Moral quandary in Myanmar studies: Looking at the Rohingya crisis as an outsider

Hunter Marston explores the divergent perspectives of international scholars and the people of Myanmar.

For the past couple of years, there has been a torrent of international media coverage of the ongoing crisis in Rakhine State and on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. The overwhelming majority of news, in addition to reports from humanitarian organizations and think tanks, has not minced words castigating the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, for its evident complicity in attacks on the Rohingya Muslim minority population.

The immense suffering of the Rohingya and horrific, detailed reports of violence perpetrated against the minority Muslim population has rallied widespread international condemnation. Observers and policymakers have called for sanctions against the military, and many have condemned the partially civilian Myanmar government for its inability to quell the violence.

The reaction inside the country has been worlds apart from the shock and disbelief of the international community. Myanmar nationalists of many stripes – chiefly Bamar Buddhists — have rallied to the flag, defending the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi, which has come under near-universal attack by western governments. Western media and human rights organizations are now perceived by ordinary Myanmar citizens as biased and misguided, unable to understand the complex realities of the situation on the ground.

At the same time, support for the military in Myanmar is ironically on the rise. Rather than trigger behavioral changes as hoped for, international criticism of the Tatmadaw and Ms. Suu Kyi’s government have only caused the country’s leaders and Buddhist nationalists (particularly radical groups such as Ma Ba Tha, re-branded as the “Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation in June 2017) to come together and double down in a sort of bunker mentality. In turn, the international outcry has hardened their convictions: that their cause is just; that there is no such ethnic group as ‘Rohingya’ in Myanmar; that Muslims are infiltrating their country from the borders with India and Bangladesh; that the Rohingya are terrorists; and that Myanmar’s Buddhist population must defend its purity from external forces attempting to rend it apart.

Radical Buddhist groups like Ma Ba Tha have exacerbated political tensions by rallying broad support and sponsoring legislation that constricts interfaith marriage, which puts the ruling party in a very difficult bind. It doesn’t want to concede too much ground to this fundamentalist wing of Buddhists, but at the same time, pushing back against these groups too much risks alienating mainstream Buddhist voters.

The current divide seems intractable. Scholars and analysts of Myanmar seem split on the issue. Many struggle to reconcile their support for the democratically elected government with their dismay at its inability to check the rise of radical Buddhist nationalism and the violence that has plagued Rakhine State. Others have been jolted into new activist stances and prepared to depart from the traditional neutrality and detached objectivity prized in the realm of academia. Most are united in agreement that the deepening rifts within Myanmar, particularly between Buddhists and Muslims, expose the teetering and fragile status of the country’s national reconciliation going forward.

The crisis has pitted the majority of Myanmar people, with a firm set of cultural mores and historical assumptions, against international scholars and analysts, with expertise gained from decades of study. In the eyes of many Myanmar nationals, these international “experts” are outsiders who can never understand the deeper reality, and indeed don’t have a right to. This historical moment, not unique to Myanmar’s long history of internal conflict, forces the scholar to ponder the state of moral quandary that (s)he finds her/himself in.

Provocative questions arise: who is better placed to honestly assess the situation at hand: the foreign scholar with the advantage of emotional distance looking in; or the Myanmar national with an innately deeper knowledge of the country’s complexities? Both have their biases. The scholar may have engrained liberal sensitivities, pointing to universal human rights and notions of the innate dignity of the individual. Academics also benefit from the distanced perspective of comparative historical analysis, which allows them to observe Myanmar’s political development from a more neutral vantage point.

The people of Myanmar have acquired a different understanding of their country’s history, a rich and nuanced awareness based lived experience. Yet at the same time, their understanding of Myanmar’s history, culture, and politics has been deeply tinged by the heavily Buddhist nationalist rendering of national textbooks.¹ The textbooks used throughout Myanmar’s educational system have historically downplayed the role of the country’s ethnic minorities and painted them in an extremely negative light. Many in Myanmar point to the huge influx of people from British India during the colonial era as the root of the current crisis, and therefore support a return to a status quo ante which, in their view, predates Indian and Muslim influences.

Could both sides be right? There is virtually no convergence between the two camps these days, largely due to the polarizing information flows each relies on. Many international analysts of the Rohingya crisis and especially policymakers with limited exposure on the ground in Myanmar overwhelmingly rely on western news media and reports from humanitarian agencies in Bangladesh, assisting refugees on the border. People inside Myanmar, the majority of whom have never travelled to Rakhine State and many of whom may not interact with Muslims in their daily lives, increasingly rely on smart phones and apps such as Facebook to circulate and access news. Long distrustful of official media from years of skepticism toward the military junta, many people pass information by word of mouth and are more inclined to trust news they come across in personal exchanges.

Facebook has come under widespread international suspicion for its role in propagating and fostering “fake news.” Even so, ordinary people in Myanmar have latched on to the buzzword “fake news” as a means of refuting reports of atrocities committed against the Rohingya. The Facebook page of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi even featured a report of “fake rape” to deny allegations that the military was responsible for rape, arson, and murder of civilians in Rakhine State.

In the current climate, polls find that interpersonal trust between people in Myanmar has dropped significantly under the current NLD government. This should be a worrisome sign for the embattled democratic movement inside the country. Successful transitions to democracy rely on an engaged and knowledgeable civil society. But the fever pitch of intercommunal distrust and interethnic and religious conflict erodes harmony and undermines efforts to promote interfaith dialogue, among other channels for mediation.

The role of Myanmar scholars – both in the country and internationally – and moderate proponents of dialogue within civil society becomes all the more important in this light. It will take many years to heal the physical and emotional wounds suffered on all sides in the current conflagration. Some of the surest paths to peace include: educational reforms, civil society training (particularly drawing upon the expertise of recent returnees from the Myanmar diaspora), international cultural exchange, and increased transparency of information flows, especially via a professionally trained, independent media. Members of the international media face an uphill climb to regain credibility as sources of neutral, objective truth in the present political atmosphere, but they serve a crucial role in the dissemination of accurate and honest reporting. More international Myanmar analysts must engage and seek to empathize with Buddhists, not just Muslims, as well as other minority groups, in an effort to ensure all groups feel that their voices are heard, that their attitudes and worldviews are valid.

Such prospects may sound a little utopian and diffuse, but if Myanmar’s democratic experiment is to succeed, national reconciliation demands that all sides are open to engagement and have a seat at the table.


1. This is to say nothing of the ethnic minorities in Myanmar, many of whom are greatly disenfranchised by the legal system, national census, and religious discrimination, who are not afforded the same state benefits and educational privileges that ethnic Bamars receive access to. Nor does this description pay adequate respect to the Rohingya, who have been completely stripped of all rights and any representation under Myanmar’s laws, including the bare necessities of human security.

Hunter Marston is a Myanmar analyst based in Washington, DC. He previously worked for a Burmese NGO in Thailand in 2010 and served on a fellowship in the US Embassy in Yangon in 2012.