“The ‘Enemy of the State’ Speaks–Irreverent Essays and Interviews:” Maung Zarni on Burma/Myanmar

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, REVIEWS, LITERATURE, 9 Sep 2019

Antonio C. S. Rosa | Editor – TRANSCEND Media Service

“The Enemy of the State” Speaks: Irreverent Essays and Interviews, by Maung Zarni, Gerakbudaya: 2019

“Maung Zarni speaks truth to power and his words are powerful because they come from his own lived and personal experience.”

— Mairead Maguire – Nobel Peace Laureate, Peace Activist and Member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment

“While the world’s academics and politicians were focused on the hopes for change conjured up by the charisma and fame of Aung San Suu Kyi, Zarni presciently warned of signs of more fundamental problems with the promised “transition” agenda for Myanmar. Zarni’s various writings and interviews represent an unending attack on the misrepresentations of the Myanmar political, military, commercial, and monastic establishment and the misunderstandings of foreign actors who were beguiled by the promises of natural resources, trade wealth, and political change. Now, as the Myanmar Tatmadaw and the Lady have revealed their true colors, the international community has found that Zarni has had something very important to say that should have been heeded. I strongly recommend this collection of insights into a country that most scholars of the country and nearly all politicians have consistently gotten wrong over the course of the past few decades.”

— Prof. Michael W. Charney – Chair of Southeast Asian and Military History SOAS, University of London

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The link to pre-order: https://www.gerakbudaya.com/enemyofthepeople

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Introduction by Maung Zarni

It is often said that a week in politics is a long time.  Through this collection of essays, published at integral moments in Myanmar’s monumental political events, I look back over the last decade of Myanmar’s national affairs.

Over the years, I have written hundreds of blogs, commentaries, a small collection of academic essays, and given numerous media interviews, which capture my thinking at the time of important developments in Myanmar’s recent history.  This collection contains short essays written for “the general public”, and a number of interviews I gave to different national outlets.  They have been published by various media outlets including the New York Times, Guardian, Bangkok Post, New Statesman, Democratic Voice of Burma, Arab News, TRANSCEND Media Service, and Prothom Alo.

The wild and unpredictable swings in Burmese affairs have been both shocking and mesmerizing:  in 2007 Myanmar monks captured the world’s attention with their public recital of Metta Sutra (Loving Kindness Prayers) as an act of non-violent resistance to the ruling military junta headed by the then sitting despot, Senior General Than Shwe.  My own late great-uncle Zeya Kyaw Htin Lt-Colonel Ant Kywe (recipient of 1st Class National Chronicle award for his role in Burma’s liberation struggles against the British rule and the Japanese occupation) was Than Shwe’s first-ever Commanding Officer who performed the young Captain Than Shwe’s marriage ceremony.  Having donned the saffron robe twice, first as a young novice customarily in Mandalay, second, as a grown-up male, voluntarily in Northern California, I remember penning a commissioned essay for the Times (in London), with heart-felt joyous reaction to the fact that the country’s most influential cultural institution was exercising its form of power in order to bring about the urgently needed changes in politics, having called on the authorities to alleviate the collective sufferings of the predominantly Buddhist public.

I also remember having felt so proud to be seated next to Myanmar State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, then the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, when she appeared as the guest of honour at the televised Rule of Law Roundtable at the London School of Economics, on 18 June 2012.  As it turned out to be her 67th birthday our Roundtable ended by singing Happy Birthday to “Daw Suu”, before she proceeded to the Green Room inside the auditorium to cut her birthday cake.

Despite her human flaws – who doesn’t have them, anyway? –  Daw Suu was my inspiration whose tales of courage and sacrifice pushed me over the line: I organized and led international consumer boycott and other grassroots activist campaigns against the Burmese military while studying in the United States.   I was her staunch supporter for 15 years – from the day she delivered her maiden speech in Yangon in July 1988 in the midst of political uprisings in Burma – till 2004 when I became convinced that her advocacy for isolation of Burma was no longer advancing the democratic change we so needed in Burma.

Besides having been fellow dissidents, her martyred father has been my life-long idol, an honest revolutionary and a public intellectual who had the personal strength and integrity to admit mistakes and correct them. Unlike Suu Kyi, Aung San the father was the very first Burmese leader who envisaged a new, independent Burma as a secular, multiculturalist country of many nations and faiths.  To the late Aung San Burmese was to be defined non-biologically – colour-, race-, faith- and creed-blind.  Anyone who loved the country as their birthplace and worked towards the common good of all was to be embraced as ‘citizens’.

In fact, I was raised inter alia on the first-hand inspiring oral sketches of her late father as recounted by my other great-uncle Wunna Kyaw Htin U Zan Yin, who was Aung San’s next-door neighbour, undergraduate classmate and friend at Pegu Hall in Rangoon University in the 1930’s during the years when anti-imperialist Marxist-inspired nationalism was sweeping across the ideological landscape of colonial Burma, particularly among a small band of Burmese students from bourgeoise native families among the colonized elites.

So, when both the Burmese monastic order in general and Aung San’s daughter turned “evil”, that is, one institution becoming the cultural platform for disseminating a potent strain of Islamophobia in general and the genocidal anti-Rohingya hatred in particular, I was extremely distraught, devastated, and utterly disillusioned about the diminishing prospects of my country’s transition from the military-ruled or -controlled rotten political system to something ideologically more progressive, politically more democratic and multicultural.

