This article makes two interrelated arguments. First, most politicians, activists and opinion makers in Myanmar see the political divide between the ruler and the ruled — or between authoritarian ruler and democratic forces — as the main problem sustaining violence, conflict, and oppression. However, a second set of divides— inter-ethnic and intra-Buddhist divides— have significantly widened recently, and racism, sexism, and intolerance have become widespread. Second, the planned “political” dialogue pursued as part of the peace process has yet to attend to these “societal” divides, and rising racism and sexism. This lack of attention is ironic in that the very purpose of the peace process is to address a 70-year-old conflict that is rooted in identity-based oppression.
These arguments will be demonstrated by looking at four specific cases: The Myanmar Film Academy Awards, Myanmar Idol Season 2, the “Aung San Bridge” in Mon State, and the case of Myanmar Now’s chief correspondent Swe Win vis-à-vis U Wirathu. These four cases were selected because they are the most recent, but we could easily apply this lens to others.
Myanmar Film Academy Awards
The Myanmar Motion Picture Organization held its annual Academy Awards ceremony in Yangon on March 18, 2017. The film titled “Oak Kyar Myat Pauk” won three awards for the Best Film, Best Actor, and Best Film Director categories. Oak Kyar Myat Pauk literally means the grass grown among bricks, therefore “rootless.” The film is about four youth, three men and one woman. Their childhood troubles caused by financial issues, abandonment, and family separation turned them into troubled kids. The three men met each other in jail, and they met the woman, Pauk Pauk (played by Thet Mon Myint), at Paradise Hotel, which serves adult entertainment to foreign clients. Pauk Pauk works at the hotel, where she is also an undercover agent against a human trafficking gang.
The film, which at first seems to highlight how family troubles negatively affect children, suddenly turns to explicit xenophobia. It portrays foreigners (Chinese and Thai) as exploiting Burmese women with the collaboration of Myanmar nationals. The main story is articulated around protecting Burmese women from foreign sexual exploitation.
There are two scenes that indirectly support the main storyline. Both scenes stoke racism by using elements that Burmese spectators can more easily internalize, as they correspond with a racist nationalist attitude. One scene is when one of the troubled young men Tha Gyar (played by Tun Tun) comes home from jail and cannot find his mom. A Muslim family has bought his home and is now living there. The explicit message is that foreigners have taken advantage of his misery and made him homeless. The scene reinforces the “house owner and guest” narrative that portrays Rohingya (and Muslims in general) as not behaving themselves as guests, but instead insulting the owners. Tun Tun won the best male actor award for his role in the film.
Another scene shows the leading protagonist, Shwe Oak (played by Nay Toe), speaking angrily to the Paradise’s manager (played by Soe Myat Thuzar) about foreigners exploiting Burmese:
…if the birds live in their own nests and eat their food, there is no reason to have any problems. But if they invade another’s [nest], even small birds must protect themselves as much as they can. If you don’t want any racial issues, like you say, why don’t they stay in their own nests? If they invade other’s [nests], [we] will break their wings and throw them in the sea. Then, politics. I don’t know about that either, but I know “maggots in the meat” [quislings] who betray [her/his] home and family and collaborate with thieves…. We are not maggots that open the fence for thieves. Now, I hit the thieves that you brought in. I do not care even if it causes a national problem [implying political problems involving other countries]. That’s the politics I know.
Regardless of whom Shwe Oak’s nationalist anger is directly or indirectly targeting, the film exacerbates intolerance, group-ism, nationalism and racism but does not buoy multiculturalism, diversity, tolerance and a progressive understanding of social justice. The film, therefore, is counterproductive in bridging societal divides and addressing identity-based conflict.
The fact that the film won three Academy Awards highlights that the issue of intolerance and racism is not just a personal issue for some individuals in the industry, but for the industry itself, which officially endorses such theatrical messages of hate.
