Burma’s ‘Niggers’

President Thein Sein, what really is your analysis of the plight of Burma’s “Bengali Kulars” (or the Burmese equivalent of “niggers”)?

Things are changing in Burma, at least the way the generals and ex-generals manage international perception. And the new management in the country’s surreal capital Naypyidaw is slicker, more confident and better-advised than the old despots who put them in charge of the new “reformist” government.

Under the direct control of Than Shwe and Maung Aye, the dictator-general and his sidekick respectively, the Burmese military government was media-shy.

Whenever there was an international media crisis, the regime’s senior leadership either hit the Johnny Walker Blue Label, or watched martial arts films or Wayne Rooney of Manchester United in their underground bunkers.

The new man in charge shuns bunkers, lets the interviewers in, and happily gives his presidential interviews.

Emboldened by the West’s broad support and flanked by capable civilian advisers who know the international scene, the man western governments deem they can do business with, literally, is moving beyond the military’s usual comfort zone. President Thein Sein has given presidential interviews to the Washington Post, Channel News Asia, the Voice of America and so on, reciting spins that his British and American-educated special Burmese advisers carefully craft for him.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, providing that he is telling the truth – which he is not. In the West, politicians would be lynched by the media, if they keep making up narratives as they go along. On Burma’s issue of the month, namely the persecution of the Rohingya and the eruption of ethno-religious violence between Muslim Rohinyas and Buddhist Rakhines in Western Burma, President Thein Sein has shifted explanations to both the world and the domestic public at least 4 times in about 8 weeks.

But former 4th ranking despot is getting away with his rhetorical acrobatics, thanks in part to the international media treating him with kids’ gloves. The West’s bottom line in Thein Sein’s Burma is this: it will hug him, no matter how much blood is on his hands – (See the latest Wall Street Journal piece on US Ambassador Derek Mitchell speaking out on racism in Burma, without pointing on the link between the presidential strategies of ethno-religious manipulation and mobilization by Washington’s business partner in Naypydaw and the pervasive anti-Muslim racism of Burma).

First, it was illegal immigration and corruption issue (Let’s intern the “Bengali Muslims” with UN’s money or expel them en mass to third countries who want to take “Mus” (Burmese code word among military officers for “Muslims”.)

Then, it was international media and human rights NGOs whipping up their non-existent anti-Muslim conflicts, blowing the “sectarian conflict” between the two hostile local groups, out of proportion.

Then they told us, very few are new arrivals – not illegals, but “population explosion” is the problem among these Bengali who have been in our country for decades now and who apparently take too many wives and pump out too many babies. (The Organization of the Islamic Countries or OIC, forced Naypyidaw to change their rhetoric again!)

Of late, it was Buddhist monks, who promote anti-Muslim racism, and Rakhine, who advocate violence and segregation re: the Bengali Muslims”, that are ultimately responsible for the violence in Rakhine state (Myanmar President Blames Buddhist Monks for Violence, The Journal of Turkish Weekly, 25 Aug).

What is omitted deliberately in this evolving narrative from President’s mouth are the following crucial pieces that implicate the state and the military:

1). stripping the entire ethnic population of ancestrally Bengali people the official post-independence legal recognition of the Rohingya ethnic identity under the constitution, which they enjoyed under parliamentary democracy period of PM U Nu;

2). codification of anti-Rohingya citizenship law with the help of racist Bama and Rakhine chauvinists such as the late Dr Maung Maung (who was Ne Win’s clerk and legitimizer) and historian Dr Aye Kyaw;

3). forced migration of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas from the Rakhine state, as the direct result of the draconian “immigration” operations termed “King Snake Operation” or Nagamin launched under Ne Win’s butcher Sein Lwin in 1970s);

4). the whipping up in the State and State-controlled media outlets of the popular fear of Islamic radicalism by framing the issue of Rohingya persecution as “pre-emption of national security threat” – something “human rights defenders” such as Ko Ko Gyi of 8888 generation has conveniently bought into.

5). the Presidential staffs’ use of social media to spread the national security spin (weapons were found among the “Islamic fundamentalists” among these externally supported “Ban-ga-li Kalars”, is one standard line) and, conversely, to dress up Thein Sein and the military as the Defender of the Faith and the protector of “indigenous races”, while launching scorched earth military operations against the Kachins.

6). and last but not least, the direct involvement of the Bama and Rakhine troops which are accused of perpetrating violence against the Rohingya themselves – in one single incident they machine-gunned down at least “300 Bangali muslims”, as the troops that pulled the trigger
themselves recounted.

Without these conveniently omitted elements in the twisted presidential narrative and generally shallow media reports, the full picture isn’t going to be had.

Dr. Maung Zarni is member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, founder and director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004), and a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, Department of International Development, London School of Economics. His forthcoming book on Burma will be published by Yale University Press.

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