By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Most multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries, which had come into existence as a result of the post-World War II de-colonization process, are facing problems of national integration in varying degrees.
Pakistan split in 1971 into Pakistan and Bangladesh after a prolonged struggle in the eastern wing of the country called East Pakistan. Many other countries are facing or have faced, unrest, insurgencies and even open warfare. Some have entered into settlements through negotiations while others have crushed rebellious groups with force.
The roots of the post-colonial problem of national integration lie in the following aspects of the past and present:
(1) The European rulers had carved out colonies in Asia and Africa arbitrarily, with the result, diverse peoples found themselves clubbed together in a single country without a feeling of being truly united.
(2) While during colonial rule, the overwhelming power of the ruler kept any dissent and differences under the lid, after de-colonization, the successor governments were weak and unable to suppress ethnic dissidence.
(3) Post-colonial countries had adopted democracy in imitation of the West. But democracy brought out ethnic and religious awareness and demands. Democracy also enabled numerically and economically strong ethnic and religious groups to acquire power and maintain their hold on the levers of power. Denied equal power, the rest felt disadvantaged.
(4) Post-colonial States wanted to strengthen themselves by establishing a united and centralized “nation” to safeguard themselves against internal and external threats to their existence. But this created and exacerbated tensions between the centralizing majority and the autonomy-seeking minorities. The notion of the “nation” touted by the new rulers was based on attributes assigned by the majority ethnic or religious group and not on an inter-ethnic consensus. The majority communities loathed to share power with the minorities, thus reducing the smaller communities to second class citizens. This led to peaceful agitations, but in many cases, it also led to armed struggles.
Case of the Arakans of Myanmar
President-day Myanmar, which is a but creation of the British through conquest and other means of acquisition, has, apart from the majority community of “Bamars” many rebellious minority ethnic groups like the Zomi, Wa, Ta’ang, Shan, Rohingya, Lahu, Karen, Kachin, Chin and Arakan. Some of these are Christian, some Buddhist and the Rohingyas are Muslim. While the Bamar are in the Center and the South of Myanmar, the others are in the North and East.
Though the Arakans are Buddhist, they feel discriminated against by the Bamars. Earlier this month, in three days of fighting between the Tatmadaw (as the government military is officially known) and the Arakan Army (AA) resulted in the death of 21 civilians. Twenty villages had had to be abandoned. 12 civilians were killed, 15 were injured and 500 people had to flee, due to an air strike on suspected AA hideouts between Paletwa and Sami towns in Chin State. In the fighting in Northern Rakhine State, 50,000 civilians had fled due to the fighting. Since the AA is large, well trained and well equipped, the Tatmadaw uses artillery and aircraft. But these cause a lot of collateral damage and loss of life.
The AA had been trained by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is one of the largest ethnic armed groups fighting the Myanmar military. AA has fought the Tatmadaw alongside the KIA as part of a “northern alliance” in northern Shan state since late 2016.
At present, the Northern Alliance includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA).
The AA fighters appear to be “well-trained and generally extremely well-equipped”, says Anthony Davis, a security analyst with Jane’s at IHS-Markit
Unlike the Rohingyas’ Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which has no outside support, the Arakan Army and the Northern Alliance have China’s support. The government in Yangon is unable to tackle China on this issue because China backs it on the Rohingya issue in the UN and in other world fora where the Yangon regime is pilloried for its abominable treatment of the Rohingyas.
According to reports, the Arakans feel exploited by the Bamars. Though rich in oil and other natural resources and a focus of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) the Arakan area (now called Rakhine), remains one of Myanmar’s poorest regions. According to the World Bank, only 17% of households in Rakhine have access to safe drinking water year-round, far below the proportion elsewhere in Myanmar. And nearly 300,000 households there do not have a toilet.
Rakhine was historically an independent kingdom, called the Arakan, until a Burmese or Bamar invasion in the 18th century. When the Arakans wanted to observe the day of take over as a day of sorrow, the head of the state’s most popular political party, the Arakan National Party (ANP), was arrested and charged with high treason. Many ethnic Rakhines or Arakans resent that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NJD) was installed in power in 2016 though the ANP had won the state elections in 2015.
“Rakhine state must have its own army,” Arakan Army’s chief, Twan Myat Naing, told local news site The Irrawaddy. “Having an armed group means the survival of the Rakhine ethnicity.”
The Arakan Buddhists and the Arakan Army consider the “Bamar” to be “colonial oppressors” though they too are Buddhists. “Arakan is ours. If the Myanmarese go back to their native place there will be no fighting,” said Khaing Thu Kha, the Arakan Army spokesman in an interview to the media.
The Arakan Buddhists’ taking up arms against it has shocked the Bamar-dominated Tatmadaw. It was the Tatmadaw which had nurtured the Arakan Army to help it intimidate and drive out the Muslim Rohingyas of Arakan into Bangladesh. Over a million Rohingya Muslims were forcibly sent to Bangladesh in the past year or two, on the grounds that they were Bangladeshi immigrants and not indigenous to Myanmar. But, as in many other cases the world over, an armed group nurtured by the State or government, eventually turned against its creators or sponsors.
What was even more shocking was that the Arakanese Buddhists had teamed up with the Christian Kachins to fight fellow Bamar Buddhists. The Arakan Army has been conducting joint operations with the Kachin separatist army. According to Myanmarese historian, Thant Myint-U, “The emergence of the Arakan Army is one of the biggest shifts in Myanmar’s armed conflict landscape in a generation. It’s a shock to the system.”
Unlike the Rohingya Muslims, the Arakans are officially recognized by the Yangon regime as an indigenous ethnic minority. But still they are marginalized by the Bamar ethnic majority. Like the Kachins and Shans, the Arakanese Buddhists also want self-determination and independence. They want the restoration of the independent Arakan state which existed till 1784. The Arakanese remember how the Bamar invaders took away the sacred golden Buddha statue known as Mahamuni.
China is going to invest in the Rakhine region and develop the Sitwe harbour. But the Arakan Buddhists wonder if they will get a share of the fruits of development or a chance to participate in the development of the region. Arakan parliamentarians have no influence over the government in Yangon. This has given rise to movements named “The Way to Rakitha” and the “Arakan Dream 2020” which are based on the demand for self-determination.
(The picture at the top shows Arakan Army commander Brigadier General Tun Myat Naing)