Apart from long-term ideological intoxication, the film caused two social media battles: once in early 2016 when the film was shown in theaters and another in March 2017 when it won the Academy Awards. Many supporters uploaded the entire film on Facebook and YouTube, sharing the specific scene of Shwe Oak’s anger discussed above— both the video file and the text— urging people to watch and read. There were comments using words like “thief,” “home stealer,” “woman stealer,” “maggots,” and so on. On the other hand, progressive social media users expressed their disappointment, and responded with disapproving comments about both the awards and the nationalist attitudes they represented. There was almost no decent or constructive debate but rather just comments thrown back and forth.
The next social media war of intolerance is in regards to the Myanmar Idol singing contest. The finale of its second season took place in March 2017, a few days after the Academy Awards. The two top contestants were Thar Nge and Billy La Min Aye, one male and female, respectively. Billy was known to many as a Pa-O-Karen-Christian girl from Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State. She received an enormous amount of hate and criticism from angry viewers who swore at her on Facebook using harsh and sexist language. They said she was uptight and selfish, not friendly and considerate enough to her colleagues who were voted out, and also that she was using her beauty to garner votes.
On the other hand, Thar Nge, known to be ethnic Rakhine, received some ethnic identity-related comments, but not as many. One of Billy’s fans wrote that Billy, as a girl from the hills, has not sold natural gas nor seaports to the Chinese – making reference to the Kyauk Phyu seaport project and natural gas pipeline from Rakhine State to China. Thar Nge, regardless of his ethnicity, has nothing to do with the seaport or the natural gas; he lives in Pyin Oo Lwin near Mandalay and sells Burmese pea fritters as a low-income worker! Thar Nge won Myanmar Idol.
Apart from the social media war of insults and indecency that went on for months, observing the show, particularly the last two minutes before announcing the winner, makes one wonder about the entire hall chanting Thar Nge’s name in opposition to Billy – the nervous young lady standing on the stage – tells us about the public psyche regarding who they ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’, and the strong and the vulnerable. Should the audience not show decency and maturity by making themselves appear to be comforting both candidates? Or does the same psyche operate here as in politics – the commitment to the ruthless crushing of opponents? What happens if the majority is inattentive to the vulnerable?
There are lessons to learn from Myanmar Idol. The imported singing contest not only turned out to be a “nationwide affair”, but also indicated how society was vulnerable to division and intolerance. It also showed how easily people resorted to intolerance, prejudice, and hate.
The “Aung San Bridge”
While people were waging word wars over two forms of entertainment, another war was underway in regards to the naming of a new Union government-funded bridge in Mon State. The NLD government decided to name the bridge after the late General Aung San, as opposed to the originally designated name of “Thanlwin Chaung Sone Bridge.”
The Mon people were outraged by the decision. They wanted the bridge to signify Mon-ness, and represent Mon State. But the government unilaterally went ahead, while failing to consider ethnic grievances, causing locals to see the bridge name as emblematic of the ongoing Burmanization of ethnic people. The issue has divided those who support the name “Aung San Bridge” and those, mostly ethnic Mon and non-Bamar ethnic minorities across the country, who are against the government decision. There have been various public protests as well as anger on social media.
According to some civil society leaders in Mon State, the divide between Mon people and ethnic Bamars has widened, and those who used to collaborate on various issues do not work together anymore. The language used to oppose the “Aung San Bridge,” articulated through identity politics and minority rights, has made the ethnic Bamar see the Mon as increasingly nationalistic and anti-Bamar, while ethnic people see the pro-Aung San Bridge crowd as chauvinists opposed to minority rights.
At the same time as the bridge campaign, came the 2017 by-elections. The local identity-based bridge campaign entangled with rising nationalism across the country. It is the same narrative of “the house owner and the guest,” originally articulated in the context of the anti-Rohingya campaign, traveling to Mon State. A Facebook campaign ad said, “Only the house owner can fix the house. Let’s vote for ethnic parties to protect ethnic rights.”
