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Why is Myanmar persecuting over 1 million Rohingyas?

By Maung Zarni
RB Opinion
May 14, 2015

As a Bama and Buddhist, I am absolutely gutted to see my own society and my fellow people of Buddhist faith morphing into Nazis. This is no exaggeration. I offer here one of the least discussed issue - why is Myanmar or Burma, my country of birth, persecuting the Rohingya Muslims and destroying their foundations of life, community and identity?

-What kind of internal pressures on the government are competing with the international calls to action on the Rohingya issue? Why is the internal pressure the bigger influencer in this case?

By 'internal pressure' if you mean radical racist 'Buddhist groups from the dominant Bama society and Nazi-inspired Rakhine community, lthey are a factor, of course. But what really drives the governmental intransigence in Naypyidaw is Myanmar Tatmadaw's nearly 4-decades of racially informed strategic framework which frames the Rohingyas as a POTENTIAL threat, both demographically and militarily, to national security. They are the only Muslim community with a distinct ethnic identity whose historical and contemporary presence saddles two borders - predominantly Muslim Bangladesh and Burma. This is in fact a 180 degree policy reversal by the Ministry of Defence under the same Commander in Chief - the late General Ne Win - under whose Caretaker Government the Rohingyas were even granted an official slot on the sole National Broadcasting station - Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS), recognized as an INDIGENOUS ethnic nationality of Burma, just like other borderlands ethnic groups such as Chin, Kachin, Shan, Mon, etc. in the late 1950's - and well into the 1960's - after the military took over the reins of power in 1962. 

Reversing national policies in a military rule is something of a norm. In the 1970's, the same general Ne Win ordered the Ministry of Transport to switch from the British-style Left Lane driving to Right Lane driving, overnight - with no explanation. The military was being dealt a series of defeat at the hands of the Burmese communists supported by China; so, to defeat the Leftist advances, Ne Win was said to have been advised atstrologically to do something to stem the tide of Communist onslaught by radically reversing the driving policies like ordering the country's motorists to swicth the Left lane driving system to Right lane driving one. 

The same happened with General Than Shwe, his successor after General Saw Maung, being advised to relocate the entire capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw. So, irrational belief in astrology, strategic (mis-)calculations by the military and the state-manufactured anti-Kalar (nigger) anti-Rohingya racism on the part of the public, both Buddhists and other non-Muslims, as well as Bama and Rakhine and other non-Rohingya minorities - serve to lock this policy of Rohingya destruction and elimination. 

Of course, astrology alone doesn't dictate the military; other rational and typically paranoid militarist calculations are allowed to inform policies. 

We have 2 generations of military leadership that have convinced themselves that Rohingyas, along strategic Bangladesh-Burma borderlands are a threat to national security, despite Rohingyas being the only ethnic group that have long ended their armed struggle for secession and pledged repeatedly their desire to be a part of the only country they know to be their home. This military propaganda and mindset has been propagated across the society at large for the last 50 years. Otherwise peaceful and smiley Buddhists have been re-wired as un-self-aware racists with Nazi characteristics. 

-Historian Jaques Leider has suggested that giving Rohingya citizenship would not be a cure-all solution, but would start more violence. NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has of course said similarly. Do you think the solution needs to be bigger picture than citizenship, or that the threat of violence is an excuse?

-Do you think this recent crisis is a tipping point for the Rohingya exodus, or a momentary spotlight?

That Luxembourg-diplomat-cum-historian Leider is himself a part of the problem, especially in his position as the adviser on Rakhine for the UN. He is a part of this circle of stupid White Men who have proven themselves intellectually utterly incapable of understanding the now settled issue, among scholars and experts on ethnicity and ethnic politics,of ethnic identities as ever-fluid political constructions which are contextual, reactive and relational vis-a-vis other competing or rival ethnic groups. 

For instance, in the colonial context, the Mons, the Rakhines, the Bama/Burmese/Burmans/Myanmar - and to a lesser extent the Chinese, and the Indians - all assumed "We the Burmese" anti-imperialist "ethnic" identity - against their common oppressor: the Brits. After independence, everyone re-claimed their own 'original' ethnic identities - Mons, Rakhines, etc. demanding their own autonomous states in their own historical ancestral lands. 

These self-styled Burma or Myanmar "experts" are anchored in the highly discredited Positivism where "facts" are only discovered in colonial archives, racist and pseudo-scientific colonial racial categories, archaelogical remains, and so on. 

