British Aid for Myanmar Ethnic Cleansing
ASIA--PACIFIC, 7 Apr 2014
Britain, the largest donor country and former colonizer of Myanmar, is effectively aiding and abetting the unfolding “ethnic cleansing” of Muslim Rohingya by helping to finance the country’s controversial 2014 national census.
Ex-general and head of Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government Thein Sein made an official visit to Britain this week, during which his hosts announced a new 30 million-pound (US$45.6 million) development assistance package and resumption of arms sales. One third of that amount is earmarked to bankroll the former colony’s census, “which is essential to make sure support is getting to those who need it more”, according to an official British government statement.
Because Thein Sein’s government is forcing the Rohingya people to register as “Bengali”, a continuation of a decades-old policy of stripping the Rohingya of both their citizenship and ethnic identity, Britain’s financial support for this process is troubling. The coming census will no doubt be used to reinforce this racist policy and practice of forcibly registering the self-referenced Rohingya and erasing the fact that the Rohingya as an ethnic nationality group ever existed in Myanmar.
During a question and answer session following his beautifully written, liberal sounding speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, or Chatham House, Thein Sein was emphatic about his government’s policy towards the estimated 800,000 to one million Rohingya whose cultural, economic and historical roots can be found on both sides of the once East Bengal and former Arakan State.
He stated that “to use the term Rohingya, in our ethnic history we do not have the term Rohingya”. This official denial and the racist policies that perpetuate the marginalization of the Rohingya is tantamount to ethnocide, a blatant erasure of a verifiable fact that a distinct ethnic community, with all its typical sociological fluidity, exists in Myanmar.
Gregory Stanton of George Mason University, who is president of Genocide Watch and a world renowned scholar in genocide studies, sees in Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya a Nazi-like “us versus them” classification in which the dominant group and its political state dish out discrimination, mistreatment and eventually “final solutions”.
In his influential essay entitled “The Eight Stages of Genocide”, Stanton writes: “We treat different categories of people differently. Racial and ethnic classifications may be defined by absurdly detailed laws – the Nazi Nuremberg laws, the “one (African blood) drop” laws of segregation in America, or apartheid racial classification laws in South Africa.”
Classification is universal across all cultures and political systems. However, when it is carried out in a militaristic state with a deeply Islamophobic “Buddhist” society such as the present-day Myanmar, there is only a short jump between the deliberate act of mis-classifying the Rohingya as “illegal Bengali” or “Bengalis” and being dehumanized as “viruses”, “ogres” or the local language equivalent of “niggers”. The next stage is mass violence with state impunity against a given dehumanized community.
That is precisely what has happened to the Rohingyas of western Myanmar since 1978. In February that year, the Burma Socialist Programme Party-led government, a one-party, one-man dictatorship under General Ne Win, launched the country’s first large-scale ethnic cleansing operation. Known as the Na-Ga-Min, or King of the Snakes, operation, inter-ministerial and inter-agency units from police, customs, immigration, army, navy, intelligence, civil administration and the home ministry’s religious affairs department were mobilized against the Rohingya.
Even the government’s conservative estimate put the number of Rohingya who fled to neighboring, newly independent Bangladesh at 150,000; other independent sources put the figure much higher. Since then the Rohingya have been living in security grids where virtually every aspect of their lives is severely restricted and monitored as a matter of policy.
A cursory glance at doctor-patient ratios, adult illiteracy and mortality rates among children under five speaks volume about the policy-induced dire conditions under which the Rohingya are forced to live. The doctor-patient ratio for the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State is 1:83,000, adult illiteracy is over 90%, and the mortality rate for under-five children is twice as high as Myanmar’s already very high national average.
No longer able to endure decades of a myriad forms of sexual violence, summary execution, forced labor, extortions, and other means of abuse, many Rohingya families – including women, children and the elderly – have attempted to flee the country, willingly risking their lives in rickety boats on the Andaman Sea and facing an uncertain future as stateless people in countries as varied as Canada, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia and neighboring Bangladesh.
Ethnocide may sound like esoteric academic jargon but its consequences are grave and of growing international concern. A policy of ethnocide sets the ideological and social-psychological stage for an otherwise peaceful people to carry out unspeakable and unconscionable atrocities against those whom they have been trained to consider an existential threat.
The military-controlled state in Myanmar – now headed by ex-general Thein Sein and his quasi-civilian government in Naypyidaw – has both paved the way for and carried out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. Ethnocide of the Rohingya has empowered the racist, ultra-nationalists among the local Buddhist Rakhine, national leaders and Buddhist society at large to dehumanize the Rohingya.
The fact that Thein Sein felt comfortable enough to repeat his government’s ethnocidal stance on the Rohingya at the prestigious Chatham House should ring alarm bells among the British public. His speech spoke volumes about the extent to which Myanmar’s former colonial master has become officially complicit in the atrocities against the Rohingya, London’s expressed “human rights concerns” notwithstanding.
Apparently designed to hit Britain’s subliminal colonial guilt, Thein Sein framed the Rohingya as a problem which the former British colony inherited from the Raj upon achieving independence in 1948. In Thein Sein’s words: “During the colonial administration there was a migration of economic migrants from other countries into the Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan) to work on the lands… So they grew their crops and then they did the harvest and then they went back home. But later on they decided to settle in the region. During the colonial administration there were 50,000 Muslims in that region… Now we have 800,000 Muslim population in the region. That of course caused a lot of tension.”
Colonial-era statistics have proven more often than not unreliable and the racial conceptualizations and classifications on which these demographic data rest were often full of racist and pseudo-scientific methodologies that were part and parcel of colonial rule. In 1824, the year of the British annexation of the Arakan, itself a pre-British feudal colony that was depopulated by both Buddhists and Muslims by repressive military conquest, around one-third of the population of Arakan was Muslim, according to colonial records.
