In 2007, inspiring images of Burmese Buddhist monks leading their compatriots in demonstrations of civil resistance flooded the Western media. Just five years after the series of protests curiously referred to as the “Saffron Revolution” (Burmese monks wear maroon robes, not saffron-colored ones), Buddhist-led violence erupted in the western Rakhine state. Following a monk-led campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority of Burma, recognized by the UN as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, reports of rioting, killing, and the blocking of humanitarian aid to the Rohingya surfaced here and there in the media, devoid of the enthusiasm that the Burmese monks attracted back in 2007.
Last Wednesday evening, over a Skype call to Indonesia, I spoke with Maung Zarni, a Burmese democracy activist, research fellow at the London School of Economics, and author of “Buddhist Nationalism in Burma” in the current issue of Tricycle, to try and make sense of last year’s anti-Rohingya violence and its historical roots. At the time, news was just reaching him of the spread of anti-Muslim violence to central Burma, which was to be featured by the most prominent Western media outlets by Friday. While Burmese state media reports the “official” death toll for the riots at 32, the number cannot be corroborated by outside reporters, who had to be rescued by Burmese police. (One AP photographer was reportedly held at knifepoint by a monk after snapping several images of the violence.) Following the riots, every witness that the New Statesman interviewed said that the police stood by and did nothing to stop the violence—accounts redolent of Human Rights Watch’s accusations of military complicity in last year’s massacres in western Burma. “Many here believe that this was pre-planned and that the official story, that it began with a dispute in a gold shop, is just a cover for violence against Muslims,” journalist Assed Baig reported on the recent riots. The violence in central Burma, perpetrated by a different Buddhist group (“Burmese Buddhists” rather than Rakhine Buddhists) who targeted Muslims of Indian origin, not Rohingyas, demonstrates a pattern of violence that does not bode well for Burma’s Muslims.
Burmese native Maung Zarni has lent his voice to the Rohingya and other minorities in the predominantly Buddhist nation, advocating for their human rights and distinguishing himself by examining the social and historical causes of the current conflict.
In the current issue of Tricycle you make the case for characterizing the current conflict between the Buddhist and Rohingya peoples in Burma as genocide. But such a conflict has a precedent in 1942, when there were a series of massacres of Rohingya Muslims at the hands of Rakhine Buddhists. How is this particular case different?
In a rather bad way, the current Rohingya genocide in Burma is a case in which different forces in society and politics have converged to create, basically, a living hell for this particular group. These forces include historically grounded Burmese anti-Indian racism that isn’t just directed against Muslims, but rather against the people of the Indian subcontinent. That racism arose out of the context of British colonial rule of Burma, which created a racially and ethnically divided economy—a colonial political economy—where the British occupied the top echelon of administrative positions and economic control. For some time beginning in the 19th century, British Burma and British India shared a border of over 1,000 kilometers long. Burma was actually annexed by the British Empire as a province of India. The British subsidized the migration of Indian skilled laborers as well as unskilled migratory labor for the new cash economy that they were building in Burma—oil, rice, industrial farming, and other sectors. Those from the then British India occupied the middle layer—the technical and commercial positions in that economy. In that ethnically stratified colonial economy, the Burmese citizens found themselves, for the most part, at the bottom. That triggered a very strong strain of popular Burmese racism toward the Indians. Of course, the Burmese also reacted strongly against the white man that ruled them, that dominated them and controlled them, and thereby achieved independence.
Then, as you mentioned, in 1942, there were clashes between Rakhine Buddhists, who worked with the Japanese during WWII against the British and the allies, whereas the Muslims, Hindus, and others in western Burma worked with the British. So there is a colonial background to this narrative, to this conflict and the racism behind it.
What’s the perceived threat of the Rohingya? One prevalent fear has to do with Islamic marriage customs. In Islam, or at least its popular practice in Burma, a Muslim person cannot marry a non-Islamic spouse, who would have to convert. Until she converts to Islam, she will be barred from wifehood. And if she’s not considered a wife, she will not be entitled to property, inheritance, and control of the children. I think that that has been one of the major points of contention between Buddhist society and Islamic minorities in Burma, where Buddhists understand this as a structurally imposed conversion of Buddhist women to the Islamic faith.
