1982 Citizenship Law of Myanmar and Myanmar’s Popular Racism


Maung Zarni – TRANSCEND Media Service

Burma’s military-controlled State rests on the country’s official racism towards Burmese of ‘impure blood’.

Scholars and policy analysts of Myanmar need to stop characterizing violence and racism against Muslims, ‘Kalars’ and Tayoke (Chinese) as simply ‘sectarian’ or placing undue emphasis on the society’s role in the unfolding racist mass violence against the Rohingya and all Myanmar Muslims.

Yes, there have been prejudices among different communities.  But it is the State that modulates, mobilizes and facilitates these prejudices as some prejudices, for instance, anti-Muslim sentiments, are mobilized through state Ministries of Information and Home and Religious Affairs, as well as private media outlets such as the Voice and Eleven, two crony-owned ‘news’ groups, into proactively violent, neo-Nazi racism under the disguise of Buddhism.

As clearly spelled out in this official English translation of Ne Win’s speech to his top deputies at his Presidential Residence in Rangoon in 1982, racism against Burmese citizens and residents of mixed or all Chinese and Indian sub-continent ancestries, was  pursued as a matter of national policy.  This speech further sheds light on the deeply racist nature of 1988 Citizenship Act.  For no fault or deeds of their own, Myanmar residents and citizens who have been in the country for generations, and for many, for centuries, as settlers, migrants, courtly advisers, king’s men, queen’s women, have been made to suffer officially by racist rulers the likes of generals Ne Win, Than Shwe, Maung Aye, and presently Thein Sein.  As Ne Win made it very clearly in 1982 that these ‘tayoke’ and ‘kalars’ cannot be entrusted with any important positions in Myanmar’s officialdom – that is, the bureaucracy and the Armed Forces.  Today,  successive military leaders have succeeded in cleansing their power base – the Armed Forces – of officers of Chinese and Indian ancestry, notwithstanding a few exceptions out of an estimated 400,000-strong military.

In addition to this nonsense of ‘pure bloodedness’, religion other than Buddhism has been made an issue on which strategic and political exclusion is anchored.

The running joke among the official corps in the military is there are two viruses on grounds of which the rank and file members of the Armed Forces will be – and have been discharged:  B virus and C virus.  An officer tested ‘Hepatitis B positive’ will be discharged, just as officers of Christian faith, that is, Christian or C virus will be forced to retired or be placed on the margins, with no prospects for career advancement.  The joke does not include the Muslim officers because Ne Win and his ideological heirs in the military leadership made Burmese officers with Islamic background extinct.  Out of 10,000 army cadets in various military academies there will be found none or few Muslim cadets or any cadets with ‘impure bloodedness’.

Reflecting the army-controlled state’s official racism on which 1982 Citizenship Act rests, as recent as July 2013, at the Chatham House in London, UK, the current President and nominal state power holder ex-general Thein Sein, a handpicked lackey of the now officially retired Senior General Than Shwe, simply reiterated Myanmar’s official racist stance on ethnic groups considered ‘aliens’ and ‘impure bloods’ and committed yet another official act of Rohingya ethnocide, that is, Myanmar President blatantly denied the official and historical presence of the Muslim Rohingya in the country, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.

In the current system of governance in Burma only racists are rewarded, promoted and anointed to top most positions – from President to Commander in Chief to Ministers.

The only problem is Ne Win, the initiator and institutionalizer of official racisms in Myanmar was a ‘non-pure’ Bama or any other ‘son’ of the land, or Tai-yin-tha. As a matter of fact, General Ne Win and many of his racist deputies himself were ‘tayoke’ or Chinese or Chinese origin.

This whole ‘blood’ and ‘purity’ is common among monster racists in history: Stalin was no ‘pure-blooded’ Russian, but a Georgian. Hitler was known to be part Jewish, and so was the head of SS, Himmler.   In fact, Professor Greg Stanton at George Mason University has correctly observed that potentially genocidal societies and political systems do not have, respect or appreciate mixed ethnic categories.   Myanmar’s nightmarish backsliding into this ‘ethnic and religious purity’ stands in sharp contrast with the multiculturalist, post-blood and Big Tent national vision and the idea of a post-colonial country widely shared by the martyred Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, and his multiethnic and inter-faith comrades.

