The 1961 Swedish documentary Mein Kampf ends with a lingering shot over Auschwitz. “It must never happen again — never again,” the narrator says grimly, finishing the film. Whether or not this is the origin of the phrase “never again” is unclear; what is clear is that by the 1960s, the Holocaust had produced a powerful human rights movement that would shape geopolitical behavior worldwide.
It wasn’t the first time morality gained the upper hand over realism; British anti-slavery efforts were rooted in Enlightenment humanism. The post-Napoleonic order was partially underpinned by the Holy Alliance of great Christian states who wanted to avoid shedding any more godly blood. “Never again” compelled the German Luftwaffe to support NATO combat operations in the Balkans, breaking a post-war taboo on German military power. Arguably, the American invasion of Iraq was predicated on moral grounds, in which the overthrow of a tyrant was a key plank of the war effort.
Yet morality only trumps realism when geopolitical space exists for it to do so. In post-war Europe, genocide could be outlawed not only because of its abhorrence, but also because it was largely unnecessary on a continent dominated by homogenized nation-states. In the secure embrace of NATO, Europeans could discard the well-honed tools of mass barbarism they had practised so effectively against both one another and in their empires.
Myanmar has little space for morality. In the brute realities of Southeast and Southern Asia, the cruel realism of the region tempts genocide as a solution to state insecurity.
Of all the colonies Britain left behind, Myanmar was left in one of the most difficult positions. It is ethnically and linguistically diverse, the result of centuries of trade and conquest between China, India, and Indochinese kingdoms. It is geographically difficult to unite by road, rail, and air. This give its minorities both the geographic space to isolate themselves as well as the strategic depth to defend against central government attacks.
Wedged between China, India, and Thailand, Myanmar is both anchored by its position as a cultural crossroad and pulled apart by it. It is a unique place that can resist overweening influence from its neighbors; it withstood the siren calls of both Communism as well as a Western alliance during the Cold War. Its Bamar people make up approximately 68% of the population, with no other major minority making up more than 10%. That Bamar backbone provide integrity to the core of Myanmar, yet geography splits the Bamar between poorer rural farmers and more well-to-do urban dwellers.
Thus to rule Myanmar is to confront a series of intractable challenges: the trap of foreign influence from India, China, or Indochina, the geographically shielded minorities who are not numerous enough to form nation-states but populous enough to fuel insurgencies, and the class divisions of the Bamar themselves.
Myanmar is home to some of the world’s longest running civil wars. There’s the war against the Kachin in the northeast, which began in 1961; the Wa Army, active since 1989 as a Chinese proxy; and the Karen, who have been fighting the government since 1948. In other words, pick a year, and you’ll find Myanmar fighting some front of its many civil wars.
Thus it’s no wonder that democracy has repeated failed in such a place; the tyranny of the Bamar’s democratic majority provokes backlash from the country’s minorities, exacerbating tensions between the classes within the Bamar. This opens doors for foreign powers both near and far to try to gain influence in Myanmar while expelling their rivals.
There has never really been an ideological aversion to democracy like in Communist China; rather Myanmar’s democracies have fallen apart under stress, replaced by nationalist military juntas that provide order until a new democracy of sorts can be cobbled together.
That’s exactly what happened in 1962, when fractious politics force the military to take power before an open civil war began. The military kept full control until 1974, when it established a more workable hybrid government that balanced the military’s interests with a civilian government in a predictable single-party state. Once more, that functioned until divisions within the Bamar led to the 8888 Uprising of 1988, pitting urban classes against the rural backbone of the army.
The problem is that permanent military dictatorship is also not the cure for Myanmar. On a long enough timeline, dictatorships in Myanmar provoke both the ethnic minorities as well as the urban Bamar, a potentially fatal combination for the military elite.
The latest bout of democracy, begun in 2011, follows much of the 1974 model. A powerful wing of parliament remains reserved for the military. This preserves the ability of the state to manage its still-hot civil wars, while a civilian government under Nobel laureate Aung San Syu Kyi manages the Bamar divide between rural and urban classes.
That uneasy balance is a big reason why the military elite have decided to purge the Rohingya from Myanmar. As yet another ethnic minority without a territorially viable nation-state, the Rohingya complicate efforts to bring a measure of unity to easily off-balance Burma. Adding them to democracy doesn’t overcome the tyranny of the Bamar majority; as Muslim minorities, they are especially prone to persecution from the devout Buddhist Bamar majority. Allowing them autonomy risks inviting Bangladeshi influence and risks encouraging the other rebels. When Rohingya rebels began an organized rising in August, it give the military the casus belli it needed to begin.
So the military has now gambled on a genocide as a solution to the Rohingya. They know that Myanmar has a brief and unique opportunity to resolve one of its many civil conflicts. The United States and West in general are distracted by Syria, Russia, and their own internal divisions; China is uninterested in defending the Rohingya; India, with its own history of Muslim ethnic cleansing, is unlikely to rouse itself. Thus the military believes if they can strike hard and quick, they can purge their territory of an unruly ethnic group and finally solve a major security threat.
It will send a stark, cruel message to other rebels, as well: to resist is to risk annihilation. While the Myanmar military may not be able to crush other ethnic rebellions with such butchery, the chilling effect will nevertheless have value.
Unfortunately for the Rohingya, they are likely to get away with it. If Sudan’s indicted President Omar al-Bashar could butcher Darfur at a time when the international community had the attention span for human rights, then it’s deeply unlikely that now, in an era of self-interested populist nationalism, that much geopolitical energy can be spared to save the Rohingya beyond token measures. Sanctions and isolation could return Myanmar to the status quo ante of 2011. The generals have shown they can survive that sort of thing before. If they continue to calculate that the Rohingya are an easy target, it will not deter them.