The “house owner and guest” discourse travels not only to Mon State, but also to different parts of the country. For instance, some activists in Shan State speak of “house owners who became tenants” to refer to the way the Shan State government convened the Shan State region-based dialogue in Taunggyi between April 23 and 25. The State government convened the region-based dialogue with the approval of Dr. Tin Myo Win, chairperson of the Union-level Peace Commission. The government did not consult with political parties, ethnic armed groups, or civil society groups based in Shan State. Instead, it planned the region-based dialogue unilaterally, just four days prior to its start on April 23. Many members of the Shan State dialogue supervisory committee were unaware of the planned dialogue until April 21st. The government also organized prior township-level dialogues and district-level dialogues in one to two days. In some places, participants were invited by phone or Viber. Some were invited just two hours ahead of the dialogues — which were not really ‘dialogues’ or ‘debates’ anyway.
For the Shan State region-based dialogue in Taunggyi, political parties were required to submit the names of representatives in less than a day, and position papers on politics, economics and land/environmental issues in less than two days. Stakeholders in Shan State felt that they were not given time for preparation, but instead were forced to follow the rules of the game set by the government.
It is even worse for ethnic Shan people as they have not been able to convene Shan ethnic-based dialogue due to the government not allowing the dialogue to take place in Taunggyi (or Panglong). Shan communities feel the government’s convening of region-based dialogue in Taunggyi was inattentive to their grievances. Equally disappointing for the Shan State Civil Society Forum Committee— a collection of representatives from various civil society organizations— is that they were not invited to the dialogue. The invited civil society representatives were not allowed to submit papers nor participate in discussion.
In short, questions over representation, decision-making, implementation, and the potential consequence of the dialogue are not only puzzling for many in Shan State but create a sense of loss regarding the process. Activists speak of the fact that the Shan State region-based dialogue was supposed to be their own affair, but local stakeholders were invited as ‘guests’ and forced to accept the rules of the game set by the Union government, which is seen as the Bamar government — an outsider. In short, people felt that outsiders were dictating house affairs, and that homeowners instead became powerless tenants.
The major religious divide in Myanmar has traditionally been between the majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities. Religious cracks within Buddhist communities were rare until the 2015 general election campaign, when the political cracks between supporters of the NLD and the junta/USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) were partly articulated around religion. Buddhist nationalists, banding together as Ma Ba Tha, supported the USDP in the name of protecting race/religion, while the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi supporters, still nationalists, rejected Ma Ba Tha’s religiously-loaded political campaign. By that time, many people came to realize that Ma Ba Tha was using Buddhism to mobilize supporters for the USDP against the NLD.
The crack was amplified in February this year when Myanmar Now’s chief correspondent Swe Win raised a question regarding Ma Ba Tha’s possible link to NLD lawyer U Ko Ni’s assassination. Also, when the leading Ma Ba Tha monk U Wirathu publicly thanked the assassins of U Ko Ni, Swe Win criticized him, which led U Wirathu followers in Mandalay and Yangon to sue him on charges of defaming Buddhism and U Wirathu. U Wirathu’s supporters warned him to apologize, but Swe Win criticized U Wirathu in a press conference instead. Swe Win requested that the Ministry of Religion and Culture comment on whether what he said about U Wirathu amounted to defamation. The ministry issued a statement on April 5, stating that it did not. The USDP and eight other political parties accused the ministry of interfering in the judiciary, and said such interference could result in unnecessary consequences. Ma Ba Tha also issued a similar statement, indicating that the ministry was responsible for any unnecessary consequences.
Earlier, on Feb. 9, U Wirathu delivered a sermon in former President Thein Sein’s home village of Kyon Ku, in Irrawaddy Division, stating that Buddhist women should marry dogs (or alcoholics or drug addicts) instead of ‘Kalar’ (a derogatory word used to describe those of South Asian descent). He said dogs were as capable as ‘Kalar,’ and that he would send monks to fulfil the women’s desires. The sermon took place in defiance of the regional government’s ban on him preaching in the region.
