I went to prison for Burma’s freedom. Now I fear the West is threatening that freedom

Rohingya Muslim refugees arrive in Bangladesh from Myanmar (Getty)

The ongoing stories from Myanmar – of Rohingya Muslims fleeing military violence, of women being raped and whole villages being razed to the ground – are grievous. But the response of Western governments, NGOs and the media is surely misguided. Having spent over a year imprisoned in Burma for protesting against the military’s human rights abuses, I am no apologist for them. But I fear Burma’s self-determination is coming under threat.

The UN, supported by mainstream Western opinion, is relentlessly insisting that Burma grant rights of citizenship to hundreds of thousands of these Rohingya. A UN panel led by Kofi Annan has called for a change in the law to allow citizenship rights to be granted; so have pressure groups in Myanmar and abroad. From talking to lobbyists in London and Washington DC, I know there is broad sympathy with this proposal.

Indisputably there is an urgent duty to defend the universal rights of those suffering gruesome injustices and violence. But the people of Burma, together with the military and national representatives of the NLD, oppose granting the Rohingya citizenship. They do not want another million Muslims nationalised within their borders. Instead, they argue, Bangladesh should be helped to receive more of a population which is historically its own.

And the Burmese are right. Their nation is overwhelmingly Buddhist: that’s a simple fact. Burma’s historical identity has nothing to do with Islam. If that is to change, it has to be through free choices from within, not by foreign manipulation.

Catholic teaching does not oblige every nation to grant citizenship to every person within its borders. Moses and St Thomas Aquinas, attentive to God (Ex 22:21; Lev 19:34; Dt 1:16), are agreed that while a nation should offer hospitality to sojourners, refuge to the needy, security and even work to immigrants in as far as it can, even so, the award of citizenship depends upon an assimilation of culture (Ex 12:43-49).

Aristotle taught that it took two or three generations for immigrants to become assimilated (assuming they wished to). St Thomas, arguing from Revelation as well as reason, added that there are some peoples who, by reason of hostility to the culture, can never become citizens (S.Th., I-II, q.105, a.3). These views may be uncongenial to modern man, but are we wiser or more charitable than Moses and St Thomas?

In the outside world’s push for Rohingya citizenship, there is an echo of past mistakes. In the nineteenth century, the British Empire pursued a horribly effective strategy of divide-and-rule in the Sub-Continent. As part of this, we forced Burma to accept a wave of Indian Muslims. Today, the world is trying to impose a much bigger influx – one which threatens Myanmar’s identity. We outsiders are so self-righteous in lauding the benefits of multiculturalism – and so much in denial over its problems – that we have lost sight of Myanmar’s sovereign right to self-determination. De-colonisation was supposed to allow Burma its independence; instead, we seem determined to coerce the Burmese to follow our blind ideology.

This conflict in Burma did not start yesterday. It is not easy to end community tensions which are historically rooted, and connected with religious and cultural differences as well as ethnic ones. We cannot solve these problems by forcing the Burmese to accept vast numbers of new citizens; we may only store up more ruinous problems for the future.

Those of us who joined Burma’s struggle for freedom in the 1990s have more reason now to ask: Did the world support Burma’s pro-democracy movement only with a long-term vested interest, to make them like us? Did we not want her to be free to find her own way, to be herself, even if that were radically different to us, with different values? Yet now we are relentlessly pressuring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to choose between Burma and the outside world – an impossible demand.

The lack of legal protection for the Rohingya is a failure. And while a solution is sought, obviously they should be allowed to live in peace with the full protection of the law. But those who aggressively advocate citizenship rights for the Rohingya in Burma show they have absorbed the West’s prejudices far too easily, and have understood Burma not at all.