1. The May 1990 Elections
2. The National League for Democracy and the November 2010 Elections
3. The Immunity Clause in the 2008 Constitution
4. Senior General Than Shwe still in control after the transfer of power
5. The Amendment to the Political Parties Registration Law
6. UN Special Rapporteur Quintana and a UN Commission of Inquiry
7. Myanmar a "Threat to the Peace" under Chapter VII of the UN Charter
8. The September 2005 Tutu-Havel Report: "Threat to the Peace"
9. Burma or Myanmar?
13. Alleged British complicity in the murder of Aung San
14. 'Rohingya' a political, not ethnic label
1. The May 1990 Elections
The elections held on 27 May 1990 were not to a governing parliament, but to a Constituent Assembly. Though no specific legislation was ever issued defining the purpose of the elections, speeches made and press statements released in the months prior to the elections, following the publication of the Election Law on 31 May 1989, left no doubt that it was not the military government's intention to transfer political power to civilian hands immediately after the elections.
Foreign correspondents covering the elections fully understood that the elections were only the first stage in the constitutional process set out by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). They reported prior to the elections that the task of the new Assembly was to draft a Constitution and arrange a national referendum, and most agreed, or concluded, that there would then need to be a second round of elections based on the new Constitution, if and when approved. Correspondents who covered the elections from within Burma were briefed in this sense by the Election Commission, which is why they reported as they did.
Although not granted a visa to cover the elections, that arch-critic of the military regime Bertil Lintner reported in the 'Far Eastern Review of 24 May 1990, only three days before the elections: "Diplomats say it might take up to two years to write a new constitution, have it approved by a referendum and then hold fresh elections. Meanwhile, the military will remain in power.”
After the elections, the SLORC opened negotiations on this issue and reached an understanding with the NLD Central Executive Committee about the drafting of a new Constitution. This understanding was however rejected by the NLD rank and file, who demanded the immediate transfer of power. An extract from a 2008 paper by Hong Kong based academic Kyaw Yin Hlaing sets out the background. The full document is at this link. Following the rejection, the NLD insisted that power must be transferred as a first step. Meetings of the Central Executive Committee in September 1990 (No. 5/90) and October 1990 (No. 6/90) continued to demand the convening of the Pyithu Hluttaw as soon as possible, the transfer of power on the basis of a provisional constitution which they alone had drafted, the subsequent drafting of a new Constitution and the holding of immediate talks. However shortly afterwards in an undertaking given on 27 October 1990 the NLD abandoned their basic insistence on the transfer of power first and signed up to the regime's plan for a National Convention under SLORC control to draft a new Constitution.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (who was detained on 20 July 1989 and remained under house arrest until 10 July 1995) fully understood the position in this sense. In her interview with Dominic Faulder of AsiaWeek on 1 July 1989, she told him: "Whoever is elected will have to draw up a Constitution that will have to be adopted before the transfer of power. They haven't said how the Constitution could be adopted. It could be through a referendum, but that could take months and months, if not years." ('Freedom from Fear' Chapter 17 Page 225) The detailed evidence is available at this link and is beyond any reasonable doubt.
Suu Kyi herself has recently confirmed that she herself was not in favour of taking part in the 1990 elections, reflecting her 1989 expressed conviction that the NLD could not participate in the elections until the question of the transfer of power was resolved, which it never was. This does not mean that the elections were not a free and fair expression of the will of the people as repeated General Assembly Resolutions asserted in the 1990s. But it does explain why the SLORC refused to hand over power to the National League for Democracy which won the elections by a landslide. The transfer of power was simply not in the electoral 'contract' which the SLORC had not adequately clarified prior to the elections and which in any case the NLD had decided to reject as unacceptable. In the circumstances, and with hindsight, a post-election confrontation was inevitable.
The results of the elections were valid from 30 June 1990, when the final results were announced, until 8 March 2010 when it was decreed under Article 91 (b) of the Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House) Election Law that: "As the Multi-party Democracy General Election held under the law repealed by this Law is no longer consistent with the Constitution, the results of the said election shall be deemed to be invalidated automatically." Khin Aung Myint, the Speaker of both the Upper House and the Union Parliament, acknowledged in an interview in the Yangon Times in October 2011 that "I recognize the results of 1990 election. I am explaining the details because I recognize the election results. This incident cannot be abolished and I have no intention to abolish." The NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have taken note of this acknowledgement and have said they are satisfied with this recognition, though Khin Aung Myint expressed no opinion about the purpose of the elections, whether to a Constituent Assembly or to a governing Parliament.
It should be noted that Suu Kyi stated in her address to both Houses of the UK Parliament on 21 June 2012 that she was disqualified from standing in the May 1990 Elections "on the grounds that I had received help from foreign quarters. This amounted to BBC broadcasts that the authorities considered to be biased in my favour." A detailed official explanation of the several technical, though contrived and even spurious grounds given for her disqualification may be read on pages 17-19 of "The Political Situation of the Union of Myanmar and its Role in the Region" which was published and updated regularly at the time by the Ministry of Defence. BBC broadcasts are not specifically mentioned as a reason, although much criticised by the regime at the time. However Suu Kyi repeated the grounds alleging BBC support in a discussion at the Lowy Institute (48.50 minutes into the interview) on 28 November 2013, adding that this reason was found in the official report given to her by her military liaison officer, implying that it was the only reason for her disqualification.
Although an application to disqualify her, made by a political rival in her Yangon Bahan-1 constituency, Labang Grong of the pro-military National Unity Party and reportedly of Kachin ethnicity, was dismissed by the local Township Election Sub-Commission, Steven Erlanger of The New York Times reported on 18 January 1990 that the application was upheld on appeal to the Yangon Division Election Sub-Commission - which had the ultimate say. Her rival was not successful in the elections, polling only 17% of the votes and losing out in a five-cornered contest to Tun Hlaing of the Democracy Party who polled 68% of the votes and clearly attracted the support of those who would have voted for Suu Kyi, though it was their only success among 105 seats contested.
2. The NLD and the November 2010 Elections
There are several myths about the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the elections held on 7 November 2010. The main myth is that the NLD would have had to expel Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the party because she was held to be "in prison". [The allegedly relevant clause was revoked on 4 November 2011.] In fact, Suu Kyi was not in prison. She was under "restrictive residence" as a result of a Directive issued by the Head of State. This meant that her party membership was not threatened, that her name remained on the electoral roll (which was later confirmed) and that she was not debarred by her civil status from standing for election, though it seems very likely indeed that she would have been debarred on other grounds. This mirrored exactly her position at the time of the 1990 elections - see Pages 17-19 at this link.
Even so, Suu Kyi reportedly complained that the appearance of her name on the electoral roll was against the law. She reportedly instructed her l\awyers to complain about this "lawlessness". She made no similar complaint in 1990 in identical circumstances.