The overall perceived threat, however, is that the Rohingya are agents of Islamicization. If you look at the formerly Malay or Indonesian Buddhist world, they used to be Buddhist, Hindu countries, but they were completely Islamicized by Muslim traders and others. The logic here is to preempt the growth of the Islamic population so that Burma won’t be susceptible to a similar type of Islamicization.
What’s the role of the Burmese state and military in the current conflict? This is the most important element. After the military proxy party lost by a landslide in the most recent elections, they decided that the time was right to drive out the Rohingya in order to both curry Buddhist majority favor and demonstrate their relevance in reformed Burma. But you know, it’s not possible for any state in this day and age to destroy an entire population of 800,000 to one million. Not after Nazi Germany. Instead, the military has created a situation where there would be communal riots. In doing so, the military state has attempted to do what amounts to outsourcing genocide.
Here, I think genocide needs to be understood not simply as an act of overt violence against a population. If you look at the policies toward the Rohingya by the Burmese state over the past 40 plus years, it involves attempts to control their birthrate. If you attempt to control a people through population policies or restricting their movement—in short, creating living conditions so unbearable that the population would rather flee, risking their lives at sea or crossing a border—that is genocide. It is not just about how many people were killed. Of course that’s included, but it’s the intent, the intent of the policy. Also, the use of the term “communal violence” between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya in the media is completely misleading. Of course there is a communal branch to this violence, but that’s only a small part of the story. The larger part of the story is the centrality of the Burmese military and the generals who have attempted to eliminate this population through different strategies.
Why hasn’t any organization called this conflict genocide? No government, no international body, with the exception of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), is prepared to use the word genocide. Because if you do, it automatically triggers a sequence of policy action that would require the UN to intervene. But the West is no longer interested in punishing or isolating the Burmese generals. It has a different agenda, where human rights are being placed on the back burner in favor of economic reforms, the commercialization of Burma, and the opening up of the country as a new market—a frontier market. This has to do with the rebalancing of Western, especially American, power in Asia—as Obama put it, the Asian “pivot.”
When commercial priorities assume center stage, the structural violation of the human rights of the Rohingya becomes less important. That’s why I call this “the genocide that cannot be called genocide for political reasons.” Not because it doesn’t qualify as genocide, but because the West has no political will to see through the actions that using the word genocide would warrant.
How do the religions of the Rakhine and Rohingya come into play? I think to say that the intent to kill and expel the Rohingya has no religious undertone would be to greatly underestimate the anti-Islamic popular racism of Burmese society. This is not simply about the Burmese military state; this involves the society at large. And of course, the Islamic world is going to react strongly against the killing and destruction of a particular Islamic community. So there is a very strong religious element here.
Just yesterday there was the looting, destruction, ransacking of Muslim businesses and Muslim homes in the dry zone in central Burma, in a town called Meikhtila. They were looting and destroying in broad daylight, under the nose of the police and military authority. This has nothing to do with the Rohingyas or the alleged illegal migration; it has everything to do with the fact that these businesses belonged to Muslim merchants and businesspeople. The public itself is involved in attacking anything that has Muslim signs. The irony here is that the Muslims do not control the Burmese economy. If any one ethnic group controls the Burmese economy, it is the Chinese.
The Saffron Revolution of 2007 was touted as a new paradigm for what’s called engaged Buddhism—Buddhism involved with politics, human rights, and social issues. Now, with these same monks taking to the streets and terrorizing a religious and ethnic minority, are we getting a wakeup call? It seems that Buddhists, or “engaged” Buddhists for that matter, don’t hold any kind of privileged position of righteousness—that they’re just as corruptible as anyone else. The key is not to romanticize Buddhism at the level of popular practice. If you look at some of the worst genocidal conflicts in recent history—in Sri Lanka, for example, a very deeply Buddhist society—you see how Buddhist leaders and communities behave. There was the mass killing of the non-Buddhists Tamils in Sri Lanka after their surrender. And look at what’s going on now in the Islamic south of Thailand by the Thai Buddhist society and military. Why is the West holding onto this romanticized, fetishized image of Buddhist societies as peaceful, “mindful” societies when some of the most violent societies in the world are Buddhist?
In terms of engaged Buddhism, well, I think the term is a misnomer, because Buddhism is about engagement with reality, and that involves poverty, that involves violence, and that involves our own individual greed. There is a disconnect between what Buddhists say they are and what they really are. What they really are, what we Buddhists really are, is as imperfect, as flawed, as greedy, as jealous, as violent as anyone else.