In spite of their advanced liberal and/or technical training in some of the world’s finest universities abroad, Burma’s western-educated intellectuals and professionals who should know better have succumb to their petty interests as they have as a class lent credence and legitimacy to the militarists’  personal racism and bigotry.   Among the drafters of the 1982 Citizenship Act were British, Dutch Australian and American trained legal scholars, historians and other experts such as the late Dr Maung Maung, Dr Aye Kyaw, etc.  Likewise, Thein Sein’s Presidential Inquiry Commission the Violence in Rakhine State which in effect whitewashed the organized and state-backed mass violence against the Rohingya in 2012 were stacked with Ivy League and Oxbridge-trained Burmese scholars and professionals.

Dr Nyi Nyi, a tayoke or Chinese himself who rapidly climbed Ne Win’s socialist ladder by offering advise on how to effectively combat anti-military student activism, from being a geology professor at the time of the coup in 1962 to #2 in the Education Department/Ministry by 1968 to the minister of mine in the early 1970’s before being sacked for being ‘too ambitious’, told me during a taped interview in New York in the fall of 1994, “I had seen him Ne Win in shorts at home. His (yellow) complexion was a full proof of his Tayoke-ness (or Chinese in Burmese language).”   In order to compensate for his Chinese ancestry, it was Dr Nyi Nyi himself who proposed ultra-nationalist racist educational policies barring any academically qualified Myanmar students with one ‘alien, tayoke or kalar, parental background’ from the studies of  professional subjects medicine, engineering, vet science, etc, then lucrative and highly sought after in the Burmese context.

Earlier this spring, his former geology student at Rangoon University – Dr Yin Yin Nwe, PhD in geology Cambridge and Ne Win’s ex-daughter in law, was simply upholding her old teacher’s ugly racist legacies, as well as her family’s racist and classist outlooks.   In her VOA Burmese TV interview widely popular with the country’s neo-Nazi racists, the geologist came out with all kinds of racist observations serving on President Thein Sein’s Inquiry Commission, including her resounding endorsement of the 2-child policy for the Rohingya woman, saying how expensive it was for her to raise her only child, one of the late despot Ne Win’s grand children.

As recent as 19 August this year, on Britain’s flagship BBC Radio 4, one of the London-based senior most staff at BBC Burmese, Mr Soe Win Than, a 3-times Buddhist monk, former Myanmar Ministry of Information bureaucrat and UC-Berkeley-trained Burmese journalist, had irresponsibly and unprofessionally weighed in on the side of the neo-Nazi racists in the country, denying the official and verifiable existence of the Rohingya as ‘an ethnic group and citizens’ while refuting the State’s well-documented direct and indirect involvement in the mass violence against the Muslims and the Rohingya ethnic cleansing.

In contrast to this racism in the BBC Burmese Service in London, Britain’s Speaker of the House the Rt Honorable John Bercow publicly slammed emphatically as ‘racist’ the Burmese who deny the ethnic background of the Rohingya and who refer to the latter as ‘Bengali’, a derogatory word in the local Burmese context.  How such anti-Rohingya racist and ethnocidal views are tolerated, if not actively encouraged, in the world’s most prestigious and influential BBC is a matter that the British citizens and license fees payers ought to take up with the BBC Trust that set the editorial guidelines (against racism, among other things).

All these institutionalized and personal racisms in Myanmar, have now spread like a wild fire, thanks to the official patronage at the highest level of government and to the traditionally illiberal and racist Buddhist Order, most specifically the neo-Nazi 969 campaign.  The country’s leading democrats – including Aung San Suu Kyi and former student leaders – have proven to be infested with racism, especially towards the Muslims.  While the population remains soaked in anti-Chinese racism, given China’s international protection and the economic dominance in the country’s economy of Chinese commercial interests the racist militarized State in Myanmar is too clever to let the popular anti-Chinese racism turn violent.  While Ne Win’s military state felt comfortable enough to let the economically frustrated Burmese – ‘pure blooded’ and Buddhist? – in 1967 take their pent-up frustrations out on the entrepreneurial class of Chinese residents and citizens in places like Rangoon when Maoist China was weak and on the verge of starvation.

Now times have changed.

Since the 8888 Nationwide Uprising in 1988, the fall of Berlin Wall and the West’s shift in policies towards its dodgy allies such as Ne Win’s ‘socialist Burma’, the military leadership had heavily relied on the international protection of the (Big) Brother – Pauk Hpaw – next door in Beijing, until Washington’s Asian Pivot a few years ago.   And China is the country’s largest foreign investor with its hand in too many major economic projects.  The popular fear is that the country is being swallowed by the Chinese and China.

