By Habib Siddiqui
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is a resource-rich country in south-east Asia, bordering Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand. The old men of the military that ran the country for more than half a century have been displaced by a popular, elected, civilian government of National League for Democracy (NLD). Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the founding father Aung San, is the de facto leader of the government with the title of the State Counsellor.
The transition to democracy did not come that easy. Its path was stained with blood and sacrifice since 1962 when General Ne Win came to power through a military coup. Fifteen student protesters of the capital’s Rangoon University were killed. The country was ruled by a revolutionary council headed by the general. Almost all aspects of society (business, media, production) were nationalized or brought under government control under the Burmese Way to Socialism. Thus, the Rohingya people of Arakan state and the prosperous Indian Hindu-Muslim-Sikh business community of Rangoon became the worst sufferers in this experiment; many non-Buddhists were forced out of Burma. A new constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was adopted in 1974. Under the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) Burma became one of the world’s most impoverished countries.
There were sporadic protest marches against the military rule during the Ne Win years (1962-1988) and these were almost always brutally suppressed. In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression by the government led to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country known as the 8888 Uprising. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators, and General Saw Maung staged a coup d’état and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989, SLORC declared martial law after widespread protests and changed the country’s official English name from the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” to the “Union of Myanmar”.
In May 1990, the SLORC government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years and the NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won nearly 80% of the seats. However, the military junta refused to cede power and continued to rule the nation as SLORC until 1997, and then as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) until its dissolution in March 2011. It was an attempt to rebrand the old order; the power remained with the junta. The 2007 Saffron Revolution, a non-violent, national movement, led by Buddhist monks, was violently suppressed by the ruling junta. An international condemnation of this peaceful revolution led to further isolation of the government.
A fraudulent election was held in 2010 in which the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, declared victory winning nearly 80% seats. The military junta was replaced on 30 March 2011 by a quasi-military government, led by former General Thein Sein, with the goal of putting the country back to the path of democracy. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and her party allowed to participate in the by-elections in 2012 in which it won 43 of the contested 45 seats.
Then came the general election of 8 November 2015 in which the NLD won an absolute majority of the seats in both the houses. Suu Kyi became the de facto leader of her country in April 2016 and soon thereafter visited the USA and some European countries seeking the lifting of sanctions on her pariah state, and re-entry into the good graces of those countries. She also gave a speech at the UN General Assembly session and was awarded the Humanitarian of the Year award from Harvard University last year. She was rewarded heftily and sanctions were lifted, rather prematurely.
On September 14, 2016, after meeting with Suu Kyi in the Oval Office, President Obama announced, “In part because of the progress we’ve seen over the last several months, I indicated after consulting with Daw Suu that the United States is now prepared to lift sanctions we’ve imposed upon Burma for quite some time. It is the right thing to do in order to ensure the people of Burma see the rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government.”
Fast forward to 2017, Suu Kyi’s Myanmar is not a “good news” anymore. Nearly 400,000 Rohingya Muslims and Hindus have been uprooted from their ancestral homes and forced to take shelter in Bangladesh due to the latest genocidal pogroms that started in October 2016, soon after easing of the trade sanctions. Is this a coincidence? The victims – racially and religiously different – have lost everything in this Buddhist majority country that remains the last apartheid state of the 21st century. At least 3,000 Rohingyas have also been extra-judicially killed by government forces and their partners in crime, the Rakhine fascists; hundreds of villages and townships have also been ethnically cleansed.
On Tuesday, September 12, 2017, numerous reports of widespread extrajudicial killings and other atrocities, including rape, carried out by Myanmar security forces (long known as the Rapist military) led the U.N. human rights chief to describe what’s happening as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” In my numerous articles, I have been calling such crimes as a genocide, which has become a national project in this Buddhist country to wipe out the Muslim minority.
Suu Kyi is still in denial, as she always has been as an immoral and sly politician and representative of the majority Bamar ethnic group that governs the multi-ethnic country and dominates the military. Her defenders, though, insist that she is in an awfully tight spot, having to manage her relationship with the bruising Burmese military at a time when public opinion amongst the Buddhist majority largely supports its crackdown on the Rohingyas who are Muslims. Lately, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd wrote in the BuzzFeed, “While there is plenty of blame to place on the military for the current situation in Rakhine state, Suu Kyi is the only one seeking to walk a tightrope, between providing a positive way forward for the Rohingya on the one hand, while not providing the military the pretext for ending Myanmar’s fledgling democracy on the other.”
