Exclusive: ‘Both the generals and Suu Kyi sing from the same Buddhist nationalist hymn book’



By Syed Zainul Abedin Eiffel
September 14, 2017

Myanmar's army has great political, economic and strategic interests in keeping the ethnic conflict alive in Rakhine and carrying out the purge of Rohingyas from their homeland

Dr Maung Zarni, a Burmese man exiled from Myanmar, is an academic, activist, commentator and expert on his country’s politics. Currently he is a London-based scholar with the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, at the Sleuk Rith Institute.

In an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune’s Syed Zainul Abedin, Maung says Myanmar’s army has great political, economic and strategic interests in keeping the ethnic conflict alive in Rakhine and carrying out the purge of Rohingyas from their homeland.

“My own late great-uncle was deputy chief of Rohingya district and deputy commander of all Armed Forces in Rakhine Division in 1961. That was at the time when the Burmese military embraced Rohingyas as an ethnic group in Burma (Myanmar) as full citizens. They were fighting the Rakhine secessionists at the time,” he says.

Can you tell us what is happening in Arakan and the Northern Rakhine state?

Using the pretext of fighting terrorism, Myanmar Tatmadaw (the armed forces) are engaged in the largest wave of systematic killings and destruction of a large segment of Rohingya population in an area that spans over 100 kilometres. They are using air force, navy and army units, as well as police and urban riot control special units in these attacks which have resulted in 370,000 Rohingya fleeing their villages.

Meanwhile, the Aung San Suu Kyi-led civilian government in partnership with the Armed Forces are selling this large scale scorched earth operation as national defence in the face of Rohingya “terrorist” attack which killed 12 police officers and soldiers. This official narrative is patently false: Myanmar is not fighting terrorism, it is speeding up what its Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing reportedly told the rank and file members of the Tatmadaw as pursuing “the unfinished business” of the World War II (1942) during which local Rakhines and Rohingya Muslims fought one another.

Rohingya villages and towns can be described accurately as “vast open prisons” and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s attacks against Burmese border guard posts in Oct 2016 and Aug 2017, resemble the Nazi victims’ uprising at Auschwitz in Oct 1944, more than a properly organised and properly armed “insurgency”. In October 1944, the Jewish inmates killed 4 SS officers in one barrack at the concentration camp called Birkenau and the SS responded by killing about 500 Jewish and Polish prisoners and blowing up the entire barrack. Similar waves of large scale terror campaign by the Burmese military were launched in February – June 1978 and 1991-92, expelling upwards of 260,000 in each wave.

Why is the Rohingya community being targeted by the Myanmar government?

The Burmese military took an anti-Muslim turn when Ne Win came to power in a coup in 1962. The generals have purged the entire armed forces of all Muslim officers in the last 50 years, painted the Rohingyas as having cross-border cultural, linguistic and historical ties to the populous Muslim nation of the then East Pakistan, and framed this as a threat to national security, as early as the mid-1960s. There are other bi-national communities along the Sino-Burmese, Indo-Burmese, Thai-Burmese borders such as Kachin, Chin, Shan, Karen, Kokant, Mon etc, as well as Buddhist Rakhine (with ties to Chittagong). But none of these communities are Muslims, only the Rohingyas are. So despite the Rohingyas’ historical presence in Rakhine or Arakan dating back to pre-British colonial days, the military hatched an institutionalised policy of cleansing Western Burma (Myanmar) of Rohingyas, the largest Muslim pocket in the country, numbering over 1 million. Myanmar is engaged in the destruction of the Rohingya using national laws tailored to exclude, disenfranchise and strip them of any basic rights, using the armed forces and police, educational and cultural institutions to demonise and de-humanise them, and physically debilitate them through denial of proper food, access to food systems (such as farms, rivers, creeks), control of their birth rate through marriage restrictions, denial of access to preventive and emergency medicine as well as restriction of freedom of movement. There are other Muslims throughout Burma (Myanmar) but only the Rohingyas have their own geographic pocket – North Arakan – which was officially recognised in the 1950s and early 1960s as the predominantly official Rohingya district.

Would you call the persecution being carried out by Myanmar Army on Rohingyas genocide?

Yes, absolutely. As Professor Amartya Sen put it – this is “institutionalised killing” by the state of Myanmar. He based that on the three-year research work done by me and my researcher colleague in London “The Slow Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya”. Myanmar can be proven to be engaged in the fully fledged crime of genocide, in terms of both the Genocide Convention of 1948 and as defined more broadly sociologically by the original framer of genocide the late Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin. Out of the five acts of genocide in the legal Geneva Convention, Myanmar is guilty of four, except for the last crime which is transferring victim children to a different group to change the character of the population singled out for extermination. Myanmar does not even bother transferring children alive for adoption: the troops and the Rakhine burn and kill infants and children, according to eyewitness survivors.

Could you please speak about the communal divide in Myanmar?