This outraged Buddhist communities, including women, some of who have spoken out against his preaching. U Min Hlaing filed a case against U Wirathu at Dawpong court in Yangon Region (which the court rejected on the basis that the sermon took place elsewhere).
On March 10, the Sangha Maha Nayaka (Ma Ha Na), the official supreme clerical body that oversees Buddhist religious life, banned U Wirathu from preaching for a year. Though the Ma Ha Na warned that legal action would be taken if he failed to comply, he has continued to disobey the ruling.
His latest preaching has triggered public responses, including signature campaigns to urge the government to prosecute Wirathu, as well as social media campaigns. It should be noted that it is not only U Wirathu who is under scrutiny, but also other monks who preach hate speech.
Meanwhile, nationalist monks are collecting signatures urging the prosecution of Swe Win.
In short, intra-Buddhist divides have been seen recently, which was rarely the case before. For the time being, and generally speaking, the intra-Buddhist divides have the Ministry of Religion and Culture, Ma Ha Na, relatively more progressive portions of the NLD, the media and activist communities, and anti-Ma Ba Tha civilians on the one hand, and Ma Ba Tha, the USDP and its nationalist political party alliance on the other.
Is the Peace Process Lagging Behind Societal Divides?
The four cases discussed above raise an important question: to what extent does the peace process, particularly the planned 21st century Panglong Conference and national dialogues, respond to emerging societal situations? It is uncertain how accessible the peace process is to the public, let alone whether people have a deep understanding of, interest in, or confidence in the process, itself. But the film Oak Kyar Myat Pauk is as popular among the people, as is Myanmar Idol. Racism, hate and intolerance in theatrical dialogue have been officially endorsed by the Myanmar Film industry. Many more films insensitive to conflict and diversity can be expected. Myanmar Idol shows that society is vulnerable to division. It also shows a public psyche obsessed with crushing the opposition, and that respect, decency and comforting the weak do not seem to be part of the public culture.
The “Aung San Bridge” and the Ma Ha Na/Ma Ba Tha cases show that inter-ethnic and intra-communal divides, involving the government and politicized communities, accelerate quickly. All these cases collectively demonstrate that racism, sexism, intolerance and societal division are fundamental and common to all issues in Myanmar today. Addressing these issues requires serious inter-communal and intra-communal dialogues with deep political, ideological and intellectual commitments to anti-racism, multiculturalism and social justice.
It is questionable whether the planned political dialogues can address these issues at all. The process has been complicated. It is doubtful whether every key person involved in the process even understands the framework for political dialogues and emerging Terms of Reference (ToR). Progress has been slow. The first political dialogue was expected in 2013. Four years have passed, but substantive negotiations on the thematic issues agreed upon by the government and ethnic armed groups have not taken place. The relevance of the substance of political dialogues is questionable as well. While the agreed topics such as politics (federalism), security reform, economics, social, and land/environment may be important, the issues of racism, sexism, and intolerance are key to all of them. Yet, it appears that the political dialogues, designed to talk about traditional ‘political’ topics are detached from everyday human relations and experiences in the social world. Areas such as entertainment, racism, and religion shape society yet often do not make it to the venue of traditional or high-level political talks.
In other words, political dialogue for national reconciliation, designed on the track of ‘doing politics,’ does not seem to reflect the societal divides. It is neither sufficient nor substantive enough to address such divides. Moreover, it is not fast enough to catch up with the societal cracks, which ironically could further slow down political talks.
Perhaps, the slow pace of the political dialogue can be an opportunity for the leaders of the peace process to be ‘sociologically’ savvy and reflect on the ‘social world.’ As racism, intolerance, inter- and intra-ethnic/religious divides can be at the bottom of the list in political dialogue for peace and reconciliation, it is important for peace leaders to commit to anti-racism, multiculturalism, inter- and intra-communal harmony, and social justice. Conflict sensitivity measures must be sensitive to racism, sexism, intolerance and social justice. Otherwise, political justice will continue to be eclipsed by the forces of social injustice.
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.