Only the Union Election Commission could have ruled on her case in 2010, and they were never asked as Suu Kyi had made it clear that she would not dream of taking part in those elections. Even so, in her second BBC Reith lecture on 5 July 2011, Suu Kyi claimed that: "This [persons in prison or appealing against their sentences] included me as I would have to be expelled if the NLD wanted to register." Had the Union Election been asked for a ruling, however, it is likely that they would have decided that the prohibition did not include her as she was appealing against her prison sentence from outside prison.
Another myth is that Suu Kyi was debarred from standing for any elected seat because of her marriage to a British citizen, Michael Aris, who died on 27 March 1999 aged 53. There is no such provision in the 2008 Constitution. Suu Kyi is however ineligible to be nominated as a candidate for the presidency or vice-presidency because her two sons are British citizens, though they once also enjoyed Burmese citizenship, which was taken away from them. As regards her marriage, the Constitution would have debarred her from the presidency or vice-presidency only if her husband were living.
3. The Immunity Clause in the 2008 Constitution
Article 445 of the 2008 Constitution grants immunity to members of the government and to members of the State Law and Order Restoration Council and its successor the State Peace and Development Council "in respect of any act done in the execution of their respective duties." It is alleged that this immunity clause grants impunity to anyone in the former regime responsible for human rights abuses.
It should be pointed out that the clause only applies to SLORC/SPDC members and government ministers and that any rational interpretation of the clause can only mean acts lawful under the laws then in force. In any case, a government cannot grant immunity from human rights abuses deemed to be crimes against humanity or war crimes which are a matter of international humanitarian law. No such claim to immunity has been made by the present administration, though impunity for human rights abuses is still far too widespread.
4. General Than Shwe after the transfer of power
After the transfer of power to a civilianized regime on 30 March 2011, many not unreasonably supposed that Senior General Than Shwe, the former Chairman of the SPDC, might still be "pulling the strings" from behind the scenes. To give substance to this conviction, The Irrawaddy magazine reported on 10 February 2011 that Than Shwe was to head an "extra-constitutional" State Supreme Council which Than Shwe himself "had revealed". In fact Than Shwe made no such announcement and the existence of this supposedly eight-body Council would seem to be a total myth. Than Shwe has also allegedly been reported to be a member of the eleven-body National Security and Defence Council set up under Article 201 of the 2008 Constitution, although any present or previous position he might have occupied is not mentioned in Article 201. These reports persisted until quite recently. As recently as 9 December 2011, The Irrawaddy claimed on the basis of what it called circumstantial evidence and reports from "military insiders" that Than Shwe was still "pulling the strings."
Senior Political Advisor Ko Ko Hlaing commented towards the end of February 2012 "As far as I know, he (Than Shwe) has totally resigned from politics. He doesn't want to be involved in this new set-up. He told some of his colleagues and some senior military officers that he had resigned from politics. He is not like Deng Xiao Ping of China or Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore [who retained considerable power after stepping down from the top political posts]."
It has also been reported that Law 28/2010 issued on 4 November 2010, the Myanmar Reserve Forces Act, and so only three days before the 7 November 2010 elections, provides that members of the military, on retirement, become members of the reserve forces for a period of five years. These provisions apply to all ranks, and so would apply to senior ranks as well, including the Commander-in-Chief himself. But this would surely not allow Than Shwe to resume leadership of the military if he felt the need to, though this interpretation is postulated by both the International Crisis Group (see Page 8 of their report at this link) and Win Min, an experienced and respected defence analyst based in Thailand. It is in any case probably now out of the question that Than Shwe, whose retirement was recently yet again confirmed, would ever be invited to return to his former position, and even less likely that he could do so "if he felt the need".
Law 28/2010 was to be given effect by a Notification by the SPDC Chairman, and this responsibility would have passed to the President on the dissolution of the SPDC. There is no evidence that such a Notification was in fact issued by the SPDC Chairman before the dissolution of the SPDC or has yet been issued by the President. The Law may then have been enacted, but it is almost certainly not in force. The same applies to another law also enacted on 4 November 2010 - the People's Militia Act providing for up to two years' national military service. It has likewise yet to be brought into force. Both laws would seem to have been enacted primarily as contingency measures.
After much speculation, on 4 November 2011 an amendment was made to the 8 March 2010 Political Parties Registration Law. The amendment brought the law into line with the 2008 Constitution and previous constitutional practice in Myanmar. Political parties are no longer required to "safeguard" the constitution, but only to "respect" it as required by Article 405(b) of the Constitution. [Presumably political parties are also now required to "abide by" the Constitution as provided for in Article 405(b), though the text of the Amendment has unofficially been interpreted as "obey" in the only and still unofficial translation at present available.] A clause denying persons currently in prison membership of political parties has been revoked, thus enabling an estimated 200 NLD political activists still in prison to keep their party membership. Finally, an explanatory clause has been added to make it clear that in the event of multi-constituency by-elections (as will happen soon when some 48 vacated seats are to be contested as their incumbents have accepted ministerial posts and are required under the Constitution to resign as elected members of various assemblies), political parties will be required to contest at least three seats, as is already the case at general elections.
The Amendment is no more than a tidying up exercise to remove anomalies in the PPR Law. It has however been widely misinterpreted as allowing anyone who has ever been convicted, whether in prison or not, to re-acquire party membership rights. Human Rights Watch even interpreted it as "removing restrictions on candidates with prior prison convictions from contesting elections." Western Governments too are not immune from the euphoria. President Obama would seem to refer obliquely to this Amendment when he said that "legislation has been approved which could open the political environment." A senior US administration official likewise stated that "the amendment of the political party's registration law allows for much broader participation of various political groups inside the country going forward." The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs also congratulated the Government of Myanmar "for passing the amendments to the law which have enabled the NLD's decision." This is not to suggest that the US, the EU and indeed the NLD themselves are not aware that the Amendment hardly amounts to a row of beans, but as the NLD needed an excuse to re-register, no one saw any good reason to undermine that excuse through any public dismissal of the Amendment as only marginally relevant. The senior ranks of the NLD include a number of litigious lawyers who can be in no doubt about the precise meaning of the Amendment.
6. UN Commission of Inquiry
In March 2010 the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, issued a progress report in which he expressed concern at the lack of accountability for possible human rights abuses and proposed in Paragraph 122 that "United Nations institutions may consider the possibility to establish a commission of inquiry with a specific fact-finding mandate to address the question of international crimes." This was no more than a proposal that a UN body might like to consider such a possibility. The English text is perhaps a little obscure, which is no doubt why the French version suggested that UN institutions "voudront peut-être envisager la possibilité" or "might perhaps wish to consider the possibility" of a UN-led body setting up a Commission of Enquiry.
Almost immediately the UN Special Rapporteur's proposal was interpreted by human rights and activist organisations as a call by him to set up such an Inquiry. No doubt Quintana would have liked to have made such a call, but he did not in fact do so. His mandate as Rapporteur appointed by the Human Rights Council meant that he could only make such a proposal directly to the Council and he no doubt knew that such a proposal would have little chance of success. As it is, he probably exceeded his mandate by making a proposal to UN institutions generally, but is not to be criticised on this count because representatives at Council meetings knew exactly what he was proposing and understood the problems which would arise in giving effect to this proposal in any UN body, whether the Security Council, General Assembly or Human Rights Council itself.
