Several media have recently brought to the attention of the public opinion the condition of Muslims in the Rakhine state in the west of Myanmar. In this regard, I have gathered some considerations that stem from the ten-year attention of the Association for Italy-Burma Friendship for the situation in Myanmar and from our contacts and conversations with many Burmese Citizens. I believe, in fact, that it is important to be able to place the conflict situation in the Rakhine state in a broader context, both from the historical point of view and from the point of view of the social dynamics of the rest of Myanmar.
I would like to start by pointing out that the Burmese Constitution gives the army a very great deal of political weight. Twenty-five per cent of the seats are allocated by appointment to the military, who also control three key ministries: internal, border and defence. Decisions concerning national public security are taken by the generals without the need for government endorsement.
In the 18 months since its inauguration, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the first democratically elected government after almost 70 years of dictatorship in Burma, has demonstrated with the facts that national peace-building is its first priority. This is not easy, however, in a country where more than 130 different ethnic groups live side by side, some of which have been engaged in an armed struggle against the army for decades.
Aung San Suu Kyi brought together representatives of the country’s 17 main ethnic groups at the 21st century Panglong Conference, which began on 31 August 2016 with a presentation by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. The conference aims to demilitarise the armed groups by ensuring that they are more involved in the government within a federal system. Ko Ni, a prominent member of the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, was murdered with a gunshot at the back of his neck on 29 January 2017. He was a constitutionalist expert and was studying how to change the constitution of Burma in a federal sense.
Last year, Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary, was appointed by Aung San Suu Kyi to lead the Rakhine State Advisory Commission, with the aim of analysing and finding a solution to the division that set the region on fire. Kofi Annan presented the results of the committee’s work on 24 August 2017. His report has been strongly criticised by members of the Burmese armed forces.
It is relatively easy for a military elite who hold most of Burma’s wealth and full army control to act in a way that undermines the credibility of the first democratic government in Burma and limits their ability to change the country’s situation. I would like to add that several Western countries have had business relations with the Burmese army for years. It is no coincidence that the recent trips to Italy (November 2016) and to Germany and Austria (April 2017) by Min Aung Hlaing, Commander in charge of the Burmese Army and direct responsible for the army’s operations, were not an opportunity to make criticism or ask for account of the operations under way against the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi is asked to take a position on this issue as Nobel Prize winner, while she is not recognised for her the political role she plays in the very difficult, non-violent battle for the reconstruction of the democratic fabric and for the participation of all the citizens of Myanmar, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
I am convinced that many people and institutions who have supported the battle of Aung San Suu Kyi in her twenty years of house arrest want to support Burma’s strenuous path to democracy and for national reconciliation.
Pope Francis demonstrated his great support with concrete facts: the nomination as Cardinal of Charles Maung Bo, Bishop of Yangon in February 2015, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Myanmar in May 2017 and the announcement of his next trip to Myanmar in November.
It is through our support and the support of the international community that Burma will be able to continue on its democratic path. This requires a further effort to understand the situation. A government which officially took office in March 2016 cannot be expected to solve in a few months conflicts that have dragged on for decades. Declarations and judgements that are not supported by a proper understanding of the situation in Burma do nothing more than weaken the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, which is the greatest hope for full democracy in Burma.