In fact, my disillusionment with the majoritarian Burmese politics had already set in even before Myanmar hit world news headlines with the organized violence against Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine State six years ago.

When the world went hysterical about the “reforms” by Myanmar military, I was the lone voice in the loud chorus of wild celebrations and welcome discourses.  From the margins of both Burmese and world affairs, my essays and interviews cautioned pointedly against the euphoria of “Myanmar Spring”, which was “rewarded” with the official visit to Yangon by Barack Obama in November 2012, the first-ever visit of a sitting American President in history.  I remember writing an essay for the Bangkok Post with the title “what US President Barack Obama should tell President Thein Sein”.   Aung San Suu Kyi’s colonial-era village at 54 University Avenue in Yangon fast-morphed into a place of political pilgrimage: the ever-growing number of heads of state, Hollywood icons, “star academics”, renowned journalists, sort sipping tea with the English-influenced Asian Mandela and holding joint press conferences.

Burma was to be “a model transition”, which Washington openly urged N. Korea and Iran, America’s favourite “rogue states”, to emulate.  Burma was to be the showcase of Obama’s legacy of “extending a hand” to America’s adversaries.   What a gratifyingly Hollywood-like ending of the Burmese liberation struggle that was!, or so the headlines of the day would have you believe.  I remember questioning the Hollywood ending in my own hard-nose empirical analyses in those days.

The dizzying speed  of developments in the country’s affairs did make it feel as if Burma of 2010 onwards was the tale of the triumph of the good over the evil: the Oxford-educated Asiatic beauty with jasmines on her hair who speaks impeccable Queen’s English, whose struggle the Western Bloc had backed over 25 years, beating the beastly generals with their halting or broken Ngapi (or fish-paste) accented English.

Against this tide of euphoria and policy hysteria I kept on writing essays sprinkled with my unconcealed pains – and uncompromising empiricism –  about what I knew to be ‘extraordinary delusions’ about my country’s affairs, the ruling military, and the “general’s daughter” or “The Lady”, that is, Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

You see I came from a large extended family whose three-generations of members, both men and women, have served in the Burmese Armed Forces since the institution’s foundation in 1942.  Although I am known as a human rights activist, my academic specialization really is the military affairs, its neo-totalitarian ideology, opaque and secretive inner workings, and how it has devastatingly shaped the Burmese society at large in various crucial aspects – including education, intellectual life, social sphere, economy, ethnic relations and Sangha-society linkages.  As a matter of fact, and against the prevailing Burma policy orthodoxy of the West, I had even worked with the Burmese military officials including the then ex-intelligence chief, the now President ex-General Myint Swe and Joints Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces General Mya Tun Oo, with the view towards breaking the country’s international isolation.

The essays and interviews in this collection contain my changing and developing views and analyses, not often expressed in politically correct tone or tactfully.    They are organized thematically, loosely speaking, Buddhism, Islamophobia and Violence, the Mirage of Reforms and Democratic Change, Understanding Myanmar Military, Ethnic Rebellions and Elusive Peace, Myanmar Genocide against the Rohingya, International Activism, a Way Forward, and Speaking Truthfully: Interviews with Zarni.

Readers will not fail to notice the skepticism that typically informs my essays.  I take pains not to commit an analyst’s cardinal sin: I do not engage in strategic or policy positioning of myself in my Burma analyses.  I don’t seek a seat at any policy table.   I write what I find, not what I think would advance my position within the Burma policy circles.

As a Burmese who had devoted more than half of his life – I am 56 – studying his birthplace and being intimately involved in trying to change its affairs for the better, I yearn to feel optimistic about my country, the future of my fellow people, including Rohingyas – whom we have discarded out of the government-manufactured hatred and fear as “proxies” for Islamists.  So, I have chosen to end the collection with a forward-looking essay, taking to heart the late Italian labour organizer Antonio Gramsci’s dictum “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the heart”.  Even at times the heart can barely feel optimistic about one’s own beloved country whose transition is turning out to be a genocidal one towards Fascism with a Buddhist veneer.   Still I want to remind my fellow Burmese, including those generals and NLD leaders that a nation’s people, irrespective of their race or faith, are a state’s assets, not its enemies.  Thus speaks Myanmar’s so-called Enemy of the State.

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A Buddhist humanist from Burma, Maung Zarni is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, former Visiting Lecturer with Harvard Medical School, specializing in racism and violence in Burma and Sri Lanka, and Non-resident Scholar in Genocide Studies with Documentation Center – Cambodia. Zarni is coordinator for Strategic Affairs for Free Rohingya Coalition and an adviser to the European Centre for the Study of Extremism, Cambridge, UK. His analyses have appeared in leading newspapers including the New York Times, The Guardian and the Times. Among his academic publications on Rohingya genocide are The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingyas (Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal), An Evolution of Rohingya Persecution in Myanmar: From Strategic Embrace to Genocide, (Middle East Institute, American University), and Myanmar’s State-directed Persecution of Rohingyas and Other Muslims (Brown World Affairs Journal). He co-authored, with Natalie Brinham, Essays on Myanmar Genocide. Zarni holds a PhD (U Wisconsin at Madison) and a MA (U California), and has held various teaching, research and visiting fellowships at the universities in Asia, Europe and USA including Oxford, LSE, UCL Institute of Education) , National-Louis, Malaya, and Brunei. He is the recipient of the “Cultivation of Harmony” award from the Parliament of the World’s Religions (2015).


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Sep 2019.

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