The Irrawaddy

International Community Fails to See Myanmar for What It Is

Rohingya refugees walk along the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 21, 2018. 

The intercommunal conflict in Rakhine in 2012 saw the issue of the Rohingya resurface. Following the exodus of some 690,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh since last August, it has intensified again. There have been a lot of international conferences held around the globe in an effort to find a proper solution. Some are well thought out while others have taken sides to advocate for one particular group. Media reporting on the issue has regained momentum internationally.

Most of these discussions – I have had the privilege of participating in some of them – have been used to advance certain propositions as to the cause of this tragedy. Many so-called international experts have drawn the conclusion that Muslims are discriminated against and targeted in Buddhist-majority countries, and that Rohingya are being victimized because of their racial and religious background. The Myanmar government, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been accused of not speaking out on behalf of the minority group because it fears losing the political support of the Buddhist majority. This is a fundamentally flawed and misleading conclusion, but it might explain the international community’s misjudged response to recent events in Myanmar.

I don’t deny that anti-Muslim and nationalist threads run through Myanmar’s history, but I do question how significant they really are, and point out that Myanmar citizens are responding to and challenging those ultra-nationalist ideologies. On that point in particular, the international community has largely failed to see the other side of the coin.

As the international community tries to address the underlying causes of discrimination, it only widens the faultline between the religious minority and the Buddhist community, which is really trying to make its voice heard against intolerance. Indiscriminate use of the term “Buddhist extremism”, unnecessarily differentiating between Buddhist and Muslims in their reporting, and attacking Buddhism without adequate knowledge sends the wrong signals and strengthens the xenophobic view.

I would offer two examples – small in number but enormous in terms of the impact on the country’s mindset: the widespread demand for justice following the murder of Muslim lawyer U Ko Ni, and the rejection of hate speech from the celebrity monk Wirathu. The assassination of the prominent Muslim lawyer drew public attention and calls for justice from all walks of life in Myanmar. Strong evidence of this can be seen in the pictures taken at his funeral, condolence posts on social media, and support from people at the trial of his accused killers. Regarding Wirathu, the Myanmar government has done a good job of containing hateful discourse by restricting his speech. Not only official action has been taken against him, but youth and interfaith groups are also organizing activities to foster mutual understanding among groups. This is a sign of an emerging democratic society whose members care for each other and which can find an equilibrium within itself.

Seeing Buddhists as a homogenous group is also a misapprehension. The Buddhist community in Myanmar comprises Rakhine, Shan, Mon, Burmese and others. They don’t agree on everything, and oppose each other in many instances.

Although there have been many studies of the recent trend of nationalism, most of them have focused on how anti-Muslim sentiment developed in Myanmar, looking for new victims while ostensibly asking who was responsible for it. Dramatizing victimhood is the typical mentality of the rescuer. The point is not to reject analyses of social movements; what is missing are social activists and netizens with an awareness of the politicization of religion.

Respecting the non-discrimination principle, we should be very careful not to generalize about one religion. While majorities have to respect minorities, minorities do not have the right to discriminate against majorities. In this regard, hate speech is neither directed from larger groups to smaller, nor from powerful to powerless; rather it goes from one group to another. The concept of the Karpman Drama Triangle explains this, using the model of persecutor, victim and rescuer. The persecutor can turn into the victim and vice versa, while the rescuer dramatizes victimhood to play up his role. No one benefits from trapping others inside a role and pointing fingers. Caution is very much needed.  In this sense, the Buddhist community is becoming the victim of generalized accusations in their own country without receiving any acknowledgement for their courageous acts of change.

Moreover, advocacy groups are not willing to talk about how Myanmar is a diverse country trying to be inclusive in its nation-building through the peace process. Myanmar is currently trapped in a structural problem, which is at the root of many problems today. At the base of the problems, the general population has never had a quality liberal education that encourages diversity, or an opportunity to engage with the international community, or a robust judicial system. It has lived in poverty for a long time. On top of that, the political system has never allowed meaningful participation. Under the Constitution, when political power was devolved in 2010, the power elites maintained control of 25 percent of the legislature, full control of the armed forces and authority over three key ministries: Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs. Limited liberalization of the political system has allowed two elections. The power elites have discovered that social media can be used to strengthen their position, and have successfully used it on different occasions. Religious ideas are cherry-picked to manipulate the mostly traditional community of Myanmar. A scholar from Lund University confirmed in her recent thesis that it is not so much Buddhism itself that has led to the current anti-Muslim narratives and inter-religious clashes, but rather the use of its teachings and symbols, by the monkhood and the state, to gain legitimacy and to justify vehement discourses and actions.[i] Actually, all factors point to a development crisis, political crisis and, in part, a human rights crisis as well.

Grounded in faulty assumptions, the international community’s position can ultimately be expressed as one question: How can the international community convince Myanmar’s Buddhist majority to accept the Rohingya as part of its community? Anyone can feel the sense of hegemony in this question. This misleading question will undoubtedly have limited impact. They would do better to ask how religion is being used by nationalist and some groups for their political and popular gain. Actually, this is still not enough. We should also ask how Myanmar is struggling to contest the politicization of religion in its democratization process by defying established power elites? Stereotyping of the Buddhist community of Myanmar will definitely be counterproductive and weaken progressive endeavors.

Arguing from this perspective, I don’t mean that any people should suffer the nightmare we are seeing today. Definitely, no one should be subject to violence of any kind. We must show our humanity. I wish to do so with a long-term view, oriented toward genuine change for the whole country that will yield real benefits for all groups of people. Envisioning long-term change requires courage and wisdom not only from people inside the country, but from the outside world as well.

Ye Min Zaw is a scholar of international development studies focusing on peace processes, transitional issues and Rakhine affairs.

[i] Emilie Biver (2014) “Religious Nationalism: Myanmar and the role of Buddhism in anti-Muslim narratives. An analysis of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts through the lens of Buddhist nationalism”, Lund University