Here the racially and religiously manipulative military leadership in Myanmar has found a convenient diversion from its key strategic pursuits including the regime survival, the political and economic primacy in and control over society and economy, the continued refusal to address legitimate ethnic grievances, the issues of leadership and policy accountability, fear of popular reprisal under a genuinely representative government, and so on: the Muslims of Myanmar and the Rohingya of Western Myanmar are sitting ducks, most vulnerable, with no international protectors, near or far.

The Organization of the Islamic Cooperation/Conference or OIC is no China.  That is, it has very little leverage with Myanmar’s racist ruling generals and ex-generals, unlike Beijing. And ASEAN has no Muslim Brotherhood that inspires the Muslim wretched of Myanmar. On its part, Iran is too preoccupied with its own problems at home, and in the region.  India that intervened in and effectively ended  the genocide of the Bangladeshi Hindu in the civil war of 1971 by West Pakistani military and militants, has a radically different policy priority in the presently genocidal Myanmar: resource grab for Indian interests and curbing the Chinese influence.

The ethno-mobilization by the State has also been found in other transitional societies, for instance, post-Yugoslavian states or Indonesia and Malaysia in Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighborhood.  As an extreme example, Milosevic and his genocidal Serbian ultra-nationalist mobilization springs to mind.  But democratic openings do not automatically and inevitably trigger this kind of genocidal racism and racist violence against Cultural and Religious Other.

It is only the combination of popular and institutionalized racisms and the mobilization and manipulation of those racisms for strategic purposes designed to advance the goals of the ruling power holders.

In the final instance, it is not the down-trodden society which has long been accustomed to economic and political  uncertainties which is the primary culprit behind the rise of neo-Nazi “Buddhism” and “Buddhist” mass violence.  Rather it is Naypyidaw’s widespread sense of uncertainties and insecurities that best explains the regime’s documented involvement in whipping up ultra-nationalism among the country’s “Buddhist” masses.

For a regime that has, out of its strategic calculations and for its survival needs, opted to play the politics of free-marketizing the economy while attempting to keep the political and institutional lid on the long-oppressed society of Myanmar, scapegoating Muslims and the Rohingya for the country’s ills and the popular frustrations – is far more strategically appealing – and convenient – than focusing on the genuine democratization and ethnic reconciliation.  No regime with mountains of skeletons in its closet and scattered on the streets will embrace genuine democratic transition.

Romanticization of Buddhists as naturally and philosophically peace-loving people has not also advanced the international understanding of neo-Nazi “Buddhist” violence and Rohingya genocide either.

Myanmar’s 969 monks, Rakhine ultranationalists and Bama racists have proven beyond the shadow of the doubts.  Historically and empirically speaking, Buddhists all over the world are as capable of both entertaining and pursuing home-grown ‘Final Solutions’ to annihilate human communities that they have demonized and de-humanized as ‘viruses’ ‘animals’ ‘sub-humans’ and so on as any Western and Eastern Europeans.

No amount of debates and discussions about the canonical Buddhism, or historical examination of ‘Buddhist’ violence or warfare will really shed light on the dangerous mass violence and the Rohingya genocide.  Whatever the texts or claims of what the Buddha taught or not taught, Buddhists whatever their nationalities – Thai/Siamese, Buddhist or Sinhalese are of secondary importance.  It’s in the political economy and historical and social foundations of these violent racist societies with outwardly Buddhist manifestations  such as temples, pagodas, monasteries, monks and rituals.

Likewise, no Burma or Myanmar analysis can be treated as credible or accurate unless it is examined through the prism of this dialectical interface between the popularly racist society and the officially bigoted State that has mid-wived the birth of Burma’s homegrown neo-Nazism with the “Buddhist” face.

Any peaceful attempts to effectively address this two-fold neo-Nazi problem in Myanmar must factor in both the military leadership that is officially and unashamedly racist and the un-conscious civilization that talks the talk of Buddhism, but doesn’t walk the Buddhist walk.

Ne Win’s Speech – 1982 Citizenship Law


Dr. Maung Zarni is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, founder and director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004), and a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, Department of International Development, London School of Economics. His forthcoming book on Burma will be published by Yale University Press. He was educated in the US where he lived and worked for 17 years. Visit his website www.maungzarni.com.

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