Asian Civilizations? That would be a good idea

Published by Prothom Alo on December 6, 2017

“What do you think of Western Civilization?” Mahatma Gandhi was asked. Gandhiji famously responded with a memorable quip, “That would be a good idea,” implying that the ‘western civilization’ of European colonisers had been anything but civil and civilized in its conduct vis-à-vis the vast non-western world.

History is not without its ironies. Were Gandhi alive today, I am unsure if the great man would still feel a (concealed) sense of civilizational superiority of us, ‘the Asians’, and our Asian civilizations, vis-à-vis the White Man and his civilization.

In the intersection of what we call South East Asia and the South Asian subcontinent, Myanmar is committing crimes of barbarity against the entire ethnic group of Rohingyas, or whatever be their legal name, crimes against humanity or genocide, or, journalistically, ‘ethnic cleansing’.

With no exception, not a single head of state from either political cluster, namely the Association of South East Asia Nations and the South Asian bloc, is concerned enough to visit the killing fields of Northern Arakan or the Rakhine State of Western Myanmar, or make any serious effort to end my country’s Buddhist genocide - note the absence of quotation marks here. 

The two respective leaders of the two affected Asian nations, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, have each paid a visit to the places where hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas (and in the case of Suu Kyi, other non-Rohingya communities) are sheltered after having been displaced by Myanmar’s scorched earth military campaign of terror, rape and arson, now in its third month.

Though not known for her human rights credentials, Hasina, a former Bengali refugee herself, was visibly moved by the cries and tales of a handful of the Rohingya survivors of Myanmar’s genocidal terror while Myanmar’s Nobel Peace prize winning politician showed no such empathy or acknowledgement of her country’s international crimes. As a matter of fact, flanked by a group of well-known Myanmar cronies and generals, Suu Kyi looked as if she were on a family picnic while telling a small group of Rohingyas “don’t quarrel” (with your Buddhist neighbours). The Oxford-educated iconic dissident, once misplaced in the league of Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi, demonstrated neither visible compassion for the Rohingya victims nor signs of an intellect to comprehend that genocides are systematically pre-planned and state-directed, not a conflict between quarrelsome neighbours who indulge themselves in sectarian or communal violence.

To the world’s dismay, Myanmar’s former world icon of non-violence, Buddhist compassion and freedom, has beyond any reasonable doubt revealed herself as yet another dynastic, but run-of-the-mill politician for whom there is no red line that she is un-prepared to cross in pursuit of her personal ambitions, however those ambitions are couched.

On their part, the Asian politicians with less shine who head ASEAN and South Asian states - from the chopstick civilizations of Japan, South Korea and China to those Indianized states in the region - show no more genuine concern about the plight of Rohingya survivors and victims, than Ms Suu Kyi.

Forget the absence of serious concern about what my research colleague Alice Cowley and I call “the slow burning genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingyas”, that is, Myanmar’s state persecution of Rohingyas as a scapegoat Muslim population through various genocidal technologies, including imposing physical conditions on the target designed to bring about the group’s destruction, in whole or in part. Against this backdrop of a well-documented genocide in slow motion, these Asian heads of state prove incapable of forging a moral consensus that would view Myanmar’s Buddhist genocide, or ‘ethnic cleansing’, if you prefer, as a civilizational redline.

It is not that Asian civilizations and politicians are unfamiliar with such acts of barbarity. 

As a matter of fact, from the Fast East to South Asia, and anything in-between, are ignoble sites of several major genocides, irrespective of whether UN has declared them as such. Examples abound. Japan and its fascist war crimes of which “the rape of Nanking” is the most infamous, Indonesia and its Cold War-era ‘anti-Communist’ pogroms against ethnic Chinese in the early 1960’s, Pakistan and its unsuccessful war of pacification against the Bengali-speaking majority in 1971, communist Khmer Rouge’s genocide which wiped out one-third of the population in less than four years and Sri Lanka and its war crimes and genocide against the Eelam Tamil population.

Myanmar is only the last in a long series of cases where wholescale societies and regimes engage in the most heinous of all crimes - wars, genocides, crimes of barbarity. In so doing, they all lose their moral compass, humanity and compassion for those most vulnerable communities at home, who have falsely been conceived as a threat to the majoritarian political systems and the way of their faith-based dominant societies, be the victims Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, or Hindu.

Rabindranath Tagore was one of the few among us who succeeded in freeing himself from the shackles of the delusions of Asian civilizational grandeur, which many an Asian wear. Many of our fellow Asians imagine, no doubt, the continent’s glorious past during which what we call today Asia, was a major home for science, philosophy, religious paradigms and elaborate cultures. Asia indeed produced Gautam Buddha, Confucius, paper, gunpowder, and so on.

Still, the continent’s most celebrated thinker-poet Rabindranath, stripped bare the essence of civilizations, Asian or otherwise, when he most truthfully penned that “civilizations are built on human corpses”. Indeed corpses by the millions.

Today, in their earnest pursuit of India’s ‘Look East’ or China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’, the giants among Asian civilizations, with the combined population of three billion, are more than prepared to build the prosperity of the elites at the expense of one million-plus Rohingyas. 

On her part, Myanmar’s Suu Kyi, through her twisted utilitarian logic of promoting the majoritarian well-being, is evidently prepared to sacrifice the lives, land and property of helpless Rohingyas who now constitute the world’s largest population of stateless people.

As a Burmese with deep roots to this world of Asian civilizations, I ask myself, “What do I think of Asian civilizations?” Well, that would be a good idea. 

Maung Zarni is a Burmese human rights activist, an adviser to the European Centre for the Study of Extremism based in Cambridge, UK and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Sleuk Rith Institute in Cambodia. He blogs at


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