A result though of this deliberate misrepresentation of Quintana's proposals was that a world-wide campaign for a UN-led Inquiry ensued which received the general support of only twelve members of the EU as well as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (that is, 16 out of 193 members of the United Nations), all sixteen of whom had come under strong domestic pressure to make a supportive statement but who declined to take any specific action to give effect to Quintana's proposal. All sixteen countries subsequently co-sponsored with twenty-eight other countries a draft Resolution in the General Assembly Third Committee which contained no reference to any "Commission of Inquiry" but in Paragraph 11 urged the Government of Myanmar "to undertake without further delay a full, transparent, effective, impartial and independent investigation into all reports of human rights violations and to bring to justice those responsible in order to end impunity for violations of human rights, and, regretting that previous calls to that effect have not been heeded, calls upon the Government to do so as a matter of priority and, if necessary, drawing on the assistance of the United Nations."
The US position, reflecting the Western position generally, was well expressed in Yangon on 2 December 2011 by US Secretary Hillary Clinton when, in response to a question on the prospective Committee of Inquiry, she told a press conference: "We are going to support the principle of accountability, and the appropriate mechanism to ensure justice and accountability will be considered, but I think it’s important to try to give the new government and the opposition a chance to demonstrate they have their own approach toward achieving that." Quintana himself likewise stresses these days that "truth, justice and accountability are primarily the responsibility of the state, but the international community has also obligations in this respect." For the present, the idea of a UN-led Inquiry has been quietly put on ice.
7. "Threat to the Peace": Chapter VII of the UN Charter
On 12 January 2007 the US and the UK presented a draft Resolution to the UN Security Council highly critical of the Myanmar Government, suggesting that the situation there was a "threat to the peace" under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. China and Russia had made it clear prior to the Council meeting that they would veto any such Resolution if introduced. The US and the UK nonetheless went ahead and the Resolution was duly vetoed. In the discussion at the Council Meeting Western countries made it clear that, in their opinion, the situation in Myanmar was indeed "a threat to the peace" in the region and thus meriting discussion under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. This view was rejected by China and Russia. There is of course no forum to which the matter could be referred for arbitration as the views of Council members are sovereign and beyond appeal.
It is for members of the Council an entirely subjective judgement whether a situation is "a threat to the peace" or not. There are plausible enough reasons to allege this in the case of Myanmar, notably the serious outflow of refugees, the extent of cross-border narcotics trafficking and a number of other issues having transnational implications (trafficking in women and children, the spread of infectious diseases). However, the notion of "a threat to the peace" is unconvincing in a situation where not a single neighbour of Myanmar, nor any country in the region, nor any regional organisation supported the Western position, but even denied that they felt under threat.
An impetus to raising the matter in the Council was given by the publication in September 2005 of a document commissioned by Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Vacláv Havel of the Czech Republic "Threat to the Peace: A call for the UN Security Council to act in Burma." prepared by a US law firm DLA Piper. The publication was however more of a political campaigning document than a serious legal study (see detailed analysis at Item 8).
All in all, the Western assertion of "a threat to the peace" remains unconvincing, though it continued up to late 2010 to be made from time to time.
8. 2005 Tutu- Havel Report: "Threat to the Peace"
On 20 September 2005, a report sponsored by the late Václav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, prepared by a US law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary team led by human rights lawyer Jared Genser and entitled "Threat to the Peace: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in Burma", recommended that: "The Security Council should adopt a Resolution on the situation in Burma in accordance with its authority under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (Article 41) and past Security Council precedents."
On 12 January 2007, the Security Council indeed considered a draft Resolution on "The Situation in Myanmar", but it failed to be adopted because of a rare double veto by China and Russia. The circumstances leading to this failure were discussed in a paper presented at a seminar in Singapore in May 2007. The Tutu-Havel Report gave a certain impetus to the acceptance, despite Chinese and Russian objections, of "The Situation in Myanmar" as an item on the Security Council agenda. Indeed, the item is still on the Council's permanent agenda and will remain there unless and until it is removed. Every few years the Council reviews outstanding agenda items, but the fact that it remains on the Council's agenda helps to maintain international focus on what is happening in the country.
There are serious technical problems with the Tutu-Havel Report, which is in essence a propaganda document masquerading as a legal brief, with no fewer than 711 footnotes. Apart from some supportive words from the US State Department when it first appeared, it was never mentioned, let alone quoted in UN discussions by any representative and was not commended either formally or informally by any Member of the UN. Even the fiery US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton always drew on other (supposed) "precedents" than those contained in the Report to advance the argument that the situation in Myanmar was 'a threat to the peace'. The materials in the report contained nothing fresh, were taken wholly from existing accounts, and while these latter accounts often made it clear that their materials were based on hearsay or allegations, the report presented them in almost every instance as supposed fact. The report also failed dismally to analyse likely Chinese and Russian reactions to the issue if raised in the Security Council. Their double veto was foreseen by several commentators.
A major technical error in the report was the Recommendation that the Security Council should adopt a Resolution "in accordance with its authority under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (Article 41) and past Security Council precedents." Article 41 is solely concerned with "measures" (i.e. sanctions) to be employed to give effect to its decisions. It is Article 39 which is the "threat to the peace" provision and which should have been quoted. As the Report was supposedly examined in draft by several experts in international law, it is very surprising indeed that such an elementary mistake could have been made, especially as the report went out of its way to say that the authors were not seeking sanctions at that stage.
As regards the supposed precedents in the Report, the seven listed included four (Afghanistan 1076/1996, Yemen 924/1994, Rwanda 812/1993 and Cambodia 668/1990) which were not Article VII "Threat to the Peace" Resolutions at all, while the other three Article VII Resolutions (Haiti 841/1993, Sierra Leone 1132/1997 and Liberia 788/1992) were in each case based on representations by concerned neighbouring countries and regional organisations, which were totally lacking in the case of "The Situation in Myanmar".
9. Burma or Myanmar?
In the Burmese language, 'Myanma' has long been the more formal name of the country. It is the name used in the Burmese-language version of the 1947 Constitution enacted in the last year of British rule. It has existed side by side for centuries with the more colloquial 'Bama'. However, an influential nationalist association in the 1930s called Do Bama Asi-Ayone ("We Burmans Association"), of which Aung San was to become a leading member, chose the name 'Bama' on the grounds that 'Myanma' did not truly reflect their youthful enthusiasm and really only applied to the traditional territory of the Burman Kings who had from time to time conquered the non-Burman peoples (see pages 111-112 of the article at this link). Likewise in 1943 the name of the State set up by the Japanese was also called 'Bama' in Burmese, so the distinction between Myanmar ('Myanma') as the literary designation and Burma ('Bama') as the popularly spoken designation is in no sense rigid. It is quite possible that both names are derived from a common etymological source, as 'm' and 'b' are both labials and are often transposed, e.g. Mumbai and Bombay. The 'r' has been added in the English spelling to make it clear that the final 'a' in 'Myanma' (as also in 'Bama') is a long vowel. Indeed, Burma was sometimes written 'Burmah' as in "Burmah Oil Company".
