Book Review

Essays on Myanmar’s genocide

Ayesha Kabir | Update:

Cover final‘Essays on Myanmar’s Genocide of Rohingyas (2012-2018)’ by Maung Zarni and Natalie Brinham is an exposure of the brutal killings, rapes, looting, arson and other heinous crimes unleashed by the military junta and their cohorts in Myanmar. The writers are leading human rights activists, speaking out against the atrocities in Myanmar and calling for justice.

Publisher of the book, CR Abrar, who heads the Bangladesh-based Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), writes in the foreword: ‘Zarni and Brinham have done a commendable job in unravelling the dynamics of the slow-burning genocide against the Rohingya community over the decades. This book is an important testament in establishing the fact that the Burmese state has been persistent in inflicting massive injustice on the Rohingya and has committed the mother of all crimes, Genocide.’

The book is significant in the sense that it points out to the lesser informed that the recent Rohingya refugee crisis did not happen overnight and is not just the result of a backlash to any so-called militancy. The discrimination, prejudice and repression have been building up over the decades, intermittently erupting in bursts of violence, the latest genocide being a culmination of all these events.

Growing up a proud racist in Burma, as indeed is the title of the first chapter of the book, Maung Zarni has a first-hand understanding of the prejudices and perception that have been bred in the psyche of the people. He writes: ‘Like millions of my fellow Buddhist Burmese, I grew up as a proud racist. For much of my life growing up in the heartland of Burma, Mandalay, I mistook what I came to understand years later as racism to be the patriotism of Burmese Buddhists. Our leading and most powerful institutions, schools, media, Buddhist church and, most importantly, the military, have succeeded in turning the bulk of us into proud racists.”

These opening words of the book are particularly relevant not only to the prevailing perceptions in Myanmar, where many of the citizens have not even set their eyes on a Rohingya person though belonging to the same country, but also highlights the global propensity towards extreme nationalism. The Burmese example serves to point out that what may seem to be innocuous nationalism, can rear its ugly head in extremism and go even beyond the horrors of ethnic cleansing. There is apparently a very fine line between the racism and patriotism of Burmese Buddhists. The nationalists there have a popular saying, ‘To be Burmese is to be Buddhist.’

Zarni points out that the resurgence of Burmese racism is the direct result of the half century of military rule. The military rule led to international isolation which served to promote an illiberal ethno-nationalist mindset, despite outward proclamations of democracy and human rights. And the military has found staunch support among monks and sections of the society, serving to strengthen their clout. Writes Zarni, ‘This unholy alliance between liberally educated presidential advisers and the Burmese junta is cemented by economic nationalism – not human rights, nor liberal humanitarianism.’ He is chilled at the thought of what society is evolving into. Himself living in exile, he feels the need for ‘conscientious Burmese diaspora’ and others within the country, to work together against popular racism and military fascism. ‘Racism,’ he writes, ‘must be unlearned.’

Research scholar Natalie Brinham has penned the second essay of the book, ‘The Conveniently Forgotten Human Rights of the Rohingya.’ Here she highlights the 1982 Citizenship Law of Myanmar which ignored the Rohingya’s claim to citizenship and thus rendered them stateless. This law is the basis of the discrimination against the Rohingya community and places them at the mercy of draconian policies.

Speaking of the international community’s response to the Rohingya plight, Brinham says that the countries to where the Rohingyas have fled are quick to condemn the violence, but not so quick to recognise the rights of the stateless Rohingyas in their own countries. In fact, many western powers, she points out, have less condemnation for the atrocities and more praise for wider reforms in Burma. They are easing sanctions and increasing investment, failing to use their leverage to ensure protection and rights of Rohingyas. This chapter serves not only to highlight Myanmar’s atrocities, but also tugs at the righteous facade of the western powers.

On a more personal note, revealing his passionate commitment to the Rohingya cause, the third chapter is a resignation letter from Maung Zarni to University Darussalam Brunei. In the foreword of the book, CR Abrar refers to this as a ‘yearning for freedom of a scholar with conscience.’ The university had withdrawn financial and institutional support for Zarni for joining a panel of the London School of Economics (LSE), addressing a roundtable on human rights and the rule of law. Zarni’s resignation was a statement against ‘illiberal institutions’.

Revealing the role reversal of Buddhist monks, in the chapter ‘Buddhist Nationalism in Burma’, Zarni refers to the Saffron Revolution of 2007, where barefoot monks protested against the rule of the military junta. Now the same robed monks are demonstrating against Islamic nations for providing aid to starving Rohingyas. He points out how over the past several years, a dangerous strain of racism has emerged among Burma’s Theravada Buddhists, who profess to have love for all beings.

Then again, Zarni points out, violent Buddhist regimes are nothing new. He gives the instances of Emperor Ashoka, Buddhist monarchs of pre-colonial Sri Lanka and Siam, the Khmer and Burmese kingdoms. This intolerance has simmered and reared up from time to time. About the present, Zarni writes, “Instead of propagating the guiding societal principles of religious tolerance, non-discrimination and social inclusion ... the influential Buddhist clergy have ...become an entire people’s most dangerous threat.” It seems as if the Buddhist clergy have the job of cleansing its Golden Land to the Rakhine Buddhists, he contends.

Other hard-hitting chapters by Zarni in the book include ‘Myanmar’s Neo-Nazi Buddhists get Free Rein’, ‘Myanmar Whitewashes Ethnic Cleansing’, ‘British Aid for Myanmar Ethnic Cleansing’, ‘Suu Kyi is the Most Polished Mouthpiece of Myanmar Military’ and more. He has also collaborated with Natalie Brinham on several of the essays including ‘Reworking the Colonial-Era Indian Peril: Myanmar’s State Directed Persecution of Rohingyas and other Muslims’, New Secretive Deal between UN, Myanmar Smells Foul’, and more.

Zarni pairs up with Alice Cowley in the longest chapter of the book, ‘The Slow-Burning genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya’. More of a research paper than an essay, this chapter is based on three years of research by the authors on the plight of the Rohingyas, which is seen as a genocide simmering over the past 35 years.

This book of essays, comprising 24 chapters in total, is at once passionate and hard-hitting, but most importantly factual and all contentions are supported by ample evidence. Given the predicament of the Rohingyas, both those within their own land and those residing as refugees in Bangladesh and elsewhere, it is vital that their plight be revealed to the rest of the world. International interest is known to wane and wander the moment another ‘sexy’ crisis comes up, and so this book is a poignant reminder that the brutality against these hapless people is far from over. It continues with no end in sight.

Note on authors: Maung Zarni is a UK-exiled Burmese Buddhist scholar and activist with 30 years of experience in activism and scholarship on human rights and democratisation. Natalie Brinham is an ESRC-funded PhD scholar in the Department of Law at Queen Mary University in London and has 10 years of experience in human rights, forced migration and human trafficking issues in the UK and Southeast Asia. Alice Cowley is Consultant Researcher, Equal Rights Trust (ERT), London and has worked with various refugees from Myanmar since 2000.

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