Nationalism is on the rise again; the 21st century has not escaped it. All the great powers’ leaders—Trump, Putin, Xi and Modi alike—have played an instrumental role in reviving nationalism. It was even on display when Britain voted in 2016 to exit the European Union. Due to the resurgence of nationalism, even in the West—because of economic concerns—neoliberalism has shrunk.
Nationalism has, in fact, a dark side. Some observers see nationalism as narrow-minded and immoral, promoting blind loyalty to a country over deeper commitments to justice and humanity. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier described nationalism as “an ideological poison” when he made a speech to his country’s diplomatic corps in January 2019.
It is worrisome that nationalism—loyalty to the nation—can lead to the demonization of others, whether foreigners or allegedly disloyal domestic minorities. Ultranationalism is even worse, having generated some of history’s most violent episodes of ethnic cleansing, generally of minorities that were considered disloyal to the nation or suspected of collaborating with enemies.
Prior to World War I, newly independent Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia divided up the European parts of the Ottoman Empire among themselves during the Balkan wars, expelling millions of Muslims across the new border into the rest of the empire. The Ottoman government, then, engaged in massive killings of Armenian civilians during the war.
Similarly, Hitler’s vilification of the Jews—whom he blamed for the rise of Bolshevism, which he saw as a threat to his plans for a German empire in Eastern Europe—eventually led to the Holocaust.
In 1947, when the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, a mutual genocide between Hindus and Muslims erupted that was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. The carnage was intense, with massacres, forced conversions, arson, mass abductions and savage sexual violence. Such melancholy historic events—genocide and ethnic cleansing—are the most egregious form of ultranationalist violence.
It is undeniable that Myanmar has also been engulfed by nationalism—even ultranationalism and religious extremism—in recent years. The resurgence of –isms in Myanmar can be blamed on a handful of opportunists seeking favors either from the de jure or de facto power holders.
In 2012, a group of extreme Buddhist monks created the 969 Movement, which gradually gained notoriety and prominence. The movement targeted the Muslim community. For example, extremist Buddhist monks like U Wirathu, who was branded the “Face of Buddhist Terror” by Time magazine, in a February 2013 sermon urged Burmese Buddhists to carry out every daily task in their lives with a “nationalist perspective”, meaning that Buddhists must act according to their Buddhist norms, in line with the perception of the country as Buddhist country.
A controversial interfaith marriage law targeting the Muslim minority was passed, highlighting the influence that virulent religious nationalists have on politics in Myanmar. Under the law, Buddhist women and men of other faiths are required to register their intent to marry with local authorities, who will display a public notice of the engagement. If there are no objections, the couple can marry, but if they violate the law, they could face imprisonment
The prominent nationalist “Bullet” U Hla Swe—a former military general and former member of Parliament who is now a fugitive and facing a warrant on charges of sedition—has always catered to such sentiment by organizing extreme nationalist activities and delivering controversial speeches.
When the Myanmar military conducted “clearance operations” against the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State in 2017—resulting in thousands of people being displaced and hundreds being trapped in the jungle—thousands of ultranationalists rallied on the streets and showed support for the military’s operation. Those demonstrators carried banners celebrating the military leaders and sang military songs. Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing praised the nationalist protesters as “patriotic members of the public”, saying that “such good traditions should be maintained”.
The truth is hidden behind such actions and the blind loyalty of ultranationalists. The truth is, tens of thousands of ethnic Kayin have become refugees and have to live in foreign countries, and tens of thousands of Kachin have fled their homes and have to stay in temporary camps in both government-controlled and non-government-controlled areas. Similarly, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled from Myanmar and are staying in Bangladesh.
Many innocent lives have been lost—along with property including livestock. The disappearance of Sumlut Roi Ja, the rape and murder of the Kachin volunteer teachers Maran Lu Ra and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, and the death of Ja Seng Ing alike underscore human rights violations including the deliberate targeting of civilians in conflict, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detention and rape against women in Kachin State and beyond. But the truth and history can never be erased and hidden from the memory of victims.
Nationalism may be a boon for those who cater to ultranationalists, but it is the bane of minorities who suffer from the actions of the majority. The Rwandan genocide—in which dominant Hutus turned with well-planned violence on the Tutsi minority whom they held to be traitors—highlights how ultranationalism can lead to massacres against the minority.
In a nutshell, history shows us that ultranationalism leads to human misery. Myanmar thus should not cater to such virulent nationalists and religious extremists and should attempt to eliminate ultranationalism. Absent such efforts, ultranationalism will continue to triumph over the truth.
Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State.
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