Xenophobic nationalism: Myanmar’s curse

By Daniel Gawthrop | September 25, 2017

With the corpses piling up in Myanmar’s Rakhine State this month and the number of Rohingya refugees fleeing into Bangladesh eclipsing the 400,000 mark just over a week ago, international good will toward the country’s titular leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared to be hemorrhaging by the minute. The whole world, it seemed, was piling on Myanmar’s former beacon of democracy and Nobel laureate, blaming her for a crisis United Nations officials have described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. And with good reason.

Suu Kyi.

Once celebrated for her steadfast courage, dignity, and eloquent appeals for human rights for all, Suu Kyi is now regarded as an impotent stooge of the Myanmar generals—a fallen angel and hypocrite whose published works about the universal values of freedom and democracy, written during her house arrest, should be consigned to history’s dust heap. For “The Lady,” as she’s known, has not only failed to speak out on the plight of Rohingya Muslims; she has also weaseled her way out of commitment by refusing to even utter the word “Rohingya” (and encouraging international diplomats not to say it either), failing to condemn atrocities committed by the national army, and reducing the problems in Rakhine State to “communal violence” for which both sides share responsibility.

Rohingya refugees.

The presence of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s westernmost state has been a contentious issue for decades. But it has only been in the last five years, following the country’s transition from military dictatorship to quasi-civilian rule and the lifting of censorship, that violent attacks on the world’s most persecuted minority have accelerated to the point that the United Nations and several international non-governmental organizations have raised concerns about conditions for genocide and ethnic cleansing. The most recent bloodletting in Rakhine State Rohingya communities began on August 25, when a fledgling insurgency of Rohingya militants with Saudi Arabian connections, known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), launched an attack on 30 police posts and an army base that killed 12 people.

Since then, a constant barrage of shootings, bombings, burnings, landmines, beheadings and other forms of violence by the national army and local police has killed up to 1,500 Rohingya Muslims while prompting that mass exodus into Bangladesh. But Suu Kyi has said next to nothing about Rohingya deaths, only blaming the current crisis on the Rohingya “terrorist” attacks of August 25, and her dismissal of genocide or ethnic cleansing concerns as “fake news” caused by “an iceberg of misinformation” only made the situation worse. So much for sainthood.

In focussing on Suu Kyi, however, much Western commentary failed to note that Myanmar’s de facto political leader is only speaking for her country’s 53 million people, 89 per cent of whom are practicing Theravada Buddhists and 68 per cent of whom belong to the Bamar, or Burman, ethnic majority that dominates the government and military. While international human rights activists hopelessly call for her Nobel Prize to be withdrawn, Myanmar’s State Counsellor enjoys the support of most citizens—and not despite her stance on the Rohingya, but because of it.

Who’s really in charge

Disillusionment with Suu Kyi aside, there are two chief culprits in the Rakhine State crisis: the national army, or Tatmadaw, and the pervasive influence of ethnic Bamar Buddhist nationalism as a political/historical narrative. Both are deeply ingrained in Myanmar’s public sphere, and there is no understanding or solving the plight of the Rohingya without first confronting these two forces. For starters: the most powerful person in Myanmar is not Suu Kyi but the Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. (President U Htin Kyaw is merely the parliamentary leader for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government, acting at her behest on matters beyond the military’s prerogative). Under the 2008 Constitution, passed by the former military dictator Than Shwe, the army claims 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and has control of the key ministries of defense, border, and home affairs. (The generals also control the jade industry, but that’s another story.) Since a 75-per-cent majority is required for any constitutional amendment, Min Aung Hlaing has the country over a barrel with his all-important veto power.

General Min Aung Hlaing.

The Senior General can order and mobilize troops under his command whenever he damned well feels like it—and without having to consult Suu Kyi, U Htin Kyaw, or the Parliament in advance. He clearly has carte blanche in Rakhine State, where he and his troops have been cited internationally for crimes against humanity. Atrocities under his command include summary executions, beheadings, people being deliberately burned alive in their homes, and the raping of women and children. Min Aung Hlaing must appreciate the world’s focus on Suu Kyi. As the Burma Campaign UK’s director, Mark Farmaner, told the World Post on September 13: “Articles about Suu Kyi are exactly what he wants to see. With more focus on her and none on him, he has more freedom to carry out his ethnic cleansing campaign.”

That Min Aung Hlaing operates with such impunity at home is due to the unchallenged influence of ethnic Bamar Buddhist nationalism. A xenophobic narrative that goes back centuries but which the military has really been cramming down the people’s throats since the 1962 coup, Bamar Buddhist nationalism contends that Burma—as many still refer to the country—was in danger of splitting apart at the seams, with ethnic minorities in Shan, Karen, and Kachin states threatening secession and larger, outside powers like India and China waiting to pounce. Only the national army could prevent the destruction of the union, the thinking went, and only the advance of Buddhism as the national religion would prevent the minorities from taking over. A necessary part of this paranoid vision was the assumption that any perceived threat to Buddhism should be seen as a threat to the state itself. Muslims, barely tolerated at the best of times, were regarded as deeply suspicious on the country’s western border that neighbours Bangladesh, which the generals believed to be vulnerable. And so in 1982 the dictator Ne Win rewrote the Constitution to deny not only citizenship rights but also any historic claim to Rohingya settlement in the country. Suddenly, a people who had been in Rakhine State for centuries were instantly rendered stateless.

