Activist, racial angst in Myanmar
By William Barnes
June 13, 2014
The late political scientist Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" thesis has sometimes been dismissed by critics as mistaken and inaccurate. But in today's Myanmar, many proud pro-democracy activists are convinced that cultures do indeed clash and can be inherently incompatible when forced to co-exist.
Specifically, many of them reject the notion that the alleged rising persecution of Muslims in Myanmar is symptomatic of a mindless suspicion or misunderstanding on the part of the Buddhist majority. Privately they say the friction signals a deep and justified anxiety over an encroaching alien culture.
"We are a paranoid people, it is true ... but our history tells us we are not entirely wrong to be suspicious of outsiders," said one bright, Western-educated democracy activist.
Around 10 educated, worldly and, by their lights, decidedly modern ethnic Burmese, most of whom have recently returned to Myanmar after living in exile during the era of direct military rule, were asked by this reporter privately and informally at various times over the past two years about their country's Muslim issue.
All requested anonymity because their replies to such queries typically contradicted with their otherwise liberal public personae and, in some cases, might upset their sponsors or employers.
"Islam is a danger - we would have to be fools to deny it. It destroyed Buddhism [in the Indian subcontinent] and even today it is a heavy weight on India ... Ultimately Islam is never moderate - it is non-negotiable. It is anti-reason," said an American-educated Burmese scholar and budding political operator.
That such an urbane group might harbor such thoughts suggests that there is no easy solution to bubbling religious tensions, at least as long as the majority Buddhist population feels uncertain about the future shape of the country. It has become a bitter cliche of post-authoritarian politics that the lifting of iron-fisted rule releases ancient hatreds.
Historically protected by a horseshoe of malarial mountains and marked by a profound sense of its own uniqueness, Myanmar is attempting to finesse an understanding with its variegated ethnic minorities who make up roughly a third of the population.
Unlike the Muslims, who were counted to be 4% of the population in 1982, significant minorities claim patrimonies outside the ethnic Burmese central heartland. Some form of hard or soft federalism seems possible - especially as the 1982 census reported 90% of the population to be reassuringly Buddhist for all its ethnic diversity.
Muslims are visibly different, allegedly unfriendly and self-isolating, have bigger families and are reputed to poach women who are then lost to the Buddhist majority. The Yale academic Amy Chua has warned that successful minorities are often hated; in Myanmar many Muslims own shops and are economically well-off.
Feeding into this chauvinism is the Islamic "basket case" of neighboring Bangladesh, whose hard-pressed people allegedly eye their Myanmar neighbor's lush open spaces. Fantastically crowded, chronically flood-prone and politically troubled Bangladesh crams more than 1,100 citizens on an average square kilometer compared to Myanmar's more comfortable 80 people. Bangladesh has approximately three times the population but only a fifth of the land area of Myanmar.
Twisting the knife into the Burmese nationalist psyche are the perhaps 1 million Rohingyas - the "Bengalis" as they are often called - in western Rakhine State who are popularly regarded as having sneaked across the border whenever the "original" Rakhine population, who speak a dialect of Burmese, was reduced by interference from historically the Burmese, British or Japanese.
As Huntington pointed out two decades ago, people in the throes of rediscovering their identity often find enemies to unite against. He also noted how religion can expand to fill the holes that modernization might tear in a nation state.
"We can feel a bit sorry for the Bengalis [Rohingya] scraping a living. But then I think why should I care when they are taught to hate people like me? When they have more kids than they can support? And their cousins are trying to drive every infidel out of Bangladesh?" said a politically active professional working in Myanmar's former capital of Yangon.
Huntington famously argued: "Islam has bloody borders." In "Clash of Civilizations" terms, the ethnic Burmese see Muslims in general and the poorer Rohingya in particular as the leading edge of a rival civilization.
None of the interviewees claimed intimate knowledge of the private thoughts of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi or indeed of the still-powerful generals. They were confident, however, that in the minds of the elite, Islam was an unwanted and unbidden complication.
This might help to explain why the Nobel peace prize winning democracy heroine Suu Kyi has notably failed to embrace the notion of Muslim "victimhood" in her homeland. It also shines light on prominent pro-democracy activist and former political prisoner Ko Ko Gyi's proclamation that the Rohingya should not be considered an ethnic nationality of Myanmar.