In 1989, the then military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, changed the official English name of the country from 'Burma' to 'Myanmar' in the "Adaptation of Expressions Law" of 18 June 1989. The name in Burmese remained unchanged - 'Myanma'. The Council argued that the change had been made because 'Burma' was the old colonial name and that 'Myanmar' was more inclusive of the non-Burman nationalities in the country. There is indeed continuing controversy on the issue. A range of interpretations exists. They are often quite contradictory, at times politically motivated. It is best to retain an open mind. The Myanmar-English Dictionary compiled by the Myanmar Language Commission is only concerned with one of Myanmar's scores of languages - the Burmese language. In this context "Myanmar" only has a restricted meaning.
Because the name was changed by the regime without any attempt at popular consultation, opponents of the regime decided to continue to use the old English name 'Burma', on the basis that the change in name was unlawful without popular consent. Some Western countries, including the US, UK, France, Canada and New Zealand, have continued to use 'Burma' in support of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who made it clear that she did not favour the change either, although during her visit to the United States she suggested that whether to use Burma or Myanmar was more than anything a matter of personal choice, a generational issue. Prior to her visit to India 13-18 November 2012,she repeated her concerns in an interview with 'The Hindu', and again on her return when she met New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.
Use of the name 'Burma' has become an article of faith in some quarters. However, in the European Union, some members were inclined to accept the change of name in accordance with international practice and accordingly use the name 'Myanmar' on the basis that it the correct protocol. This caused something of a dilemma for the EU, who have temporarily resolved the issue by concocting the hybrid 'Burma/Myanmar'. Statements from Brussels have sometimes used 'Myanmar(Burma)'. In the Western press generally, 'Myanmar' seems to be gaining ground over 'Burma'. The 'Financial Times' announced on 5 January 2012 that with immediate effect they would use 'Myanmar'. This decision has evoked comment.
There is a very clear international protocol and practice on the matter. Every State is entitled to designate its name in the English language. Accordingly, the country formerly known as 'Burma' is now seated as 'Myanmar' in the United Nations, and this name is used by all States in all formal communications with the authorities of that country, including Diplomatic Notes, Letters of Credence and Recall and international treaties. When the US and the UK sponsored a Resolution in the Security Council in January 2007, the Resolution presented by the two countries was entitled: "The Situation in Myanmar". Even so, those Western countries which still popularly refer to the country as 'Burma' occasionally use that description during discussions and debates in a UN context. Whenever the delegate of Myanmar objects, the chairperson of the meeting reminds the delegate using 'Burma' to refer to the country by its official name. The admonition by the chairperson is invariably respected, though some Western countries respond simply by not using any name at all.
It is perfectly in order as a matter of common practice to use the name of a country as it might be more widely known. In the UK, more people have probably heard of 'Burma' than of 'Myanmar'. It is however a serious breach of diplomatic protocol and international practice to use the name 'Burma' in an international diplomatic context. During her visit to Myanmar in December 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton avoided all use of the description 'Burma' in her talks with her Burmese hosts, referring to 'your country'. It would have been regarded as highly insensitive had she not done so. Western diplomats in Myanmar all use 'Myanmar' in any discussion where local representatives are present. It would be thought boorish, if not offensive, to use 'Burma'.
Although it is true that in 1989 the change of name was not approved by popular consent, in 2008 the full name of the country in English was changed from 'The Union of Myanmar' to 'The Republic of the Union of Myanmar' in the Constitution presented for popular approval in a national referendum. Though there are serious reservations about the way in which the referendum was conducted, it was approved, according to the official statistics, by 92.48% of those who voted in a 98.12% turn-out. This could not unreasonably be interpreted as a popular endorsement of the name 'Myanmar' and that whatever reservations might have been held because of the 1989 decision, these reservations are no longer valid in the light of the 2008 referendum.
Western countries which still use the name 'Burma' are nowadays very much on the defensive. They are fighting a battle which in the longer term they cannot hope to win. Australia has already changed to using 'Myanmar'. The new civilianized regime in Myanmar can have no intention of submitting the issue to another popular referendum in view of the 2008 result. When the National League for Democracy (NLD) submitted an application to the Union Election Commission to register the party under the old name, it undertook to 'abide by and respect' the Constitution as required in the Political Parties Registration Law. On 29 June 2012 the New Light of Myanmar carried the text of an announcement critical of Suu Kyi's continuing use of 'Burma'.
A more serious problem for Western countries still wedded to 'Burma' is that use of this designation is seen by almost all other countries, and especially those in the Asian region, as pejorative. It is interpreted as yet another example of the West's attempts to exceptionalise Myanmar's problems. It brings the West no credit and is even redolent of a Western imperialist mentality.
[None of the issues discussed in this clarification applies to the renaming of geographical names in Myanmar, such as Yangon for Rangoon, Ayeyawardy for Irrawaddy and Kayin for Karen. Nor does the article consider whether to use in English the adjectival 'Burmese', 'Myanmar' or 'Myanma' (reflecting the shorter final 'a' in the Burmese adjectival form). This article is solely concerned with the official name in English of the State.]
10. The "Right" of the Commander-in-Chief to take over Power
In her first BBC Reith Lecture on 28 June 2011 (page 21) Suu Kyi said that "the Constitution give[s] the army a right to take over all powers of government whenever they feel it's necessary". She expanded on this in an interview published in the Washington Post on 20 January 2012 when she is reported to have said that: "Our present constitution gives the military far too much power. Although the President is the head of state, he is not necessarily the highest power in the land. The Commander-in-Chief can take over all powers of government at any time he feels it to be necessary. That must be very difficult if you are in the position in which our President is." She said very much the same thing in her conversation with Carleton University students (Canada) on 29 February 2012 when she stated that: "In accordance with that [the 2008] Constitution, the Commander-in-Chief can taker over all powers of government at any time that he deems fit, he does not need to refer to the National Assembly [indistinct] at all."
This view has been expressed by many others, like Bertil Lintner, so Suu Kyi is not alone. But she and they would seem, with respect, to have misunderstood the Constitution or, in Suu Kyi's case probably been badly advised by colleagues in the National League for Democracy. Article 40(c), in Chapter I on "Basic Principles", states that the Commander-in-Chief "has the right to take over and exercise State sovereign power" but only "in accord with the provisions of the Constitution". The detailed provisions on the declaration of a State of Emergency occupy the whole of Chapter XI. According to Article 410 in this Chapter, it is the President who "may, after consulting with the National Defence and Security Council, promulgate an ordinance and declare a state of emergency." Article 418 also provides that "the President shall declare the transferring of legislative, executive and judicial powers of the Union to the Commander-in-Chief to enable him to carry out necessary measures to speedily restore its original situation in the Union."