But facts are crystal clear and concerned global citizens, including the UN Chief, are calling the situation for the Rohingya refugees “catastrophic” and “completely unacceptable.” Following a closed-door meeting, the 15-member UN Security Council (UNSC) including China, a supporter of Myanmar’s former ruling junta, expressed concern about excessive force during security operations in Rakhine state and called for “immediate steps” to end the violence. “I call on the Myanmar authorities to suspend military action, end the violence, uphold the rule of law and recognize the right of return of all those who have had to leave the country,” Antonio Guterres said on September 13 at a press conference at the UN Headquarters. Asked if he agreed the Rohingya population was being ethnically cleansed, he replied: “When one-third of the Rohingya population has got to flee the country, can you find a better word to describe it?”
Guterres said the Myanmar government should either grant the Rohingya nationality or legal status that would allow them to live a normal life. Condemning the violence, the UNSC also called for humanitarian aid workers to be able to reach those in need in Rakhine state.
Some half a million people have already signed a petition demanding that the Nobel Committee rescind the peace prize wrongly awarded to Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi has been accused, and justifiably so, of being a racist and an anti-Muslim bigot, and so are her predecessors – the military generals – that ruled Burma for more than 50 years. In their neo-religio-fascist vision, i.e., (new) Myanmarism, sadly, the Bamar supremacy dominates, and there is no place for the minority Muslims, esp. the Rohingyas, in Myanmar. The status of a non-Bamar (ethnic) Buddhist minority is that of a second-class citizen. Thus, although the generals may have been replaced by civilians in Suu Kyi’s Myanmar, nothing truly has improved for millions of minorities, especially its Rohingya people.
The question that begs an answer is: how was it possible for the military to rule this multi-ethnic, – racial, and –religious country for so many decades? What ideology boosted its credibility to rule almost unopposed for all those years? Has Suu Kyi learned and embraced that secret trade to hold onto power?
The answer is provided by Dr. Shwe Lu Maung (Shahnawaz Khan) in his latest book – The prima materia of Myanmar Buddhist Culture: Laukathara of Rakhine Thu Mrat, published in the USA by Shahnawaz Khan (2016). The author, a diaspora Burmese from Arakan (Rakhine), has been living in the USA for decades. He is an acclaimed author of six books (including, Is Suu Kyi a Racist?) on his native country that have helped us immensely in our understanding of the complex political landscape of modern Myanmar. This book – a translated work – is an excellent source to understand the very treasure trove from which the ex-generals reportedly drew their inspiration to ruling the country. After all, in 1990, Sr. General Saw Maung, the military ruler of the country at the time (who reportedly believed himself to be the reincarnation of an 11th-century warrior-king), famously said that he would rule the country according to Laukathara.
As Dr. Maung shows, Laukathara – a popular literary work – provides the cultural fabrics of Myanmarism – an ideology in which religion and race mingle to define how Buddhists in Myanmar should behave and conduct their affairs from a layman to the ruler. Literally, the phrase Laukathara means the essence of the world. Written originally on palm leaves with the Rakhine phonetics, it was taught by a Rakhine monk by the name of Thu Mrat of Theravada Buddhism in the early 14th century. He was the teacher of King Mun Hti (Laung Krut dynasty) who had entrusted him with the education of three princes of the Thet (or Chakma) king Lyin Saw. The latter had lost his kingdom (Thayet or Thet Yet) – located near central/lower Burma – in 1333 CE to the Rakhine King Mun Hti.
Later Laukathara reached Myanmar from Arakan and became a royal handbook of administrative philosophy – very much like what The Prince of Niccolo Machiavelli (16th century Italian) had become in Europe to guide its rulers. It has been a guiding source of law and order, rules and regulations, ethics and philosophy, and traditions and culture in Myanmar society. It essentially constitutes the prima materia of Myanmar’s Buddhist culture, or perhaps, more correctly, the Buddhist political theology – based on the Buddha, the Dhamma (religion) and the Sangha (community). It is a very popular literary work with many Buddhists in the country growing up with it.