One former student activist who recently returned from exile said: "We don't know what will happen in the future, but we want it to be our future. If we make mistakes they must be our mistakes ... We have been held together by Buddhism - and we want it to stay that way."
The preliminary results from a 2014 census should be published this summer. Some experts fear a sharp reaction if the new census shows a jump in Muslim numbers.
None of the interviewees supported extreme measures, and several claimed to admire Muslims as individuals. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a consensus that the future belonged to those people with a streak of necessary cruelty.
"The reality is that if you are a soft touch you get f*cked. Bhutan is supposed to be a Shangri La of love and happiness, but even they booted minorities when it got too much," said one former activist who now refers to himself as a social critic.
The sources were united in fearing the current unwinding of half a century of military rule will leave the country vulnerable to opportunists. "We need at least a couple of decades, perhaps longer, to build up our strength. This is not the time to give away tickets at the door," said one would-be publisher and former exile in Thailand.
There was frustration over the international portrayal of Myanmar as being irrational and primitive in its fear of being swamped by Muslims (or others) when even reputedly multicultural India has built a formidable fence and moat around Bangladesh to deter migrants.
The "beautifully crafted hard-luck stories" of Rohingya attempting to gain admittance to third countries also struck some observers as rehearsed, canned and coordinated, quite possibly be Islamic outsiders.
A nagging worry is the collapse of the Buddhist birth rate in Myanmar in recent decades to scant replacement levels, whilst the Muslim birth rate, particularly in Rakhine state, has remained robust.
"When I look through the window of a madrassa and see men using little whips on tiny children chanting the Koran I worry abut the future of my country. My pleasant land," said one returnee associated with the political opposition.
The former professor of politics at London University and a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Robert Taylor said he was "not surprised at all" that urbane Burmese might talk of a clash with Islam.
"There is a long history of dislike ... It is the separatism that really irritates people. There is a perception that Muslims try to foist their religion on others. The treatment of women also doesn't go well."
The idea that Buddhism needs defending has recurred throughout Myanmar's modern history. In 1938, for example, 181 people were killed in riots in Yangon when a Muslim published rude remarks about Buddhism.
Taylor said the British scrapping of the monarchy in the 19th century deprived Buddhism of its traditional protector, leaving ordinary Burmese feeling they must step up to do the job themselves, a sense of duty that arguably ramped sectarian tensions.
The Rohingya issue is tricky because, in truth, even the chauvinists are right in saying that at various times many Bengalis have lived illegally in Myanmar - and not always quietly, Taylor said. Sixty years ago, the Mujahid movement tried to prise away enough border land to create a Muslim state. Today, shadowy jihadists claim to be plotting revenge against Buddhists.
The Bangladeshi ambassador to Yangon told his British counterpart in 1975 there were half a million Bengali trespassers in the border state. A decade earlier, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then the foreign minister of Pakistan, had said Rakhine state's 400,000 Muslims might have been there for generations but were "patently of Pakistani [ie Bengali] origin", with illegals mingled among them.
Taylor sees no easy end to the sectarian friction, especially when the Muslims themselves appear, in their turn, to be becoming more religious. Many of the returned Burmese intellectuals have spent time in Western cities that have experienced rapid increases in Muslim numbers. They have also noticed the increased clearing of Christians across the Middle East.
"We don't want to make the same mistakes. Numbers matter. Most Muslims are apathetic - and so the hard-liners win. Do we want this?" said the democracy activist.
He and others denied being "obsessed" by events in Rakhine State but rather see them as a test of the majority's toughness and realism. No easy solutions were offered, but most felt that people who entered the country clandestinely or through corruption were unacceptable. "We should not suffer because another group cheats," one said.
The Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary, Md Shahidul Haque, said recently that both countries needed a change of "mindset" to face the challenges ahead. "We are living in a new world, and this world will not be static. In 10 to 15 years the world will be radically changed," he warned at a bilateral discussion.
If this implies a blurring of borders or the increased intermingling of cultures, then a good number of ethnic Burmese will not be happy. Or as the democracy activist said: "More diversity? No thanks. We have enough for now."
William Barnes is a veteran Bangkok-based journalist.