The Commander-in-Chief's "right" formulated briefly in Article 40(c), which was first released as Article 28(c) in September 1993 in what was known as the "104 Basic Principles" and has since remained virtually unchanged, should surely be interpreted in accordance with the detailed provisons of the Constitution.
The first instance of the Declaration of a State of Emergency occurred on 10 June 2012 when, in response to unrest in areas of Rakhine State, the President declared a State of Emergency under Article 412 (a) of the Constitution. This was a "lower level" Declaration.
In an interview with the New York Times on 28 September 2012, President Thein Sein clarified the situation beyond any reasonable doubt when he commented: "The commander-in-chief cannot issue an emergency decree on his own. The commander-in-chief is appointed by the president. If there is a situation that calls for a state of emergency, the president and the National Defense and Security Council will make the decision. So we cannot say that the commander-in-chief can stage a coup and take over the government at his own will."
Constitutions are rarely an impediment anywhere in the world to Army commanders bent on staging a coup.
11. Supposed Buried Cache of up to 140 World War II Spitfires
Since April 2012 the international and especially the British press has been entranced by the reported discovery of up to 140 World War II Spitfires in Myanmar.
Prime Minister David Cameron raised with President Thein Sein the prospect of Britain and Myanmar working together on this project when he visited Myanmar in April 2012. On 16 October 2012 a contract was reported in the State press to have been signed between Lincolnshire farmer and Spitfire enthusiast David Cundall, his Burmese partners and the Director-General of Civil Aviation to recover as many aircraft as possible. In the initial phase lasting two years, reportedly 36 will be recovered at Mingaladon Airport, Yangon, 18 at Myitkyina in Kachin State and 6 at Meiktila south of Mandalay.
Much as so many of us would simply love to see these aircraft flying, the likelihood that they exist at all seems pretty remote. The evidence of their existence includes a report that a probe, one of several made into the ground near Mingaladon in February 2012, seemed to show at a depth of about 40 feet an aircraft engine and its battery. A photograph was taken, but is not yet available. There are also reports of geophysicist surveys which show metallic objects buried in some quantity. Another report claimed that a trial excavation in 2004 had struck what could be a wooden crate, but they decided not to open it up for 'contractual' reasons and because the political situation then was still sensitive.
Until more tangible evidence is produced, it is as well not to get carried away. David Cundall is not the only person over the past 10-15 years to have looked for these aircraft. Other groups, including reportedly the Israeli Air Force, have sought to uncover these aircraft, with official Myanmar support, but nothing has yet been found.
Initial reports of the existence of the aircraft came not from British, but from US sources. Persons who claimed to have been working in a US Navy engineering construction battalion (the 'Seabees') which supposedly operated in Burma during the Second World War II have said they were tasked to bury these aircraft. However, there is no evidence that the Seabees ever worked in Burma at all. US Army Engineering Construction units operated in Northern Burma, mainly in Kachin State, but are not known to have gone south of Myitkyina at any time and had left for India and China before the end of the war, their road and airfield construction tasks completed. A revised version of the tale is the US military engineers just happened to be passing through Rangoon on their way to Singapore and were invited to give their technical assistance.
A consignment of the latest Mark XIV Spitfires would have significant value after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. Spitfires were a sought-after export after the war to countries as far afield as Thailand and India, until jet aircraft began to replace them early in the 1950s. The French were equipped with British-supplied Spitfires Mk VIII and Mk IX on their return to Vietnam in late 1945. Hong Kong was reinforced with Spitfires in 1949 as China was captured by Communist forces. SE Asia generally, notably Malaya and Indonesia, remained in a state of instability for some years after 1945 and Spitfires under British control based in Singapore were essential to contain possible threats. RAF squadrons in the Far East theatre were themselves re-equipped after the cessation of hostilities.
The Royal Air Force had an Air HQ in Burma until the end of 1947. The Burmese Air Force itself was founded in January 1947 when numerous aircraft were handed over including a handful of Spitfires. Within a very short time the RAF had supplied another 3 and then another 20, and the Israelis another 30 for use in counter-insurgency operations against Communist and Karen insurgents. It is not unreasonable to suppose that any crated Mark XIV stored in Burma would have been recovered in the immediate post-war days to meet operational requirements. However, it is hard to believe that Spitfires would have been stored in the elaborate way reported (in original packing cases reinforced with teak frames) at a depth of 40 feet. No records from RAF Mingaladon have been found which record the alleged storage.
On page 383 of 'Forgotten Wars' by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper Penguin 2007, we read: "The Burmese Government was forever demanding Oxford trainer aircraft, Spitfires and, above all, ammunition……As summer  arrived, the mandarins' nightmare was that the ammunition ships, Spitfires, Oxfords and all would enter Rangoon on the very day that the provisional Soviet Republic of Burma was proclaimed and the AFPFL was abruptly replaced with the red flag." It hardly seems likely that Burmese entreaties for Spitfires would have been made in this way and at this juncture if up to 140 were buried in crates waiting to be unearthed and assembled.
Aviation Internet forums are buzzing with excitement, but there remains a lot of scepticism. How could Spitfires buried in UK soft-wood crates possibly survive over 60 years in tropical soil, even if the creates were reportedly strengthened with Burmese teak and the aircraft packed in their original crates were given extra protection? Why has no one yet been identified who can give a first-hand account of what actually happened in late 1945? These and scores of other questions so far remain unanswered.
Above all, there is no documentary or archival record that these Spitfires were ever dispatched to Burma, other than a report that an unidentified researcher had found at National Archives in Kew a reference to 124 Mark XIV Spitfires 'delivered Burma' and 'SOC' which means 'struck off charge'. No file reference, though, no date or delivery or SOC and no serial numbers. Meticulous records have been kept of Spitfire production and deliveries and without a file reference or the serial numbers it is impossible to check this report.
Sadly, the probability is that these Spitfires are mythical. The very strong likelihood that none exist was confirmed on 15 February 2013 by the Wargaming team who are reported to believe, on the basis of clear documentary evidence, as well as the evidence from the fieldwork, that no Spitfires were delivered in crates and buried at RAF Mingaladon during 1945 and 1946.
Most significantly, the archival records show that the RAF unit that handled shipments through Rangoon docks - 41 Embarkation Unit - only received 37 aircraft in total from three transport ships between 1945 and 1946. None of the crates contained Spitfires and most appear to have been re-exported in the Autumn of 1946.
Lead archaeologist Andy Brockman stated: “The documents and the ‘ground truthing’ provided by the field archaeology show, we believe, that the Royal Air Force had neither the Means, Motive nor the Opportunity to bury Spitfires at RAF Mingaladon at the end of the War.”
The final dénouement of this saga was a presentation at the RAF Museum in Hendon, London, on 19 June at which the main protagonists were in agreement that there were no buried Spitfires in Myanmar:
- Warbirds into Woks: release of short and long videos by Wargaming - 28 June 2013
- Wargaming Youtube video: short version (15 minutes)
- Wargaming Youtube video: long version (90 minutes)
David Cundall, though, remains in Myanmar seemingly convinced that there is something still to be found.
