Page 2 of 2 Military roots of racism in Myanmar
By Maung Zarni
"We have had different faiths in our land since the founding days of the last Dynasty, Konbaung (1754-1885). We have spirit-worshippers. We have Catholics. We have proselytized Christians among the frontier ethnic peoples. Despite these religious and ethnic differences, they are all our people. It is not just the Buddhist Bama but these multi-faith and multi-ethnic communities contributed to the struggle against the British colonial rule ... If we pursue this bigoted path [of making Buddhism the state religion] that will surely lead to the disintegration of our tiny country."
Yet in Myanmar's current system of governance, only avowed racists are rewarded, promoted and appointed to top positions. Several years ago, the former consul general at the Myanmar
Consulate General in Hong Kong, ex-Major Ye Myint Aung, officially informed in writing members of foreign diplomatic missions that the Rohingya, whom he described as "ogres", were never a part Myanmar's fair-skinned Mongoloid peoples.
The country's leaders later promoted him to the post of full ambassador and dispatched him to Geneva, where he now defends Myanmar's abysmal human-rights record at the UN Human Rights Council.
In light of Ne Win's inaugural racist speech on the 1982 Citizenship Act, U Ohn Gyaw, Myanmar's then minister of foreign affairs, reacted in 1994 to the international community's concern about an exodus of 230,000 Rohingya that his government was forcibly driving out of the country: "It is a rubbish thing that people have left Myanmar. These people who are in the refugee camps in Bangladesh are perhaps from Dhaka, but not one single person has left Burma."
That has remained Myanmar's official line, or lie, that has been repeated internationally by the country's leaders, including as recently as July 2013. Consistent with the racist 1982 Citizenship Act, president and Nobel Peace Prize short-list candidate ex-General Thein Sein reiterated Myanmar's official racist view of ethnic groups as "aliens" and "impure bloods" during a speech at Chatham House in the United Kingdom.
After delivering the beautifully written speech, designed to further push the liberal buttons on behalf of Naypyidaw's Western supporters in Whitehall and the White House, Thein Sein proceeded to commit yet another official act of Rohingya ethnocide, an act of erasure that the religious-ethnic community ever existed in spite of the mountains of official evidence to the contrary.
The present neo-Nazi campaign conducted with virtual state impunity has ignited the fires of violent racism towards the country's Muslim minorities - of all "ethnic bloods", to borrow the racist generals' lingo. Official racism and its supporting 1982 Citizenship Act have become the main sources of "Buddhist" terror - as opposed to the provider of "peace of mind" for those with "impure bloods" and foreign origins.
Societal racism and religious prejudice, of course, is not exclusive to the Burmese or Buddhists. However, what has become unique in Myanmar's ugly and violent racist attacks on Muslim minorities and the official ethnic cleansing of Rohingya is the extremely dangerous interface between religious-ethnic prejudices and the state's institutionalized racist policies.
In advanced liberal democracies such as the Netherlands, Germany, and United Kingdom, among others, there are also neo-Nazi parties that disseminate their racist rhetoric through freedoms of speech, press and association. But their racism is no longer popularly acceptable or a popular political platform on which to win state power or keep a ruling party in office. In fact, in liberal democracies, neo-Nazi and extremist racist parties and figures are a tiny minority often confronted by the anti-racist majority.
This is not the case in Myanmar. The majority ethnic Bama and Buddhists, including the entire pro-human rights opposition leadership of the National League for Democracy, specifically Aung San Suu Kyi, has been largely silent on the rising "Buddhist" racism. The silence of the majority has been devastating for the Muslims in general and the Rohingya in particular.
The racist military leadership and its state organs have found anti-Islam racism a convenient diversion from its key strategic pursuits, including regime survival, political and economic primacy, refusal to address legitimate ethnic grievances, and fear of popular reprisal under a genuinely representative government. Myanmar's Muslims including the Rohingya are sitting ducks in this power play, with no credible international protectors, near or far.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference, or OIC, is no China. That is, unlike Beijing, it has very little leverage with Myanmar's racist ruling generals and ex-generals. Iran is too preoccupied with its own problems at home and in the region. India, which intervened in and effectively ended the genocide of the Bangladeshi Hindu in the civil war of 1971 by West Pakistani military and militants, has a radically different policy priority in Myanmar, namely natural resource grabs for Indian commercial interests and curbing Chinese influence.
It is, in the final instance, not the down-trodden society which has long been accustomed to economic and political uncertainties which is the primary culprit behind the rise of neo-Nazi "Buddhist" mass violence. Rather it is Naypyidaw's play on widespread uncertainties and insecurities and the racist state which generals and ex-general are presiding over that best explains the regime's documented involvement in whipping up ultra-nationalism among the country's "Buddhist" masses.
For a regime that has opted to play the politics of liberalizing the economy while attempting to keep the political and institutional lid on its long-oppressed society, scapegoating Muslims and the Rohingya for the country's ills and the popular frustrations is far more strategically appealing and convenient than focusing on genuine democratization, ethnic reconciliation or the economic hardship of the bulk of the country's 50 to 60 million Buddhist and non-Buddhist citizens. No former military regime with mountains of skeletons in its closet and scattered on the streets will genuinely embrace democratic transition.
The romanticizing of Buddhists as naturally and philosophically peace-loving people has complicated the international community's understanding of neo-Nazi "Buddhist" violence and Rohingya ethnic cleansing. Historically and empirically, Buddhists all over the world are as capable of pursuing home-grown ''final solutions'' to annihilate human communities that they have demonized and de-humanized as ''viruses'', ''animals'' or ''sub-humans''.
No amount of debate or discussion about canonical Buddhism or historical examination of ''Buddhist'' violence or warfare will shed meaningful light on the recent mass violence committed against Myanmar's Muslims. Whatever the texts or claims of what the Buddha taught or said are of secondary importance. Rather, the political economy, history and social foundations of Myanmar's racist and violent contemporary society, influenced by Buddhist manifestations of temples, pagodas, monasteries, monks and rituals, is more relevant.
Likewise, no analysis of the recent violence can be credible or accurate unless it examines through the prism of the dialectical interface between Myanmar's underlying racist society and the officially bigoted state that has mid-wived the birth of neo-Nazism with a "Buddhist" face. Thus, any attempt to address this two-fold problem must factor in both the military leadership and its unashamedly racist military-state and an unconscious society that talks the talk of Buddhism but fails to walk the philosophical walk.
Maung Zarni (www.maungzarni.com) is Associate Fellow with the University of Malaya Centre of Democracy and Elections and concurrently a Visiting Fellow at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, London School of Economics. He tweets @drzarni.
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