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As a Mandalay-born dissident with deep roots in Buddhism, I find it revolting that thousands of Buddhist monks, human rights dissidents and the public in my hometown of Mandalay staged an anti-Rohingya rally this past weekend.
They mimicked the regime’s discourse that promotes “national security” and “national sovereignty”, while espousing an anachronistic view of blood-based citizenship as opposed to the notions of multicultural citizenship.
Where has the vociferous human rights rhetoric gone when it comes to the persecuted Rohingyas?
We listened in vain for the metronomic chants of the saffron-robed monks who defied threats and flooded the streets of Rangoon and other towns proclaiming their “loving kindness” for all sentient beings in 2007. Now the very same monks chant mantras supporting exclusive citizenship. When a mob protests against an ethnic group then, it is no longer a citizens’ protest. It is a Nazi rally.
Around the world supporters of democracy in Burma have been shocked by the “ethnic cleansing” of the Muslim Rohingyas in the impoverished settlements of western Arakan (Rakhine) state. These are the latest killing fields in a troubled land. Both perpetrators and victims tell of hundreds of Rohingyas, including women and children, being killed, raped, assaulted, detained and driven out by Burmese security forces.
In a typical self-serving reaction, President Thein Sein characterized the events in June as “communal violence.” By focusing exclusively on tensions between the Rohingyas and ethnic Arakanese Buddhists, the government is deliberately trying to conceal the role its own security forces played in the violence.
But the findings of a damning new Human Rights Watch report reveal a different picture. The language is unambiguous: “Burmese security forces committed killings, rape, and mass arrests against Rohingya Muslims after failing to protect both them and Arakan Buddhists,” states the report.
Of course, this doesn’t sit well with the Burmese regime’s new “reformist” image. Moving quickly to quell the international furore, a presidential adviser claimed that the government responded to the violence as quickly as it could. Human Rights Watch speaks of a different reality — of government restrictions on humanitarian access to the Rohingya community that have left “many of the more than 100,000 people displaced and in dire need of food, shelter, and medical care.”
To make a bad situation worse, the authorities in neighboring Bangladesh have now told international humanitarian agencies to stop providing aid to Rohingya refugees who fled Burma. It is precisely these provisions of emergency food and medicine that local Arakanese Buddhists are violently opposed to. As far as Arakanese extremists are concerned, “these animals must not be fed or allowed to exist on Burmese soil.”
While the government tries to shed its pariah status, the violence meted out to the vulnerable, stateless Rohingyas — and the populist, racist venom it has unleashed — should give pause to the rest of the world as to the true nature of the Burmese regime. Underneath the trope of “democratic reform” lie some unpalatable truths. Not content with reserved military powers in government, parliament, and national budgets and untrammelled executive control of national security, the regime has mobilized the full arsenal of a self-serving repressive junta to deny ethnic minority communities not just their rights to self-determination but also to their fundamental humanity. Fascism and militarism are the enduring handmaidens of this “new era” of politics.
So what does the ongoing violence against the Rohingyas tell us about the nature of political power and the men who still rule the country?
And, in turn, what does it herald for the prospects for real change, the rule of law, the expansion and consolidation of human rights, and the quality of public life?
There’s no denying that ethnic and political cleavages have deep roots in our turbulent history. But it is equally true that the current resurgence of racism — both official and popular — is a direct result of a half-century of despotic military rule.
The regime’s iron fist policies and its systematic rule by terror are now well enough known, even though there is already selective amnesia about the recent past. Equally important has been the careful construction of an iron cage — a monolithic constellation of values, an ethos — that locks in and naturalises a singular view of what constitutes Burma’s “national” culture. For Burmese society as a whole remains illiberal and potently ethno-nationalist.“Burma has always been multiethnic and multicultural over the course of the past millennium.”
