On November 19, 2012, Barack Obama visited Burma to keep a promise he made in 2009 to tyrants everywhere.
The promise: Stop being so tyrannical, and we’ll make it worth your while. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” he said in his inaugural address, speaking to the Burmese military junta all but directly, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Burma’s generals held up their side of things starting in 2010, by preparing for elections, freeing political prisoners, and relaxing controls on speech. Until then, Burma might have merited a spot on a junior varsity Axis of Evil, alongside such fellow totalitarian states as Cuba and Belarus. But in his address at Rangoon University, when the jackboot prints still hadn’t faded from the faces of the political prisoners, Obama said Burma’s “remarkable journey” toward freedom was on the right track, and he pledged U.S. support and money if reform continued.
In Obama’s heaps of praise for Burma, he buried a brief note of concern, expressed in the mildest language. In the months before his visit, riots in Arakan (also known as Rakhine), a poor coastal state on the border with Bangladesh, had killed 167 people and displaced nearly 100,000. Most of them were Rohingya Muslims, driven from their homes by Buddhist mobs. “There is no excuse for violence against innocent people,” Obama said. “And the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do.” He praised diversity as a cardinal virtue of the United States and urged Burma to embrace its minorities. But he mentioned the Rohingya by name only once before returning, sunnily, to the subject of reform and Burma’s “potential to inspire” other formerly oppressed countries. Nice place, he said in effect, except for the attempted genocide.
A year later on the streets of Rangoon, Burma’s Great Unclenching is a beautiful thing. The Burma I first visited in 1998 was a snakepit of secret police and muzzled dissent. But last fall, I heard people openly express love for the leader of Burma’s democratic opposition, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. On every street corner, kiosks sold dozens of vibrant tabloids free from routine censorship. Burma’s economic isolation once forced foreign visitors to pack in bundles of crisp hundred-dollar bills. Now brand-new ATMs disgorge money just like in Paris or Buenos Aires.
But Arakan state looked a lot better when things were still clenched. Muslims and Buddhists who recently lived with each other peacefully now squat on opposite sides of barbed-wire fences and plot each other’s elimination. Old women and children too infirm to run from raiding parties have been speared or beaten to death in their homes. The fortunate ones are fleeing to other countries on overladen, leaky boats. In Sittway, the state capital, Buddhists have surrounded the old Muslim quarter, starving its residents into submission. “It’s a concentration camp,” a diplomat in Rangoon told me.
The U.S. government has sent diplomats to monitor Arakan, and at key junctures in the blossoming of bilateral relations, Obama has brought up the Rohingya issue. But the Rohingya are, so far, unlucky casualties of progress, and their ongoing ethnic-cleansing hasn’t been enough to sour Obama’s rapport with the Burmese president, Thein Sein. Nor, it seems, has it managed to stir the outrage of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose lack of comment has made activists, once piously reverent, now treat her as something between demoness and fool.
With Suu Kyi silent, and the international community collectively golf-clapping as Burma edges toward freedom, the Rohingya are nearly friendless in their displaced-person camps and grim ghettos, with few real champions other than a handful of Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Malaysia) not known for their capacity to deal with humanitarian crises. Obama closed his Rangoon speech on what he no doubt meant as a cheery note: “I stand here with confidence that something is happening in this country that cannot be reversed.” Increasingly, it sounds like a prophecy of doom.
Myebon, a town about 30 miles from Sittway, had seen little action since the Japanese left in 1945. The inhabitants who didn’t grow rice worked out of fishing boats in the Bay of Bengal. They were mostly Arakanese, the local Buddhist ethnic minority. But in June 2012, things in Myebon got nasty, in a way that was replicated in dozens if not hundreds of other places around Arakan at about the same time.
Recent Burmese history has been a series of tragedies and crimes—most of them Buddhist-on-Buddhist. Nine out of ten of Burma’s 53 million people are Buddhists, including the current president and all heads of state since Burmese independence in 1947. The generals who imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi after she won the 1989 election were Buddhists, and the Burmese who stand to profit from the economic opening of the country (a powerful group of military-backed businessmen known as the “cronies”) are nearly all Buddhists. The opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is led almost entirely by Buddhists, and its willowy leader, Suu Kyi, is famously devout—almost nun-like, her associates say, in her abstemious ways (“she eats a quarter of what a normal person eats”) and observance of early morning Buddhist meditation.
But this narrative of Burma as a Buddhist country, governed by competing Buddhists, elides a bitter history of rivalry between Buddhists and Muslims. The military government had kept tight control of this conflict, or at least had kept it out of the headlines, until late May 2012 when three Muslims allegedly raped and murdered a Buddhist girl in southern Arakan. That incident became the catalyst for a series of riots that the government at first made little effort to suppress, and indeed might have encouraged. Local Buddhists said the rape was just the latest Muslim-on-Buddhist sexual attack, and official news outlets whipped up hysteria by making the event a top headline—even though, statistically, it was probably not the country’s only rape that day.
The specifics of what happened next vary only slightly by account. On June 4, 2012, not long after the alleged rape, Buddhists stopped a bus and invited non-Muslims to get off. Then they let the bus go on a short distance, stopped it again, dragged approximately ten Muslim passengers onto the street, and beat them to death. After that, the violence against Muslims became organized and genocidal. Buddhists launched coordinated attacks against Muslim villages and neighborhoods all over Arakan state. Dozens of Muslims from across Arakan told me similar stories: Buddhist mobs, protected by police, showed up screaming anti-Muslim slogans and demanding that the Muslims flee. They brought guns and knives, and the Muslims who stayed behind—in some cases because they were physically unable to flee—were shot, speared, and hacked. Some of the rest made it to other countries to start their lives over, but most of the displaced are in the dozens of squalid camps across Arakan state. The penalty for leaving these camps is three months’ imprisonment—if a Rohingya is caught by the cops. If caught by the wrong civilians, it could be lynching. The Buddhists burned the Muslims’ abandoned homes and possessions to cinders. Some Muslims eventually retaliated, and a much smaller number of Buddhists died or were driven into camps of their own after riots across the state.
Arakanese Buddhists delighted in sending their Muslim neighbors away. Surprisingly, though, it appeared that Burmese Buddhists far from Arakan supported the violence just as fervently. Virtually every foreigner with extensive Burma experience I met told me a story of hearing ordinary Burmese—even friends and colleagues—speak openly about the “Bengali” problem. “We were just shocked that people we looked up to and championed, leaders of the democracy movement, turned out to be racist,” says Jennifer Quigley, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, the largest Burmese democratic activist group in the United States.