Aung San Suu Kyi is herself anti-Muslim racist and has in effect justified Buddhist racism against general Islamophobia and anti-Rohingya prejudices using the language of the West's fear of 'global rise of Muslims' on BBC's Radio Four with Mishal Hussein in London in Oct 2013. I was on the London School of Economics panel with her in her very first public appearance in UK in June 2012. She refused to touch the Rohingya issue and I was pre-assigned by the LSE Panel Chair to respond to any questions from the audience pertaining to Rohingyas. She has been dodging this issue since her first press conference disaster at the ILO in Geneva in June 2012. She was asked if "Rohingyas are citizens of your country". Her answer was, abysmally, "I don't know." She has no good or intelligent policy advice and neither does Leider. As the initial step to address Rohingya issues, she keeps referring to the 1982 Citizenship Act which was designed, among other things, to strip Rohingyas as an ethnic community, of both nationality and citizenship. That 1982 Citizenship Act was hugely influenced by both military calculations and Rakhine racism. One of my exile friends, the late Rakhine historian Aye Kyaw, an extremely anti-Rohingya man, was involved in the drafting committee chaired by my friend's father and Ne Win's legal adviser Dr Maung Maung. That act is akin to Hitler's law of 'de-Germanization of the Jews. She offers that Nazi-like law as part of the solution! Go figure!

The threat of violence is exaggerated. The military in power is fully in control of any civil unrest - look at the way it has handled any protests, from farmers, monks, students, etc. Myanmar military leaders are best at dealing with any violence or prospects for violence. The whole of upper Burma, from Mandalay all the way to Myitkyina is seething with anti-China and anti-Chinese resentment bordering on hatred and deep racism. But why is the public not reacting with organized violence against the Chinese, Chinese neighborhoods, properties, businesses and Chinese monasteries and churches? Because the military will NOT let that happen for fear of China's response to violence against the Chinese in Burma. 

This linking of granting - no, restoring - Rohingyas their rightful full citizenship and official ethnic identity - with the threat of violence is an excuse. It serves the military's long-standing strategic objective of cleansing the strategic coastal and borderlands of Rakhine of any Muslims, particularly Rohingyas with cross-cultural ties with Bangladesh. 
-Do you think this recent crisis is a tipping point for the Rohingya exodus, or a momentary spotlight?
Similar stories have broke before; in fact as early as April and May 1978 - as the direct result of the campaign of terror and violence against the Rohingyas organized by the central government headed by Ne Win in Feb 1978, under the disguise of Immigration Sting Operation. Local Rakhines and central inter-agency units from military, police, immigration, religious affairs, customs and civil admin staff - led the charge which drove estimated 250,000 Rohingyas across the borders into the then newly independent Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). In those days, regional newspapers and news magazines including the Bangkok Post, Far Eastern Economic Review, etc were writing about this quarter million exodus of Rohingyas using the same framework - apartheid, crime against humanity, ethnic cleansing, genocide etc. 

The Islamic governments cried fowl; Bangladesh protested - all pointing fingers at Ne Win's central military government.

Only under serious pressure from other Islamic countries such as Indonesia - and most specifically, the threat of Bangladesh military government of General Ziaur Raman arming the then-stranded Rohingyas - numbering over 200,000 - did Ne Win climbed down and felt compelled to accept the repatriation, with the UNHCR's assistance - within a few months of the exodus. 

I am hopeful that the international players including the UN, after nearly 40 years of deliberately mis-construing and mis-framing the Rohingya persecution as 'communal' or 'illegal migration' the recent crisis will advance the actionable argument that my country - the regime and the civil society, including the 'pro-human rights' Opposition - is commissioning an international crime - no less than an excruciating slow genocide of these vulunerable and most destitute of all ethnic communities in Burma. 

As a Bama and Buddhist, I am absolutely gutted to see my own society and my fellow people of Buddhist faith morphing into Nazis. This is no exaggeration. 

So far the international community refusing to call Myanmar's genocide genocide, against all evidence, because it is more lucrative and beneficial to work with genocidal regimes in power than to prevent or end any unfolding genocide. When it comes to international community's response - which is indifference at the level of policies, -to Myanmar's genocide of the Rohingyas it, alas, conforms to this 100-years of recorded genocides since Turkey's genocide of the Christian Armenians in 1915.

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