Derek Tonkin wrote two articles about this venture in 'The Myanmar Times':
- Myanmar's phantom Spitfires: How a legend was born - 5 February 2013
- Anatomy of a legend. The Spitfires that never were - 24 June 2013
Until the recent suspension and/or lifting of sanctions, economic, financial and political restrictions applied since the August 1988 uprising by Western countries against the former military regime in Myanmar ranged from virtual economic warfare in the case of the United States and Canada, to supposedly only targeted sanctions by the European Union, and to largely pro forma asset and visa sanctions by Australia and Japan.
There is little evidence that targeted sanctions against the regime and its ‘cronies’ had more than symbolic value and psychological impact. The regime was financially protected by a bonanza from sales of natural gas to Thailand which it proved impossible to interdict. A main effect of sanctions was to allow China, Russia and the countries of South East Asia unrestricted access to Myanmar’s natural resources. Asset freezes proved to be marginal, as there were virtually no funds on deposit in the US or EU, and visa bans might have been irritating to parents wishing to give their children and grandchildren a Western education, but no more. The West lost influence while allowing Asian competitors an open field.
The principal sanctions applied by the Western world, a fact which they are most reluctant to acknowledge, were primarily directed at the country’s economy and thus at the Myanmar population as a whole. These sanctions included the denial of Western overseas development aid (ODA), the suspension of funding from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, and the discouragement of trade, investment and tourism to the extent that these were not already prohibited by statutory instruments. In terms of financial loss, some US$ 2.5 billion were denied annually, a calculation based on a pro rata comparison with ODA and investment provided per capita to such neighbours as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Some US and UK politicians, influenced no doubt by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have sought to portray the reform process initiated by President Thein Sein since he came to power in March 2011 as evidence of the effectiveness of their sanctions policy. Suu Kyi herself has repeatedly said that she has no doubt that sanctions were highly effective. She has also added that: "I do not think sanctions hurt ordinary Burmese, as much as the IMF has gone into this and they have concluded that they did not hurt ordinary Burmese." There is however no evidence that the IMF has ever made such an assessment, but Suu Kyi’s iconic status is such that no one dare challenge her on such misstatements of fact. The issue is complicated as well because for a number of years IMF Article IV Consultation reports compiled after annual visits were not generally released. In their analyses, both those publicly released and those made available e.g. to the "Financial Times", the IMF rarely referred to the effects of Western sanctions. On those few occasions when they did, it was in a sense quite the opposite to what Suu Kyi has alleged.
Baroness Warsi, Senior FCO Minister of State, made reference in the House of Lords on 31 January 2013 to "......the intelligent use of sanctions, which in the case of Burma have been attributed as one of the most effective levers in encouraging the regime to implement democratic change.....". This is, with due respect to the Baroness, an illusory conclusion not supported by any independent analyses, nor by the isolated assessments of the impact of sanctions made by committees of the UK Parliament or the European Union. It is a position only held by US and UK politicians, for their own domestic political reasons and without any credible evidence. Despite repeated requests by independent institutions and even official committees, neither the UK Government nor the European Council of Ministers has ever responded by providing an official technical appraisal. Even a request in March 2012 by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, that sanctions "must be analyzed in detail because they are a human rights issue" has been quietly ignored.
Suu Kyi's real objectives were understandable enough. In opposing all overseas development assistance and any engagement by international financial institutions, her aim was to exert maximum pressure on the regime. Peruvian diplomat Alvaro de Soto, who was the UN Secretary-General's first "good offices" envoy from 1995-1999, has described how Suu Kyi "had an outburst" over possible World Bank engagement. "She wanted to withhold everything in order to try to punish the generals." De Soto added that Suu Kyi "describes her confrontational approach as psychological welfare, in which every bullet counts. She is not willing to let the SPDC take credit for anything at all and is therefore unwilling to give her blessings to any engagement with the SPDC." Characteristically, but illogically, "she rejects with indignation any suggestion that the loser of any longer term confrontation might be the people of Myanmar", as has undoubtedly happened.
The supposed "targeted" sanctions directed at the regime by the US and the EU were indeed brushed aside by them until the 2010 Elections had been held and the new civilianized dispensation had been put in place. There followed a rapprochement with Suu Kyi in which the new government acted from a position of political strength, but financial and economic weakness. It is now important for Myanmar to secure an end to broadly inflicted sanctions. This is the reason why the government has sought an end to these measures.
Myanmar is a text book example of the failure of targeted sanctions to influence regime behaviour. Though regarded nowadays as immoral, if not a denial of human rights, generalised sanctions against the broad economy and the population at large have nonetheless been shown controversially to be effective in influencing the policies of a reformist government.
There are few independent experts on sanctions who do not agree that the Western regime of restrictive measures against Myanmar has been massively counterproductive. It is however regarded as politically impossible for Western politicians and for Suu Kyi herself to admit that they were wrong. Western reasons for imposing them in the first place were primarily a need to appease domestic political constituencies demanding that "something must be done".
A short selection of analyses which highlight the general (non-targeted) nature of US and EU sanctions and the extent to which they were massively counterproductive
- Report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs of the House of Lords on Targeted and General EU Sanctions, April 2007
- Myanmar - Preliminary evaluation of the impact of economic sanctions - COASI Working Party EEAS - February 2011
- Promoting Human Rights in Myanmar: A critique of Western Sanctions Policy - Morten B Pedersen - Rowman and Littlefield 2008 ISBN-10 0-7425-5559-3
- European Sanctions against Myanmar - Agnes Frittin and Nilas Swanström, Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm, January 2010
A short selection of articles and op-eds critical of US and EU sanctions policies
- EU Sanctions against Myanmar 1988-2013: Rest in Peace - Derek Tonkin, Chairman Network Myanmar, 26 April 2013
- Quintana calls for review of Myanmar sanctions - The China Post (Taiwan) - 15 March 2012
- Burmese people suffer brunt of US sanctions on Myanmar - Michael Lwin, World Focus - 17 December 2009
- The EU's learning curve heralds beginning of end of sanctions - Ahto Lobjakas, Radio Free Europe - 28 October 2009
- Who do we hurt when we boycott Burma? Kyaw Lyaw, New Matilda - 15 October 2009
- Western sanctions are doing nothing for the people of Burma - Thomas Bell, The Daily Telegraph - 12 August 2009
- Analysis: Why sanctions aren't working - Pauline Chiou, CNN.com/asia - 3 July 2009
- The case against Myanmar sanctions - Arno Kopecky (Freelance Journalist based in Vancouver), The Globe and Mail - 20 June 2009
The assassination of General Aung San and six members of the Interim Government of Burma, known as the Executive Council, on 19 July 1947 deprived the country, then close to independence which came on 4 January 1948, of a future generation of talented political leaders. From the perspective of Britain, the departing colonial power, Aung San was seen as a charismatic and dynamic leader, fully capable of leading the Burmese nation towards a democratic future. He was strongly supported by the British Labour Government of the day under Clement Attlee.
Suspicion for the murders at once fell on a political rival, U Saw, who had been Prime Minister up to the Japanese invasion of Burma in December 1941. He had been detained by the British in Uganda during the war because of subversive contacts with the Japanese while in transit at Lisbon. He accompanied Aung San to the UK in January 1947, but declined to signthe Independence Agreement reached with Clement Attlee on 27 January 1947. He was taken into custody in the late morning of the day following the assassination, was tried, convicted and eventually hanged on 8 May 1948, some four months after Burma had achieved independence.
Although the evidence against U Saw personally was overwhelming, doubt persists to this day about whether he had accomplices - Burmese or British - who had conspired with him or had promised to support him. The major "White Flag" Communist Party of Burma, which was to go underground shortly after independence, at once alleged that the assassinations were a British Government plot. Many years later, one of their members in exile in China, General Kyaw Saw, was to repeat these allegations, both in adocumentary on BBC2 on 19 July 1997 - the 50th anniversary of the assassinations - and in aninterview with 'The Irrawaddy' magazine.
At the time rumours of British Government involvement were condemned in a Press Release on 25 July 1947 by the Government of Burma as "utterly unfounded". This statement was repeated by Prime Minister Attlee in the House of Commons on 30 July 1947 and Anthony Eden also made it plain on the same ocasion that "His Majesty's Opposition, equally, have no connection with this outrage". A letter from British Ambassador James Bowker [Page 1 and Page 2] to Assistant Under-Secretary Esler Dening written on the day that U Saw was hanged described the allegation that the British were behind the assassinations as "a stock item in Communist propaganda" based on suspicions "of the flimsiest of nature." The letter also pointed out that the immediate appointment of a new Cabinet headed by U Nu, Aung San's close colleague in the ruling AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League), and who had also been separately targeted by the assassination squad as he was not a member of the Executive Council, but was not to be found in his office on the morning of 19 July 1947, was the clearest possible evidence that the British Government had not the least interest in replacing Aung San with U Saw.
More persistent however have been allegations, which were highlighted in the BBC2 documentary, that a shadowy group of former British officials, known as "The Friends of the Burma Hill Peoples", was deeply involved, led by the former Governor of Burma Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, who had unsuccessfully sought to have Aung San indicted for the murder of a pro-British village headman in Karen State in 1942. However, no actual evidence of any kind linking this group to U Saw has ever been produced, but the fact that the former Governor made an appeal for clemency for U Saw, who as Prime Minister had been close to Sir Reginald, is regarded as suspicious, though Sir Reginald had formally notified to the Earl of Listowel, the Minister responsible for the Burma Office, his intention to do so. A former member of this group of "Friends", Henry Stonor, has said that these allegations have "no foundation in historical fact", that the group did not really come to life until after Burma's independence in 1948, initially as little more than a talking shop, that the former Governor may have attended at least one meeting out of interest "where he said nothing" and that indeed diverse opinions were expressed within the group by persons interested in the cause of Karen independence.
The military regime at the time, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, did however seize on the allegations made in the documentaryto criticize the British authorities, a stance which they maintained for some time afterwards.
The final allegation of British involvement relates to the gun-running activities of certain middle-ranking British Officers in Burma at the time, with no known political ambitions, but unable to resist the black-market opportunities presented in post-war Burma. One of these, Captain Vivian, was convicted of supplying U Saw with considerable quantities of weapons and ammunition, not in fact used in the assassinations, while another officer, Major Young, was indicted for the supply of sten and tommy guns used, but was reported in the BBC2 documentary to have been released on a technicality. Though the gun-running activities were well established, there is no evidence that either Vivian or Young, or other military and civilian personnel linked to U Saw, had any involvement in or prior knowledge of the planned assassinations. Friends of U Saw among the British business community and a non-entity John Stewart Bingley in the British Council in Rangoon were also alleged to have played an undefined role in the plot.
In short, allegations of British Government involvement or of a high-level plot involving "The Friends of the Hill Peoples" are devoid of any serious evidence, but are attractive to conspiracy theorists or those with their own agendas or axes to grind.
- Burma: The Curse of Independence : A Hero's Death - Shelby Tucker 2001
- Eliminate the Elite - Kin Oung, son of Maj Gen Tun Hla Oung, 2011
- A Trial in Burma: The Assassination of Aung San - Dr Maung Maung 1962
- Burma: The Struggle for Independence. Vol II Documents 451 + HMSO 1984
14. 'Rohingya' a Political, not Ethnic Label
In his report to the British Government of Burma in 1940 about the Immigration of Indians into the country, then virtually uncontrolled as Burma had only ceased to be a province of India on 1 April 1937, Finance Secretary James Baxter analysed the situation of both Hindus and Muslims.
In Chapter II of his report, Baxter noted that: “There was an Arakanese Muslim community settled so long in Akyab [Sittwe] District that it had for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race.” This was before the events of 1942 when many Muslims in Arakan were forced to seek refuge in Northern Arakan or in Bengal. This indicates that the British administration of Burma recognised that there were Muslims in Arakan who had been permanently resident there for generations, a theme found elsewhere in the report. "The Rohingyas trace their origin to Arabs, Moors, Turks, Persians, Moghuls, Patthans and Bangalees" Muhammad Yunus has recorded.
To the situation in Arakan Baxter indeed devoted the whole of Chapter VII. However he nowhere used the designation "Rohingya" to describe one or more of the Muslim communities in the province, though the report does refers to another Muslim minority by ethnic name - "Mohamedan Kamans". Indeed, at no stage during their administration of Arakan from its capture in 1825 to independence in 1948 did the British even once use the designation "Rohingya" to describe these communities.
The word did however come into use after independence in 1948, notably in the wake of a "jihadist" uprising which plagued Arakan from 1949 until 1961 when Northern Arakan was designated the Mayu Frontier District and placed under military administration. The Burmese Government itself flirted with the designation and occasional references are to be found in official reports and other documents in the 1950s and 1960s to "Rohingya", but this flirtation, which included a radio programme in the local dialect broadcast from 15 May 1961 to 1 October 1965, soon faded away after the March 1962 coup by General Ne Win.
Whence does the designation "Rohingya" originate? Most scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, seem agreed that it is derived directly or indirectly from the local Bengali name for Arakan of "Rohang" (given to the former Kingdom which fell to Burman forces in 1785 and whose capital was at Mrohaung, now known as Mrauk U). "Rohang" appeared at the time in several variations, including Reng, Roang, Rohhawn, Rossawn, Rung as well as Rakhain and Yakhain in Bumese. However, there is little or no evidence that at the time Muslim residents of Arakan, many of whom were deported to Amarapura in 1785 along with many more Buddhists, while others fled into Bengal, ever called themselves ethnically by any of these variations, whatever they may have called the region where they lived.
