The persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar is similar to what happened in the former Yugoslavia

Mael Raynaud is an independent French analyst who has researched the history, politics, economy, conflict, humanitarian issues and civil society of Myanmar, as well as Thailand and other countries in the region, since 2002. He gave me this email interview, centred on the Rohingya, a persecuted and stateless Muslim minority, the indifference of regional Islamic states, and the silence of Nobel Peace Prize Aung San Suu Kyi.  (Read more…)

Rohingya Muslim women and children sit in a boat after they were intercepted by the Bangladesh Border Guard (BGB) members in Teknaf, Bangladesh, 13 June 2012. BGB members has sent back more than a thousand refugees from western Myanmar following sectarian violence there. Rohingya Muslims are a stateless group of some 800,000 people living in Myanmar's western Rakhine state. © EPA | Los Angeles Times

Rohingya Muslim women and children sit in a boat after they were intercepted by Bangladesh Border Guard (BGB) members in Teknaf, on 13 June, 2012. Thousands of refugees hav been trying to escape sectarian violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state
© EPA | Los Angeles Times

Buddhism has always been understood as a religion of “peace an love”, recited prayers and meditation, with millions of followers all over the world. Suddenly, mainly in Burma/Myanmar and Sri Lanka, enraged monks have been persecuting, expelling and killing minority groups, mostly Muslims. Buddhism is now more associated with “terror and attempt genocide”. How do you explain this phenomenon?

The perception that Buddhism is a religion of peace was always wrong. As any religion, it is subject to what its followers bring to it. Some bring tolerance, others bring intolerance.

Also, another factor is that the vision people in the West have of Buddhism mostly refers to Mahayana Buddhism, which is the religion of Tibet and is led by the Dalai Lama, while people in Sri Lanka and Myanmar both practice Theravada Buddhism.

Many people refer to all Muslim communities in Burma/Myanmar as Rohingya – those from the Rohang or Rakhine region –, but some scholars note that there are other Muslim communities (Indians, Malays, Chinese…) in the country. How do you describe them, and do they all share the same grievances?

The Rohingya are specifically the Muslims of northern Arakan State in Myanmar. There are a number of other Muslim communities in the country, and so far they have not been the target of the same abuses as the Rohingya.

Regarding the Christians, the newspaper The Nation reported that “they have not been victims of target attacks so far”. Do you have facts and figures that might clarify what is their actual situation?

The Chin, Kachin Karenni and Karen communities, who live along the borders of Myanmar, are all Christians, and indeed, they have been at war with the central government since the Independence of the country (except the Kachin who have been at war “only” since 1961). But beyond the civil war, it’s true that they are not subjects to the same racism as the Rohingya.

It looks like a paradox that while the Rohingya people in Burma/Myanmar have been long-suffering they have never experienced an “existential threat” as in the so-called “transition period from military dictatorship to democracy”. Why?

What happens in Myanmar is the same thing that happened in the former Yugoslavia. The dictatorship forced the various communities to live together through force.

Once you remove force, then the age old intolerance makes a come back. So yes, it’s true, democratization has brought violence to Arakan State, because without pressure from the government, racism thrives.

The Dalai Lama with Aung San Suu Kyi during a private meeting in London, on June 19th., 2012 © Jeremy Russell |OHHDL

The Dalai Lama with Aung San Suu Kyi during a private meeting in London, on June 19, 2012
© Jeremy Russell |OHHDL

The Dalai Lama recently called his Nobel Peace Prize colleague Aung Suu Kyi to raise her voice in defense of the thousands of Muslims forced to leave Burma/Myanmar, hundreds of them, including children, dying in wild seas. “She was never a human rights activist, but an ambitious politician”, noticed an analyst. How do you explain her silence?

Racism is really strong in Myanmar against the Rohingya. Whether Aung San Suu Kyi shares this racism or whether she disapproves of it, we don’t know, as she has never spoken openly on this issue. In any case, it’s clear that for her to speak in defense of the Rohingya would mean losing a great deal of her political capital.”

“Her attitude shows that she is not ready to do this. Obviously one can imagine that less than a year before the elections [and her National League for Democracy will be contending to repeat the great score of 1990], she would be less inclined than ever to say anything that would antagonize her electorate…”

In Sri Lanka, for instance, after the victory in the war against the Tamil Tigers it seems that Muslims – and evangelical Christians as well – turned to be the new “enemies” of nationalist Buddhists. Do you see any similarity with what is happening in Burma/Myanmar?

Generally speaking, there are a lot of similarities between Buddhism in Sri Lanka and in Myanmar, including with regards to the relations with the muslim communities in these countries. In both places, nationalism is related to Buddhism and expresses itself against muslims.

MANDALAY, BURMA - JUNE 30: Buddhist militant leader Wirathu poses inside the Masoeyein monastery on June 30, 2013 in Mandalay, Burma.Wirathu is the leader of the Buddhist extremist movement in Myanmar, known as 969. He was once jailed for anti-Muslim violence and also has called himself the "Burmese bin Laden." Buddhist leader Wirathu resides at the Masoeyein monastery where over 2,800 monks live, it is one of the largest in Mandalay, Burma's second largest city. © Paula Bronstein |Getty Images

Buddhist militant leader Ashin Wirathu poses inside the Masoeyein monastery on June 30, 2013 in Mandalay, Burma.Wirathu is the leader of the Buddhist extremist movement in Myanmar, known as 969. He was once jailed for anti-Muslim violence and also has called himself the “Burmese bin Laden.” Buddhist leader Wirathu resides at the Masoeyein monastery where over 2,800 monks live, it is one of the largest in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city
© Paula Bronstein |Getty Images

Regional countries, except Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation, have also being ignoring the Rohingya’s drama. What motivates the refusal of the majority to accept them and the goodwill gesture of Manila?

The Philippines are not as close to the Andaman sea as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. They are not as directly concerned with the plight of the boat people. So in a way, it’s easier for them to be sympathetic to the Rohingya. No country in the region is ready to accept thousands, potentially tens of thousands, of boat people. One can look at Europe and see that Asia is not alone in this behavior…

To understand the present Buddhism-Islam “conflict”, historian Peter A. Coclanis evoked the importance of numbers in Burma/Myanmar, where “numerology has long figured in decision-making.” In an article published by the World Affairs Journal, he said that two numbers that matter a lot today are 969 and 786. The first is the name of the movement led by Ashin Wirathu. The second (786), “derived from an opening passage of the Koran (…) interpreted by some Buddhists as a code: seven plus eight plus six equals twenty-one. So, when Muslims post the number publicly, they are pronouncing that they will dominate the world in the XXI century.” What do you think of these “bizarre traditions”?

These numbers are really important for the communities themselves because of the traditions you mention, but they’re not necessary to understand the present crisis.

Intolerance and racism are profoundly entrenched in many communities around the world, and Myanmar is no exception…

Mael Raynaud, an expert on Burma and other Asian countries. ©All Rights Reserved

Mael Raynaud, an expert on Burma and other Asian countries
©All Rights Reserved

Parts of this interview were included in an article published in the Portuguese magazine “Além-Mar”, July-August 2015 edition

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