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Military roots of racism in Myanmar

Asia times - September 3, 2013

Maung Zarni Over the past year, Myanmar has been plagued by neo-Nazi "Buddhist" racism and organized mob violence targeting the country's minority Muslims of diverse ethnic and historical backgrounds.

At the very heart of Myanmar's Islamophobic campaign lies the state and its successive senior leaderships, which continue to operate within a concrete set of political economic relations wherein they pursue their typically sinister Machiavellian politics in defense of corporate, clique and personal agendas.

Many country experts, watchers and journalists, as well as think tanks and international students of Buddhism, have offered various explanations for the violence. For some, the blame lies in new freedoms that the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein has bestowed on the country. Others have focused on the sectarian dimensions of the conflict.

Some have identified uneven development and attendant communal disparities in wealth and income as the root cause. Of late, Buddhist textual analysts and culturalists have added another layer to the discussion of Myanmar's Islamophobia: canonical explanations looking at historical "Buddhist warfare" and textual justifications (or lack thereof) for the mass violence.

To be sure, all of the above have enriched international understanding of the sudden and deeply troubling eruptions of mass violence against Myanmar's Muslims. However, they all fail to see the elephant in the room, namely the military-controlled state which has long institutionalized racism as its guiding philosophy.

In contrast to global punditry on "Buddhist" terror, as Time magazine's cover story on the subject put it without problematizing the term "Buddhist" or putting it in quotation marks, even the relatively more astute Burmese on the street, better informed and more analytical than average, have guessed right the main culprit.

That is, the various cliques of generals and ex-generals, and their instruments of power the state and its security and propaganda apparatuses have been directly and indirectly involved first in the "othering" of Muslim communities and then in the actual mob attacks against them, including the slaughter, destruction, looting and burning of Muslim communities and their sacred mosques.

In one well-documented incident, security forces in the central town of Meikhtila and "Buddhist" mobs negotiated amicably the amount of time that would be allowed to the mobs 30 minutes, they agreed to complete their destruction of the town's 200-year-old mosque. A YouTube video file shows a group of state security officials chit-chatting over cigarettes with some of the anti-Muslim participants in the mosque's destruction while the senseless act was in progress.

According to Burmese sources from Meikhtila and Mandalay whom this author interviewed during a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur, authorities in both Mandalay, the regional administrative capital with jurisdiction over Meikhtila, and the national capital of Naypyidaw chose not to rescue a group of 20-plus madrassa students who were eventually slaughtered in broad daylight. Both regional and national authorities were informed by panic-stricken Muslim leaders hours before about the whereabouts of the students, who at the time were hiding from a weapon-wielding "Buddhist" mob.

Empirically, the state and its military leaderships are at the very least guilty of negligence. But local and global pundits commenting on the unfolding racist "Buddhist" campaign against Myanmar's Muslims have often mischaracterized the violence and racism against Muslims as simply "sectarian". The portrayal reflects a tendency to overemphasize society's role and to seek essentially cultural explanations for "Buddhist" mass violence and racism.

To be sure, there are deep-seated prejudices among Myanmar's different communities. Yes, ethno-economic nationalism has long been a pillar of Burmese nationalism throughout both historical and post-independence eras. Yes, the primitive but popular understanding of "race" and "ethnicity" as immutable and blood-based as opposed to fluid, imagined and manufactured has played a role in the recent revival of nationalist fervor. Yes, Buddhism and violence have always been an empirical paradox and historical oxymoron.

But it is really the state and its leaderships that have modulated, mobilized and facilitated multiethnic and multi-faith communities' prejudices against Myanmar's peoples of Chinese, Indian and mixed ethnic origins, as well as religious minorities.

Over the past 50 years, successive military leaders from General Ne Win to the recently retired despot Senior General Than Shwe have not only played the race and faith cards as a matter of political and military strategy, but they have also enshrined "Buddhist" racism as a key foundational pillar of what is known to many as the Golden Land of Buddhists, reference to the country's many gilded temples and gold-colored, harvest-time paddy fields.