Thirty years later, historic grievances boiled over in 2012 following the rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman by a Rohingya man. Revenge attacks led to mass killings of Rohingya, the burning of entire villages, forced relocation into concentration camps, and the refugee crisis that continues to this day. With press censorship lifted by the new quasi-civilian government of former military general Thein Sein, extremist views came out into the open. A fascist monk named Ashin Wirathu gained popularity for his anti-Muslim views, and before long the Rohingya were accused of multiplying like rabbits, trying to steal Buddhist women, and plotting a political takeover. Hate-fuelled Buddhist monks began participating, hand in hand with the Tatmadaw, in the ethnic cleansing of Rakhine State.

All of this can be hard to absorb for Western Asiaphiles, who love their Buddhism and tend to idealize this religion as somehow more “peaceful” than the others. Maung Zarni, the founder and former director of the U.S.-based Free Burma Coalition, says that such quaint idealizing of the saffron-robed monk has become a significant barrier to understanding events in Rakhine. “There is a romanticised, rosy, orientalising of Buddhism among the English-speaking population around the world, and other non-English speakers as well,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Network recently. Lots of people, apparently, still refuse to believe that monks can kill.

A sense of betrayal

But it isn’t just Buddhism that has been romanticized. During the glory days of the pro-democracy movement from 1988 through the 1990s, Western observers also romanticized the Burmese public sphere. In Burma we saw a bookish culture of dissident citizens: totalitarian repression had produced a nation of avid readers hungry for all manner of political and philosophical content. Oh, how we loved those stories of student activists and other regime opponents risking arrest by smuggling in copies of Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four and other literary contraband that threatened the SLORC generals. It reinforced our black-and-white sense of what’s right about freedom and wrong about censorship. So today we can’t help but find glaring Orwellian irony in the fact that Bamar Buddhists, including many dissenters from 1988, now embrace such doublethink as refusing to use the name with which a minority ethnic group self-identifies, labeling the Rohingya as “Bengalis”, a word that renders them foreign. Or claiming that an entire people do not exist.

There is something chillingly Orwellian, too, about the dominant culture’s denial of what’s going on in Rakhine State and the popular rejection of foreign opinion once so eagerly coveted. Not so long ago, it seems, Burmese pro-democracy activists relied a great deal on their Western supporters, despite the dictatorship’s dismissal of “foreign” ideas as a menace to the country. Now, faced with criticism of their beloved Suu Kyi and defense of the Rohingya by Westerners, some of those same pro-democracy activists are telling us foreigners to mind our own business; that we don’t know what we’re talking about. It’s as if, like sexual abuse victims repeating the behaviour of their attackers, the survivors of totalitarian rule have begun mimicking their oppressors without even realizing it.

Where are the chattering classes of Burma/Myanmar now, as Rakhine State burns and jihadist groups like al Qaeda lick their chops at the prospect of such fertile new ground? Where is the humanitarian spirit of 1988 and 2007? Where are the calls to respect dignity for all and the universality of human rights? When I lived briefly in Myanmar and worked at a newspaper there in 2013-14, no one was carrying that flame. No one appears to be carrying it now, either. Not in a country still in thrall to the Tatmadaw. Indeed, the very notion of a public intellectual class in Myanmar seems an oxymoron: when it comes to Rakhine State and the Rohingya, the country’s intellectuals have gone awol. If they haven’t been bought off or cowed into silence, too many harbour a secret loathing of Muslims at worst and deep suspicion of the Rohingya at best. At a press conference on September 13, prominent members of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society pledged their support for the government and urged their compatriots to do the same. “The government is working hard for democratic transition, it would be wrong to criticize or weaken them,” one was quoted as saying in The Irrawaddy, a prominent English language newsmagazine that was banned during the junta years. Another argued that the state’s problems were not racial or religious in nature but were all about immigration laws and terrorism. “They [Rohingya] are not one of 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar,” he said, citing the amended 1982 Constitution.

To be clear: this is all very easy for a Westerner to say from the relative comfort of his desk in Canada, and I have great respect for the tremendous courage it takes—even now—to challenge the authority of a grimly oppressive force like the Tatmadaw. Laws covering sedition are still on the books and are liberally applied to any situation involving tensions in the country’s border areas. But here’s the thing: during the student-led uprising of 1988 and the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007, millions of citizens were willing to risk their very lives by challenging that same authority. Was this really the hill those monks were dying on: a Myanmar for everyone except the Rohingya—a Muslim minority written out of existence by the same dictator they once despised?

