Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship to democratic rule has seen the rise and spread of violent xenophobia aimed at Myanmar’s Muslim minorities, particularly the Rohingya. It seems counterintuitive, but the end of military rule has been the dawn of a new pathology of cultural violence – the attitudes and discourses that legitimate the suffering of others. The timing here is no coincidence.
During military rule, dreams of a freer, fairer, safer Myanmar inspired people to sacrifice, endure and do their bit to bring the junta down. With the dissolution of the dictatorship in early 2011 and, eventually, the 8 November 2015 landslide National League for Democracy (NLD) victory, their struggle began to come to fruition. However, a story of grit, creation, navigation, and resiliency winning out over oppression has become more widely known a cautionary tale.
Transitions are meant to be periods when societies deal with predatory pasts and forge new, better fates. As history shows, this is rarely how transitions unfold. Predatory systems die hard, as Machiavelli articulates well:
‘There is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new system of things: for he who introduces it has all those who profit from the old system as his enemies and he has only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new system.’
But the ethnic cleansing underway in transitioning Myanmar is more than an old regime clinging to power.
The end of military rule in Myanmar provided space for the people of Myanmar to define their fates and, devastatingly, to redefine themselves or ‘us’. Xenophobic forces captured the opening to target, attack and exclude, turning the transition into a cleansing project. In the same way that transitions are susceptible to capture from previous regimes and perpetrators, transitions may be undercut by new predatory agendas.
Kanishka Perera in a 2015 New Mandala article, Ma Ba Tha and the Vote, provides a summary of what took place, illuminating the connection between the end of military rule and the spread of communal violence:
‘Established two years ago, Ma Ba Tha sprang from the now defunct 969 movement, a loose collection of monks linked to a wave of violence against the country’s Muslim minority in 2012 and 2013. The 969 Movement, led by a fi rebrand Monk U Wirathu, left a trail of violence in its wake and commanded a visible increase in support from the country’s Buddhist majority thanks to Myanmar’s newly found freedom of expression and the lifting of media restrictions.’
Prasse-Freeman (2013) employed Rene Girard’s theory of scapegoating to consider why the Muslims of Myanmar, and Rohingya in particular, have been the target. Prasse-Freeman notes that ‘it is not difference that inspires communal violence, but sameness, or rather the dissolution of previously reified boundaries’:
‘Buddhist monks all rallied around the Rakhine. Or more accurately, rallied against the Rohingya, identifying them as illegal immigrants with not ties to the country; that as Muslims they were a threat to Buddhism; that they were harbingers of terror; that they were simply aesthetically unpleasant: “they are not like us; we cannot accept them”, is a refrain I often hear from Burmese acquaintances.’
Myanmar’s transition is not living up to the rhetoric espoused by those who struggled to bring an end to military rule in Myanmar. With few signs that the transition will correct course to a pursuit freer, fairer, safer Myanmar for all, there is a sense of deceit. In an attempt to make sense of how to understand the struggle to transition beyond military rule in Myanmar vis-à-vis the current ethnic cleansing, Pathways that Changed Myanmar proposes:
‘Individuals all over Myanmar continue to struggle against oppression and at the same time actively support the purging of Muslims from Myanmar. This kind of contradiction is possible. When those experiencing oppression become oppressive, this does not necessarily nullify their struggle, but it certainly qualifies and tarnishes their struggle…Apathy builds around the assumption that some people and groups are fighting the good fight and that is the end of the story. There is always the possibility of an ugly side to an otherwise earnest struggle. The struggle for change in military-ruled and transitioning Myanmar is a case in point (p.205).’
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s much-awaited speech on Tuesday 19 September drew mixed reviews. Critics took aim at a ‘mix of untruths and victim blaming’ to quote James Gomez, the regional. As debate about the speech continued, reports began to surface accusing the Myanmar military using landmines to prevent Rohingya communities fleeing the destruction from returning. The National League for Democracy and the Tatmadaw are promoting a similar line on the issue, one that emphasizes the importance of obedience to the law and stability. Aung San Suu Kyi said during her speech:
‘Human rights violations and all other acts that impair stability and harmony and undermine the rule of law will be addressed in accordance with strict laws and justice.’
Matthew Mullen lectures at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University, Thailand. He has written widely on the politics of Myanmar, as well as on oppression and resistance, transitional justice, structural and cultural violence, and business and human rights.
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