The SLORC chairman Sr. General Saw Maung, a devout Buddhist, promoted Laukathara in Myanmar administration, a trend that was to continue by his successors. Essentially it defined Myanmarism.
The traditional Myanmarism has been Buddhism and militarism since the days of King Anawrahta (ca. 1044-1077 C.E.). In the hands of military rulers of our time, the new Myanmarism became a toxic cocktail of ultra-nationalism and religious fanaticism (or religio-racial ultra-nationalism, as coined by Dr. Shahnawaz Khan) making the Buddhist country an apartheid state – the den of intolerance for non-Buddhists.
If the old one regressed from the teachings of Buddha – being often violent and ugly, the new Myanmarism has revealed itself to be brutal, genocidal and uglier. In this, the ends justify the means; lies and deceptions become all too natural and acceptable strategies to divide and rule the country. It has turned out to be a feudal recipe for disaster, which shuns pluralism, diversity and multi-culture – the very trend-setters for progress in our time.
Mixing of religion in politics in our time has often seen the devastating consequences of how even good religious teachings can become weapons in the hands of ‘cherry-picking zealots’ to ethnically cleanse the ‘others’ who are different. The 1982 Citizenship Law, thus, provided the very justification for the Myanmar regime towards elimination of the minority races like the Rohingya. As I have noted elsewhere, the actual eliminationist process really started much earlier. The Naga Min Operation of 1978-79 saw the exodus of nearly 300,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. The Pyi Thaya Operation of 1991-92 saw the forced exodus of some 268,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. Due to the decades-long ‘slow-burning’ genocide, more Rohingyas now live as refugees outside their ancestral home of Arakan. They have been marginalized and deprived of every right in Apartheid Myanmar and continue to remain the most persecuted people in our time.
True to its fascist character, the new Myanmarism sees no place for non-Buddhists. It was in that vein that when President Thein Sein proposed to expel all the Rohingyas from Myanmar in 2012 the xenophobic declaration was welcomed by the monks and the Buddhist people, in spite of the fact that the ancestors of today’s Rohingyas lived in Arakan for centuries, if not millennia.
It was no accident that Myanmar had witnessed, since 2012, a series of genocidal pogroms, mostly directed against the minority Rohingya and other Muslims. The terrorist monk Wirathu, who heads the fascist organization Ma Ba Tha, became the Buddhist face of terrorism, xenophobia, intolerance and hatred. In the name of protecting Buddhism nearly a quarter million of Muslims were violently displaced in 2012 from their homes across Myanmar; many were killed, and others forced out of the country. Some 140,000 Muslims became permanent IDPs, caged in concentration-like camps. The eliminationist policy – endorsed from the top and preached and justified by Buddhist monks – became THE national project inside Myanmar, enjoying moral and material support at every level of the Buddhist society. So powerful was the influence of Wirathu and Ma Ba Tha that four controversial race and religion bills were signed into law by the then President Thein Sein to further heighten the racial and religious tensions!
The peculiar, non-inclusive influence of Laukathara has been so strong that Suu Kyi’s NLD did not field a single Muslim to contest the general election, even in Muslim majority territories of northern Arakan state. Forget that the citizen Suu Kyi denied the very existence of the Rohingya people and was silent on the genocidal crimes against the Muslim minorities in the past, her denial of the gross crimes of the Tatmadaw and Rakhine fascists since she has become the de facto leader is simply inexcusable. Equally problematic has been her dogged persistence to stonewalling international inquiry into the serious charges of rape, arson, and killings against the security forces.
Succinctly put, under Bamar supremacist leaders, the teachings of Laukathara has become the eliminationist policy – once adopted by the military governments and now cherished by Suu Kyi’s civilian government. Thanks to Suu Kyi, what a joke Nobel Peace Prize has become!
For a multi-racial and -religious Myanmar to avoid being a failed state, Myanmarism must go making way for inclusion, diversity, and respect for life and aspirations of ‘others’. And there is no other prudent way. The sooner the ethno-religio-fascists within Myanmar, esp. its government, military, monks, politicians, and intellectuals, understand it and implement measures to change the current paradigm the better it is for all and the entire region.