Muhammad Yunus might dispute this, arguing that "the term Rohingya is derived from the word Rohai or Roshangee, a terminology perverted to Rohingya. Rohai and Roshangee are terms denoting the Muslim people inhabiting in the old Arakan (Rohang/Roshang/Roang)", quoting as his source a work by Dr SB Qanungo on 'The History of Chittagong'. These variations though would still seem to be a geographic locator, not an ethnic description. However, even if pre-1785 Muslim residents of Arakan might have called themselves something like "Rohingya" in their own language, that designation cannot reasonably be applied to the steady influx of Chittagonians, as the British called migrants from the region around Bengal and who started to move into Arakan from the 1870s.
The only British source to be found using the designation "Rohingya", and then only in a geographic sense, is to be found in an article in a learned journal by Dr Francis Buchanan, who accompanied Major Michael Symes of His Majesty's 76th Regiment on an Embassy sent in 1785 by the Governor-General of India to the Kingdom of Ava whose capital was then at Amarapura. Noting on Page 220 that it had been his intention during his stay in the Burma Empire "at some pains to collect a comparative vocabulary of such of the languages spoken in it", Buchanan introduces the reader on Page 237 to "three dialects spoken, in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long been settled in Arakan, and who call themselves "Rooinga", or natives of Arakan." The basic vocabulary he provides of Rooinga was later drawn on by two further learned articles in an issue of 'The Classical Journal" 1811 and in 'Index Alphabeticus' in1815. (The second dialect Buchanan describes as Rossawn spoken by Hindus in Arakan, adding : "Both these tribes, by the real natives of Arakan, are called Kulaw Yakhain, or stranger Arakan.")
Buchanan was a gifted and highly respected linguist, botanist and geographer, in addition to his medical qualifications. He later wrote several articles for the Edinburgh Journal of Science, including a series of three accounts of the frontier between Bengal and the Kingdom of Ava, but in none of these articles, nor in Willem van Schendel's edition published in 1992 of Buchanan's "Account of a Journey" through East Bengal, does the designation "Rohingya" occur again in any shape or form.
The only reasonable conclusion is that "Rohingya" was never used historically as an ethnic designation. It did however occur in an isolated instance as a geographic locator. It might have been thought to have a charismatic attraction, which could be why it has been fashioned after the Second World War to define the majority of Muslims resident in the north of Rakhine State. This is not to say that they are not perfectly entitled, in their search for a national and social identity, to describe themselves as "Rohingyas", only that they (whever they might be) were not designated "Rohingyas" by anyone before the term came into vogue in the 1960s.
Indeed, Rakhine Muslims have been encouraged to seek refuge in the "Rohingya" political label out of desperation with their predicament, and who can blame them? But at the same time it should not surprise us in the least that the Myanmar Government decline to accept "Rohingya" as an ethnic designation, insisting instead on "Bengali" to which the great majority of Rohingya could very probabably trace their heritage and ancestry. "Bengali" was a designation also used by the British administration, alongside Chittagonian which referred specifically to Bengalis from the region of Chittagong only and who were referred to colloquially as "CFs" even by Chittagonians themselves who spoke English.
A related myth is also worth mentioning in this context. It is that the Rohingya have allegedly been described "by the UN" as "the world's most persecuted minority". UN Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana has indeed described the Rohingya as "the most vulnerable and marginalised group in Myanmar", which may well be true, but no UN spokesperson, agency or representative is on record as having described the Rohingya in the global terms suggested. The unattributed origins of this phrase might be sought in a report by BBC's Mike Thompson in 2006 at this link.
Important to an understanding of the situation of the Rohingya in Arakan today are three statements issued in 1947 and 1948 by the Muslim Council of Religious Leaders (Jumiatul Ulema) North Arakan, a quasi-political body founded in 1936 shortly before and quite possibly related to the separation of Burma from India agreed in 1935.
The Council well understood that Muslims in North Arakan would, from 1 April 1937, be separated from Bengal by an international boundary. They also realised that it was important to reassure the newly independent Burmese State after 4 January 1948 that they were loyal citizens of Burma who did not depend on Bengal for political sustenance and support.
On 24 February 1947 the Council appealed to the British Government to grant to North Arakan the same status as that agreed for other frontier peoples at the Panglong Conference earlier that month and to demarcate North Arakan as a frontier area. The British Government did not respond to this appeal as Arakan had historically not been so designated but was part of “Burma Proper” and religious divisions could not be acknowledged as a basis for a separate political entity.
On 18 June 1948 the Council sent a memorandum to the Burmese Government protesting against endeavours to deprive them of their franchise, regretting the use of the designation “Chittagonian” used by the Minister of Defence Bo Let Ya during a recent visit to Arakan and confirming that they wished to be known as “Arakanese Muslims” or “Burmese Muslims”, a term which had been agreed with the British in 1941 and which Prime Minister U Nu had subsequently endorsed.
On 25 October 1948 the Council made even stronger representations to the Burmese Government, assuring them that their history and culture were quite distinct from that of Chittagong, that they spoke a different language and that they were “historically a race by ourselves” whose ancestors were called “Ruwangyas” or “Rushangyas”.
The evolution in the thinking of the Council over these 20 months is striking. By late 1948 the decision had been taken by the Council to “de-Indianize” the Arakan Muslim population, to create a new ethnicity which was to develop though several stages into “Rohingya” by the late 1950s, and to seek to establish themselves as an indigenous ethnicity without Bengali origins. In so doing, however, the Chittagonian settlers of 1880-1930 have assumed the mantle of identity of the indigenous Arakan Muslims known to the British as “Yakhain Kala” or “Foreign Arakaners” and absorbed them into their polity, along with other smaller Muslim communities in Arakan. They today represent a monolithic Muslim community of some 1.3 million souls in Arakan alone, not counting “Rohingya” resident elsewhere in Myanmar as well as overseas in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The numbers are so vast - up to three million people - that this cannot be explained by natural increase alone and gives rise to supposition that many Bengalis have succeeded in migrating to Myanmar unlawfully.
On 8 May 1978 the US Embassy in Rangoon reported that according to Major Kyaw Maung, the Governor of Arakan, there were some 400,000 Muslims in the Division, of whom 50,000 were there illegally. Kyaw Maung was seen by the diplomatic corps as a hard-line villain responsible for acts of repression and discrimination against Muslims in his bailiwick. Yet by his own admission in 1978 only 12.5% of Muslims were in Arakan “illegally”, which meant of course that 87.5% were legal residents.
- The Rohingya Situation - 23 April 2015
- Rohingya - The name, the movement, the quest for identity - January 2014
- On the term "Rohingya" - Jacques Leider 2012
- "Rohingya", Rakhaing and the recent outbreak of violence - Jacques Leider
- The Origin of the Name "Rohingya" - Khin Maung Saw 1993
- The History of Arakan (Past and Present) - Mohammed Yunus 1994
A bibliography of books and articles on the Rohingya question may be found at another page of this website.