Today, out of the estimated three million who live in Rakhine State, around a third are Muslim. This is hardly a demographic threat to the local Rakhines and certainly not a national threat to the predominantly Buddhist country of 50-plus million people. Beyond the numbers’ games, there are other people-centered – as opposed to nation state-centric – perspectives that are far more convincing and far closer to Arakan’s historical realities than is Thein Sein’s dubious explanation.
In a public seminar on the Rohingya held at Columbia University in September last year, Amartya Sen, the world renowned Bengali philosopher and economist and Harvard University professor, perceptively observed: “The Rohingya did not come to Burma. But Burma came to the Rohingya.”
Like other borderland ethno-cultural communities, the Rohingya as a people can be found on both sides of the borders of modern nation states, namely the former Burma, which since 1989 has been known as Myanmar, and former East Pakistan, which since 1971 has been known as Bangladesh. The boundaries of once boundary-less feudal kingdoms, many characterized by fluctuating territorial control and administrative powers, were abruptly locked and divided into post-colonial nation states.
In fact, there is nothing strange or persecution-worthy about numerous ethno-cultural and linguistic communities being split and scattered across these manufactured borders as nation states emerged out of wars, conflicts and other processes of exploitation. Even in the case of Myanmar, there are other groups such as the Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Mon, Shan, Tai, and, yes, even the Buddhist Rakhine, who also belong to different neighboring nation states. Notably, none of these communities are facing ethnocide or genocide by Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, India or China.
The truth is that the Rohingya were not always denied their existence by the Myanmar state. In contrast to Thein Sein’s ethnocidal perspective, and in spite of the contemporary debates as to whether the Rohingya are historical or ancestral “children of the land”, four successive Myanmar governments – the parliamentary democracy government of prime minister U Nu (1948-58), the caretaker government of General Ne Win (1958-60), the Union Government of premier U Nu (1960-62) and General Ne Win’s early military government, namely the Revolutionary Council (1962-74) – had all officially recognized the Rohingya as a distinct ethno-cultural community.
The Rohingya had their own national ethnic language program based at the state’s sole national broadcasting service (Burma Broadcasting Service, or BBS) alongside other national ethnic language programs such as Shan, Lahu, Bama and others. The official social studies textbooks described them as Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic nationality and placed them on the ethnic map of the country.
The household lists and national identification cards bore the word “Rohingya” for those who self-identified as such. All cabinet offices of these aforementioned governments used the word “Rohingya” in their official dispatches and records, while senior military generals in the ministry of defense addressed the Rohingya community and its religious leaders as ‘esteemed Rohingya leaders’ in the former’s public remarks and speeches. The government’s official Burmese Encyclopedia (published in 1964, two years after the military government came to power) had a specific section on the Rohingyas of northern districts of the country.
Since the first genocidal operation against the Rohingya in February 1978, successive military leaderships have been relentless in their drive to cleanse western Myanmar of the ethnic group – whom they now derisively and officially insist on calling “Bengali” – both from state discourse and from the land. Ethnocide began under Ne Win’s whimsical dictatorship, which was steeped in nationalist and anti-colonial ideologies that justified draconian policies towards the Rohingya. As a result, Myanmar now has an apartheid system for the Rohingya, who have survived various waves of ethnic cleansing since 1978.
Instead of confronting Thein Sein over his past and present role in the ethnocide and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, the British government instead gave 10 million pounds for his government’s 2014 census, a project that will almost surely drive the final nail into the coffin of the Rohingyas’ existence in Myanmar.
This also puts Britain’s plan to involve the British Ministry of Defense in training Myanmar’s armed forces in the areas of human rights and civil-military relations in a new light. For while British officials talk of human rights and accountability in military classrooms, they will simultaneously be financing a census that will be used to facilitate ethnic cleansing with British tax-payers’ money.
For those familiar with Britain’s international trajectory, its decision to help fund Myanmar’s ethnocidal census, which in turn will be technically assisted by the United Nations Population Fund, should not come as a surprise. Nor should the British government’s decision to reward Thein Sein with the export of made-in-UK arms worth $5 million. Foreign Office spin-masters will, one can be sure, soon be justifying this questionable arms deal as one to help end the country’s ethnic conflicts.
On July 19, 1947, made-in-England bullets killed independence hero Aung San and a group of the country’s co-founders in a British-assisted but locally carried out assassination. Aung San, a staunch anti-imperialist nationalist, was then seen as an obstacle to the unfettered pursuit of Britain’s post-colonial, post-World War II commercial and strategic interests in Myanmar.
Sixty years on, the resumption of export of made-in-UK arms to Thein Sein’s military-backed, genocidal regime sends an ominous signal to those ethnic and religious minorities who may not be as open to British official and corporate interests as the ethnic Burman military generals and their cronies.
In pursuit of its own hidden and not-so-hidden strategic and corporate interests, Britain is simply repeating the old colonial policy of ethnic divide and exploit. In the days of the British Raj of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the British pursued their imperialist aims and interests through the use of the country’s non-Buddhist ethnic minorities along the country’s borderlands, then referred to as the “frontier peoples”.
In 2013, Britain’s new design in Myanmar is about pursuing British interests through the dominant “Buddhist” generals and their repressive state while looking the other way when their colonial era ethnic instruments, namely the frontier or borderland ethnic peoples of the Rohingya, Karen, Kachin, and others are being further marginalized, militarily overwhelmed or ethnically cleansed.
Maung Zarni, Associate Fellow, the University of Malaya. 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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