Burma (Myanmar) is a multi-ethnic country of about one or two dozen distinct ethnic communities. The official list of 135 national races, from which Rohingyas are excluded, is really a fiction. But in this multi-ethnic web of people with different faiths, there have been many divisions, prejudices and ethno-racism. The military employs the international, colonial ‘divide and rule’ principle that the British used. So in Arakan or Rakhine state, Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists have been divided and there has been mutual distrust and hostilities since WWII. But that is not unique to Rakhine. Many other divisions and past armed conflicts between the majority Buddhist Bama and Karens with 20% Christian population, or Bama and predominantly Buddhist Shan, or Bama and predominantly Christian Kachins and Chins are to be found. Virtually every non-Bama minority group attempted to seek independence from the Bama-controlled Union of Burma since independence – at various points in history. Rohingyas and the Rakhine had their own armed secessionist movements as well.

But other communal tensions and past histories of bloodbath are no longer stoked by the Burmese military. But it has systematically made sure that Rakhine and Rohingya do not seek or achieve communal reconciliation like the rest. One major reason is Rakhine nationalists still maintain the dream of restoring their sovereignty which they lost to the colonising Bama from the central Burma in 1785. The military has pitted the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists, who have long shared Arakan as their common birthplace, in order to maintain its colonial domination over Rakhine and focus on extracting valuable resources and control the strategic coast line.

Yes, there are communal aspects to Rakhine and Rohingya conflict. But it is the Burmese central Armed Forces which is the primary player keeping this conflict alive and calibrating it to its strategic goals of the control of Rakhine state economically, strategically, politically and militarily.
Does the minority and majority issue play a role in this situation?

For the non-Rohingya minorities, they have been brainwashed through a systematic campaign of misinformation about the Rohingya to think of the latter as “illegal Bengali migrants”, although many Rohingyas have been in western Burma decades before the British colonial rule, which began in 1824 – and others have put their root down in Rakhine after the British arrived and started the industrial rice economy in the fertile soil of western Burma. These minorities and the Bama majority are brainwashed to think that only they are the true indigenous peoples of Burma, despite the fact that they too migrated to Burma during pre-colonial times in various waves of migration from Southern China, Tibet, Indian subcontinent, etc. So this thinking that “we are hosts and indigenous and Rohingyas, Muslims, Christians etc are guests who live in our country at our pleasure” fuels deep racism towards Rohingyas and to a lesser extent, Chinese and Christians. But China is too powerful for the military to try to stoke anti-Chinese racism. So, the military diverts public discontent and frustration over hardships of life under failed military leaders towards the Rohingya – making them a scapegoat.

How is geopolitics playing a role in this?

The Rakhine state, especially North Rakhine of predominantly Rohingya population, is rich in natural resources – off-shore natural gas, fertile agricultural land, untapped titanium, rare earth materials, aluminum, natural deep sea harbours for deep sea port, and land for tax-free Special Economic Zone. The coast line is strategic for China, which wants to have an alternative to the narrow Straits of Mallaca near Singapore, for fear of future conflicts with US and US allies. Rakhine is that alternative. Because it is important to China, it becomes important to players with anti-Chinese strategic visions namely, US, India, Japan, South Korea – all allies and friends.

Just last week Myanmar announced that today’s killing fields of North Rakhine will be turned into a vast Special Economic Zone near the Bangladeshi borders.

How would you explain the situation in light of the emergent democracy in Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance on the military crackdown?

Aung San Suu Kyi is a well-documented and widely reported anti-Muslim racist and a Buddhist nationalist. She is utterly misinformed about the Rohingya situation – their identity, history, politics in Burma (Myanmar) – by her ex-military senior colleagues and Rakhine supporters. The army has cleansed its ranks of any Muslims, and she has cleansed the NLD party of all Muslims.

Both the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi sing from the same Buddhist nationalist hymn book and their vision of Burma (Myanmar) does not have much space for Muslims – and no space for Rohingyas. Her stance is nothing less than 100% genocidal if you take Lemkin’s original conception of a genocide as “destruction of the group starting with the erasure or denial of the group’s identity”. The generals view Western Burma (Myanmar) as originally Muslim-free region and part of kingdom of Burma – despite all evidence to the contrary that Rakhine was a rich, cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-faith kingdom. So out of this historical misconception and revisionist history, the generals want to make Rakhine a Muslim-free region.

What does Myanmar stand to gain from all this – in terms of economy and politics – in the future?

The army is regaining popularity even among Buddhist monks who were historical threats to the army’s rule as evident in the Saffron Revolt of 2007. The army is making the traditionally hostile Rakhine nationalists who are anti-Burmese and pro-independence dependent on the army for their safety now. And it has derailed Suu Kyi’s majoritarian democratic transition. Economically, the army has the lion’s share of all commercial and development projects in Rakhine.

But the major losers are the peoples of Burma (Myanmar) at large. The society is now moving into the terrorism-obsessed mental space. The public will continue to be reliant on the army and the army’s whims because it is afraid of “jihad”. The military and Suu Kyi are unable to find a Big Tent vision for every ethnic group in Burma (Myanmar). They will continue to work together in the wrong policy framework of preempting “terrorism” from Muslims at large inside Burma (Myanmar) and the Rohingyas. That will become self-fulfilling as their anti-Muslim racist policies and the genocidal violence against Rohingyas has stoked deep rage within 1.7 billion Muslims around the world.

Ultimately, Burma (Myanmar) is going to become a site of major conflicts and terrorism.

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