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The World’s Longest Internet Blockade, A”Black Hole” In Burma and State Racism Meets Neoliberalism
By Carlos Sardina Galache is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok, who has covered the Rohingya crisis and other conflicts in Burma for six years.
The world’s longest internet blockade, imposed by the Burmese government in the west of the country because of its conflict with the armed organization of the Arakan Army (AA), has entered its second year, creating a ”black hole” that prevents the arrival of humanitarian aid and information on COVID-19.
Imposed on June 21 last year and extended until August 1 next year, the longest blackout in the world, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), has drawn criticism from international and domestic human rights organizations, and even from several Western embassies in the country, which issued a statement on Sunday demanding its lifting.
”Internet blocking has created a black hole. Basic information for the functioning of society is disappearing and makes it difficult to assess the volume of aid needed,” Dutch diplomat Efe Laetitia van den Assum, who was part of a commission commissioned by the Burmese government and led by Kofi Annan to find solutions to the multiple conflicts in Arakan, told IPS.
An entrenched conflict — The conflict between the Burmese Army (known as Tatmadaw) and the AA ethno-nationalist guerrilla group has intensified since January last year and has only been ongoing; so far it has displaced more than 130,000 people in the remote areas of northern Arakan and southern Chin state, where internet blockades have failed to break the insurgents.
”The Tatmadaw believes that part of the command and control of the AA is done through encrypted messaging applications. This is probably true, but there are much more specific measures that could be employed to respond to this, rather than a total blockade of the Internet,” Richard Horsey, a political analyst based in Rangoon, the country’s most populous city, told Efe.
The blackout, which is accompanied by restrictions on access by humanitarian aid organizations, is causing some villagers to be unaware of even the COVID-19 pandemic and to be unaware of the food and water shortages in one of Burma’s most impoverished areas, Human Rights Watch reported in a statement.
State Racism Meets Neoliberalism — Burma — officially known as Myanmar — celebrated the seventieth anniversary of its independence at a moment when the failures of its incomplete nation-building project have become increasingly evident.
Last year saw the almost complete ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority in the northwestern state of Arakan. More than 600,000 Muslims fled to overstretched refugee camps in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, wars between the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese Army is known, and several ethno-nationalist armed groups continued to rage.
The government’s civilian wing, led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), seems unable to offer a vision for the country that differs from the “discipline-flourishing democracy” envisioned by the military junta that ruled Burma for five decades.The generals who once controlled the nation have accomplished an astonishing feat. Most of the population opposed them, but now a large section of the Buddhist Bamar population (the country’s majority group) and the Buddhist Rakhine population (the majority in Arakan) support — even cheer — the military’s “clearance operations” against the Rohingya. Meanwhile, the civilian government either covers up or flatly denies the atrocities while trying to move toward peace with other armed ethnic groups. Suu Kyi doesn’t control the military, but her government appears too timid to make meaningful change anyway.The elected government operates under a Tatmadaw-drafted constitution that grants the military wide powers and complete autonomy from civilian oversight. But these institutional constraints don’t fully explain the NLD’s shortcomings. Indeed, the party seems to share much of its ideology with the military junta it once resisted.
The national question — If Burma has a hegemonic ideology, it’s the concept of “national races” (taingyintha) and its corollary, which holds that only members of those groups belong in the country. This set of beliefs is founded on an understanding of race that separates ethnic communities into discrete groups, attached to a particular territory and endowed with more-or-less unalterable cultural and often psychological traits.
No single legal text fully captures the taingyintha ideology, but it finds its most pristine expression in the 1982 Citizenship Law, which created three layers of citizenship and gave full rights only to those ethnic groups that “settled [in Burma] … from a period anterior to 1185 B.E., 1823 A.D.” The cutoff date is significant, as it predates the first Anglo-Burmese War, in which the British conquered Arakan and the southern province of Tenasserim, by just one year.
The government ostensibly enacted the new citizenship rules to protect the national races from encroachment by foreigners, particularly Chinese and Indians. Partly the result of popular consultation, the law seems to enjoy as wide support now as it did when first written.
In 1991, the government issued the current list of national races, which has met with some controversy ever since: it arbitrarily excluded the Rohingya, subsumed some groups under others with which they have little or no linguistic relation, as is the case of many Shan “subgroups,” and subdivided others, like the Chin and the Kachin, into several smaller categories that some ethno-nationalist politicians see as an attempt to divide and rule the population. Despite these objections, few have contested the existence of such a list.
Different groups approach the taingyintha ideology in different ways. For Bamar ethno-nationalists, it founds a civilizational hierarchy that puts them at its apex, while Kachin ethno-nationalists see themselves as belonging to Kachinland first and Burma second.
Indeed, nationalist narratives vary widely among different groups. As anthropologist Laur Kiik has shown, Kachin nationalism looks forward to freeing its members from the constraints imposed by the Burmese central state. Rakhine nationalism, in contrast, hinges on recovering the glories of a largely imagined past as an independent and relatively powerful kingdom. This retrotopian project has already started taking advantage of the Rohingya ethnic cleansing by settling poor farmers in the previously Muslim-majority areas of Northern Arakan. Their stated purpose is reestablishing the “demographic balance” that purportedly existed in the region before World War II.
While the taingyintha ideology failed to provide a sense of common nationhood to Burma’s ethnic groups, it does serve as a common idiom that determines who can make political claims. According to the government, the military, and most Burmese, the Rohingya are Bengalis, illegal immigrants from what is now Bangladesh trying to invade and Islamize Arakan. Thus, they have no right to participate in Burmese politics — either in parliament or in the battlefield.
Indeed, when compared to armed organizations like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) or the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South), the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the newly established Rohingya insurgent group has met with particularly extreme repression, even by the Tatmadaw’s brutal standards. While the KIA and the SSA-South are technically illegal, and the police can arrest anyone suspected of having links to them, the state nevertheless sees them as valid participants in peace negotiations. But ARSA is beyond the pale. It’s clear that the Rohingya are not a population to be subdued, like the Kachin, but a population to expel. ##