Triggered by Thein Sein's official defense of the neo-Nazi "monk" U Wirathu, a recent special report by Reuters traced the origin of the 969 "Buddhist" racist campaign against Myanmar Muslims to the State Law and Order Restoration Council regime, the once ruling military junta presided over by the late Senior General Saw Maung.

Specifically, the Reuters' report singled out the now retired director of religious affairs in the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs as the individual who incubated and disseminated Islamophobic ideas in society at large with the blessing of Saw Maung. Meanwhile, new Burmese language analyses note the now officially retired Than Shwe, Saw Maung's successor, published an anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya tract entitled "Myanmar's Broken Western Gate", a reference to the Rakhine State which borders on predominantly Muslim Bangladesh.

Racism as law

Yet it was the late dictator Ne Win, the founder of Myanmar's modern military rule, and his Western-educated advisers, including the British and Dutch-trained lawyer and president Dr Maung Maung and the Australian-trained Rakhine historian Dr Aye Kyaw, who developed the current strain of "Buddhist" ethno-nationalism. It was informed largely by their own personal xenophobia towards Muslims, Christians, and Burmese of Indian sub-continent and mainland China origins, groups they referred to as "mixed-blood persons" or "impure breeds".

In his landmark October 8, 1982, speech to a group of his senior deputies and advisers tasked with drafting what later became known as the 1982 Citizenship Act, Ne Win spelled out his official justifications for enshrining racism in law and pursuing it as a matter of "national security". His speech sheds light on the deeply racist nature of the Act, which in the wake of the pogroms against Rohingya Muslims last year has become a focus of international concern and controversy.

As Ne Win made clear in 1982, "tayoke" (Chinese) and "kalars" (the local racist term for dark-skinned people of Indian origin or Muslims) cannot be entrusted with any important position in Myanmar's officialdom, including the bureaucracy and armed forces. As Ne Win unequivocally put it, all immigrants with foreign roots, referred to by him as "guests" and "mixed bloods", were in Myanmar due to the legacy of British colonial rule.

In the case of those who came after the first Anglo-Burmese war of 1824, in which the Burmese were defeated and had to concede to the British the coastal regions of Tenessarim and Arakhine provinces, themselves Burmese colonies snatched through victorious military conquests over rival Siamese and Arakanese kingdoms, having settled in the country for over a century was not sufficient ground to be granted full-citizenship rights.

As for those who came later but were already resident in the country before World War II, decades of permanent residency was more cause for suspicion than grounds for receiving full-citizenship, according to Ne Win's speech. "Their penchant for making money by all means and knowing this how could we trust them in our organizations that decide the destiny of our country?" the former dictator rhetorically asked.

"We will therefore not give them full citizenship and full rights. Nevertheless, we will extend them rights to a certain extent. We will give them the right to earn according to their work and live a decent life. No more." In an Orwellian gloss, Ne Win exhorted his deputies to "have sympathy on those who had been here for such a long time and give them peace of mind".

From that fateful day in 1982, successive military government leaderships have as a matter of policy purged their power base the 400,000-strong armed forces of officers of Chinese and Indian ancestry, notwithstanding a few exceptions.

Since Ne Win rose to power in a 1962 coup, the military-controlled state has pursued wave after wave of racist national initiatives for religious and cultural affairs, educational matters, and professional advancement, among other areas.

Yet one contradiction in Ne Win's policies favoring "pure bloods" and "true children of the land" is that Ne Win himself could be characterized as "non-pure" ethnic Bama, as were many of his racist deputies and ideological heirs. Many were and still are of tayoke origins. For instance, the current union minister and top government "peace negotiator" Aung Min is of ethnic Chinese descent.

The unfolding process of Myanmar's nightmarish slide towards "ethnic and religious purity" stands in sharp contrast with the multiculturalist perspective of martyred independence hero Aung San, the father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and his multiethnic and inter-faith comrades.

On the eve of the country's independence from Britain in 1947, Aung San prophetically warned against mixing Buddhism, race/ethnicity and politics in the then soon-to-be independent Burma, as the country was then known. In opposing the idea of making Buddhism the official state religion of the country, Aung San articulated a secularist, multiculturalist vision for the country's future:

"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."

Official lies

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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