India’s neighbors, who share the same basic culture, already lap up Indian movies and music. As India interacts more and more with the outside world and gets richer, its movies will doubtless change to reflect this. But they’ll always remain an obsession for its masses, who can always use a few hours at the theater to escape into a fantasy of bright colors, beautiful actresses, shocking plot twists, imported whisky, romantic ballads, and dashing actors. And it’ll always be an iconic element of Indian culture to dazzle and intrigue the outside world.


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.