Deeply troubling is how popular, everyday forms of racism and the state’s fascism seem to be mutually reinforcing. This serves the generals’ interest very well. They have fully grasped the atavistic fears and instincts that drive great fault lines into the heart of society and politics. The dominant Burmese worldview continues to rest on an enervating combination of pre-colonial feudalism, religious mysticism, belief in racial purity and statist militarism. This is a potent and poisonous combination.
The military rulers have effectively preyed on this ethno-religious conservatism of the public at large, most specifically in times of political and legitimation crises. And the same appears true today even as they are praised for their cautious “opening up” of the country.
A full quarter of a century since Aung San Suu Kyi called for the “revolution of the spirit,” nothing spiritually progressive has taken root in the popular Burmese psyche. Sadly, this is the case even among many of the country’s noble dissidents. Burmese human rights defenders who spent half their lives in military jails, mantra-reciting Buddhist monks and the Burmese Buddhist diaspora all sing from the same song sheet on issues of race and minority rights.
Ironically, ethno-religious mobilization offers the military junta and its allies the chance to refashion themselves as the “defenders of the faith” and “protectors of Buddhist communities”— at least in the eyes of most Buddhists.
Never mind that these ex-generals were part of the very ruling clique who, during the saffron revolt, slaughtered hundreds of Buddhist monks and raided thousands of monasteries across the country in military-style operations only five years ago. Ethnic minorities continue to be the age-old enemy within. As always the justification for their repression is couched in the jailer’s language of ethno-cultural chauvinism and national security.
Of course, Buddhist privilege and embedded ethnic chauvinism bears little semblance to the country’s historical reality. Like most modern nation states, Burma has always been multiethnic and multicultural over the course of the past millennium.
Lying along trade routes between the great Indian and Chinese civilizations, the country has attracted a steady flow of settlers throughout its history. Even our predominant belief system, Buddhism, was a settler religion, which arrived on our soil centuries ago. Our pre-colonial feudal courts, farming communities, merchant classes, cultural teachers and scholars have always come from many different cultural and ethnic groups, both indigenous and foreign.
There are pockets of Burmese citizens, of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds, who fully appreciate our cultural, religious and ethnic diversity and consider it a great strength. But the voices — both inside Burma and in the diaspora — calling for genuine ethnic peace and reconciliation are currently being drowned out by the loud chorus of ethnic fanaticism.
It is no surprise, of course, that this reactionary refrain is constantly articulated in state media and the presidential office in Naypyidaw. But it is equally pervasive in the Burmese and English language social media where the language of hatred has even fewer constraints.
These are troubling times. Despite the rush to embrace the “reform” process and the optimism surrounding a “new era” of politics, the deepening of sectarian strife is a very real possibility. The drumbeat of everyday forms of populist racism and the state’s carefully calibrated ideology of closeted fascism is becoming louder and louder. The direction in which the country is currently heading remains both uncertain and disquieting.
The time is opportune for progressive voices to speak out. Beyond the unequivocal denunciation of all forms of racism, chauvinism and violence that targets Burma’s minorities, far-reaching solutions are urgently needed. In part, this will entail the creation of civic educational initiatives that will help people unlearn their default acceptance of all forms of racism. Beyond this, peace and reconciliation talks with all ethnic minority groups must be put in motion. These must tackle longstanding grievances such as the crushing of legitimate claims to political autonomy, the territorial distribution of power, and people-centered socioeconomic development.
In other words, there is a need for developing a new “big tent” model of democratic politics —beyond the understandable focus on institutional and electoral reform — in order to create a genuinely multicultural democracy.
Burmese people have survived several historical periods of oppression and depredation. Burmese society will outlive the half-century of tin pot dictatorship. We need not fear national disintegration as the result of cultural and ethnic diversity. The only thing we, as citizens, ought to fear is presence of racism and intolerance in our society, deliberately modulated and whipped up by an unreformable state. Only a society that reimagines itself as an inclusive, multicultural democracy—in which diversity is celebrated as a strength — can escape the iron cage of oppression.
- Dr Maung Zarni is one of the veteran founders of the Free Burma Coalition and a Visiting Fellow (2011-13) with Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics