Delphine Schrank is a contributing editor to the Virginia Quarterly Review and a co-founder of DECA Stories, a pioneering writers’ cooperative for deeply reported, global journalism. She was The Washington Post’s correspondent in Myanmar and is the recent author of The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance (Nation Books, 2015), a narrative, nonfiction account about dissidents in Myanmar and their multi-generational fight for democracy.
She recently spoke with The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran about the future of democracy and human rights in Myanmar ahead of upcoming historic elections expected this November. An edited version of that interview follows.
Prashanta asked: The Rohingya migrant crisis has made the headlines the world over this year and focused global attention on a heavily persecuted group. How should we think about the Rohingya issue within Myanmar’s struggle towards democracy and freedom?
Delphine replied: "Since the violence escalated in 2012, the government has seemed either unable or unwilling to prevent attacks on the Rohingya, who are concentrated in eastern Arakan state. People have been quick to point out that security forces have no trouble cracking down on activists who are protesting for land or education rights, but meanwhile those same forces have done next to nothing to contain the ultra-nationalist movement that invokes the name of Buddhism and the Buddhist character of the country to spew invective and fan longstanding anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment, despite the fact that those populations have lived for generations in the country. Why there is such visceral hatred of the Rohingya – and official refusal to acknowledge their rights as citizens or their historical presence – remains a mystery in a country that recognizes 135 other ethnic groups.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized heavily, particularly outside the country, for not coming out explicitly to denounce persecution of the Rohingya, and the NLD has likewise been muted. And that seems indefensible – they are the best placed voices to stand up forcefully for the lofty goals and expansive rights that they’ve been fighting for – and those were never intended for exclusive enjoyment by the country’s Buddhist majority. So I think there’s a real challenge here that’s symptomatic of a country in which the question of national identity has always been fraught, complex and unresolved. But also it’s important to remember that the NLD and the democracy movement have yet to fully achieve their goals. Burma isn’t yet a democracy. The country is still run under a military-dominated system. There’s still a very delicate line to tread for the NLD and other pro-democracy forces—and they are well aware of this. The creativity I wrote of above, that’s in part a necessity because they still can’t always be direct—they have to be devious. History has shown them that head-on confrontation against the military can result in genuine setbacks."