A kinder, gentler genocide

Thant Myint-U

How do Myanmar’s intellectuals account for such a paradox? What are the thoughts, for example, of Thant Myint-U: grandson of legendary United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, author of celebrated non-fiction texts about Burma/Myanmar, Foreign Policy magazine list-maker as one of the “100 leading global thinkers” (2013), founder and chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust, and advisor to President U Htin Kyaw? In 2014, while my Karen husband and I were living in Yangon, I attended one of Thant Myint-U’s presentations at the Irrawaddy Lit Fest in Mandalay. During the Q&A session that followed, I watched as he squirmed his way through an awkward question about dynastic political families from a Western woman who was clearly besotted with him. Given Suu Kyi’s advancing age, her failure to groom a successor, his own relative youth (he was forty-eight) and his membership in one of the country’s elite families, the woman asked, did he have any plans to enter politics? Myint-U gently brushed aside the question by telling his questioner he was “just an historian.” (He might have added that he is barred from the presidency, just as Suu Kyi is, owing to his foreign links. But never mind.)

So what does Myint-U think of events in Rakhine State? His Twitter feed has been active since August 25, when the ARSA militants attacked those police stations and army base. But then it’s only Twitter, not a New York Times Op-Ed, and it’s all fairly safe stuff. “Really hope I’m wrong but I fear a slow motion train wreck of frightful proportions in the making.” (Aug. 28). “More than any other part of Myanmar, Rakhine history shaped by global currents; understanding this key in reframing unhelpful narratives.” (Sept. 1) “During all the years of debate on sanctions & democracy, narratives were nowhere near as diametrically opposed as today on Rakhine.” (Sept. 4) “Assume complex, fluid dynamics on the ground; what’s important is ending violence, protecting civilians. Full picture will emerge over time.” (Sept. 8) And so on. Interestingly, no use of the word “Rohingya”.

The closest this Harvard/Cambridge-educated son of privilege has gotten to hinting at the wildly slanted field of injustice in Rakhine State was in an essay he published in the Nikkei Asian Review on June 17—ages ago, given what’s happened since August 25. “Myanmar’s leaders say they are marching toward democracy, peace and economic integration with the outside world,” he wrote. “But the country carries with it the baggage of colonial-era ethnography and post-colonial nativism that can readily feed further ethnic conflict and renewed xenophobia. In this respect, Myanmar’s biggest threat is not the return of dictatorship but an illiberal democracy linked to a negative nationalism.” He concludes by calling for “an honest and critical reexamination of history and a fresh search for a more inclusive, 21st century Myanmar identity.”

All well and good. And elsewhere it’s been pointed out that one reason Suu Kyi refuses to defend the Rohingya—and thus why most of the citizenry supports her—is the fear that doing so could trigger another military coup. That said, I humbly suggest that the kind of honest and critical undertaking Myint-U describes would require the country’s leaders to explore the following questions openly:

Where in the Buddhist precepts does it say it’s alright to rape and kill Muslims, torch their homes, stuff them into cramped holding pens with no medical facilities, or cast them into the ocean? Where does it say you can turn a blind eye and do nothing while others commit such atrocities? If everyone is equally responsible and it’s not all just violence against the Rohingya, then why is it that 400,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh? Why have so many Rohingya refugees washed up dead on the shores of Thailand and Malaysia? And why have so many thousands more starved to death in concentration camps? What kind of society allows such things to happen?

If the majority of Bamar Buddhists are not racist xenophobes but compassionate citizens with empathy for all human beings, then why are such questions not being raised in the public sphere? Why is there no widespread condemnation of the fascist 969 movement and its despicable leader, the hatemongering monk Ashin Wirathu? Why have Wirathu and his ilk not been marginalized? Do Bamar Buddhists not see a problem in allowing such poisonous religious fanaticism to flourish in the new Myanmar? Do they not understand that religious nationalism is a dead end, a complete non-starter for building healthy democracies? Where is the spirit of metta, of loving kindness, that Buddhism preaches? Doesn’t the very idea of Buddhist racial superiority seem an especially egregious example of religious hypocrisy?

Something tells me I’d best not hold my breath waiting for such a reckoning.


Vancouver, Sept. 25, 2017.


  • Daniel Gawthrop

    Daniel Gawthrop is a Vancouver writer, the author of the novel "Double Karma," published this spring by Cormorant Books, and five non-fiction titles, including "The Rice Queen Diaries" (2005) and "The Trial of Pope Benedict: Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican's Assault on Reason, Compassion and Human Dignity" (Arsenal Pulp, 2013). He still plays left wing for the Cutting Edges, the Vancouver-based 2SLGBTQ+ hockey club he co-founded in 1993.

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