Dr. Maung Zarni, an exiled dissident from Myanmar, is a scholar and activist based in the United Kingdom. He is co-author (with Alice Cowley) of The Slow Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya and a grassroots activist who coordinated the international consumer boycott of Myanmar in support of the National League for Democracy from 1995-2004, was the founder of the Free Burma Coalition and has been with the London School of Economics as well as Harvard University. Zarni, himself a Buddhist, has been a vocal voice on human rights globally and was interviewed by ADIL ZAMAN for The Citizen. Excerpts:
Q.What is your response to Aung San Suu Kyi government’s denial of a UN probe into the widespread allegations of killings, rapes and torture by security forces against Rohingya Muslims?
As a Burmese activist, who had supported Aung San Suu Kyi as the hope of Burma for 15 years, I am deeply troubled by her government – and the Nobel laureate herself – dismissing and denying all the credible allegations of ethnic cleansing and even a genocide.
My own 3-year-study (Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal, 2014) conducted with my wife and colleague Alice, was the first comprehensive academic publication on the persecution of the Rohingya. We were persuaded by our findings that my country has long triggered the process of a slow genocide, with periodic waves of large scale violence against this peaceful, vulnerable Muslim community, with a historical claim over their own region of Northern Rakhine. Other studies and reports from Yale Law Clinic, Queen Mary U. of London Law School, etc. have arrived at the same conclusion, further reinforcing our findings.
So, I find it unconscionable that Aung San Suu Kyi herself and virtually all her advisers, officials and spokespersons have been dismissing these numerous reports and studies as “fake rape” “exaggeration” “Muslim-on-Muslim violence” or primarily “centuries-old sectarian conflict” “poverty-induced conflict” between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in the region, an unfortunate by-product or side effect of multi-ethnic country opening up. The evidence – that the persecution is state-orchestrated and predates Burma’s opening by nearly 30 years – since 1978) – is irrefutable.
Q. More than 75,000 Myanmar Rohingyas have fled to the Bangladesh Border since October, 2016, who is responsible , who will help them ?
Unlike the 2012 waves of violence in June and October where local Rakhines led the mass killings and mass destruction of Rohingyas – with a blanket impunity, the October 2016 violence, displacement, and destruction was carried out by the Burmese security forces including the Burmese police forces.
Although the security forces are not under Suu Kyi-government’s control, the police are under NLD-government, as Aung San Suu Kyi herself admitted in her Channel News Asia interview in early December last year. The Burmese military leadership ordered these ‘security clearance’ operation as a response to the killing of 9 Burmese police men manning two border posts.
Based on my own research -including interviews with Rohingyas, the Burmese military invented its own pretext to launch a large scale “security clearance operations” by setting this up “honey-trap” where the young, angry, militant Rohingyas men were lured into attacking the border posts, in a region that is dotted with Burmese military and police intelligence units and check-points.
The military leaders are directly responsible for the exodus of 75,000 Rohingyas and Aung San Suu Kyi government whitewashes, covers up, denies and dismisses the military’s international human rights crimes against Rohingyas. You know denial is always a part of a genocidal process, from the Nazi genocide to Rwanda – and now to Myanmar genocide of Rohingyas. When a sovereign government, whatever its form or nature, fails to discharge its responsibility to look after humans inhabiting on its soul then it is the responsibility of the international community to intervene, in any possible and conceivable way, to protect and help the victim community. The region’s giant neighbours such as India and China, as well as the regional bloc such as South Asian and South East Asia regional blocs are primarily responsible for taking care of the region.
Q. Has the international community proved ineffective in dealing with Rohingya Crisis?
Yes, absolutely ineffectual. UN High Commission on Refugees based in Geneva has been involved in addressing the needs of period waves of Rohingya refugees since spring of 1978 – (the first wave saw 278,000 Rohingyas fleeing Burma’s terror campaign disguised as “immigration checks”, that was followed by 1991/92 wave with similar number of refugees. Rohingya issue hit the world’s headlines only after the country opened up in 2011.
Since the two bouts of violence in 2012 and now the latest one in 2016, another quarter million Rohingyas have fled the country, according to the UN reports). One reason the international community has been ineffective in addressing the Rohingya Crisis is because it fails to confront the root cause of massive human sufferings of Rohingya as a collective ethnic community, naming the state-led genocidal process.
You know ending genocide may be a moral imperative for communities and circles of ordinary humans like you and me, but it does not advance strategic interests of external, powerful players in international politics. The ugly truth is this: the world revolves around national and corporate interests and nasty struggles over these interests. Rohingya crisis is yet another inconvenient case of international crimes against the faceless, vulnerable, commercially useless human community. The failure of the international community, so-called, to end Rohingya genocide, and other atrocities in places like Sudan or Burundi, is an affront to all the decent humans around the world.
Q. Former UN secretary General Kofi Anan few months ago said “ He would not describe Violence being committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority as “genocide”. Your Comments?
It is utterly pathetic and arrogant that Kofi Annan would weigh in on the Rohingya issue, without having studied the persecution in any appreciable ways, against the backdrop of studies that call Burma’s persecution of Rohingya by its legal name.
Professionally speaking, Annan spent less than a total of 7 days in his whirlwind trips to Rakhine region, speaks no local language, has never been involved in Myanmar political issues, in any appreciable ways. How could someone with zero expertise on local or national issues.
Look. When it comes to dealing with cases involving genocide and ethnic cleansing, Kofi Annan is the last person whose words I would take at face value. As the head of UN Peacekeeping Force based in New York headquarters, this careerist bureaucrat sat on his hands when the head of the Peacekeepers in Rwanda was sending unequivocal messages of an imminent genocidal killings in 1994, simply because the most powerful post-Cold War Masters of the UN – the Americans – didn’t want to hear the “G” word. Annan simply let 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi be slaughtered in a span of a few months. When he was made head of UN, he did nothing, as Sec-Gen., significant to protest the illegal and immoral invasion against Saddam’s Iraq, the legacy of which the Middle East – and the world – are still reeling from.
Q. What is the 969 group ? What makes them neo-Nazis and why are they targeting Muslims?
969 is just a name, a reference to a mixed group of Bama nationalists, both laymen (and -women) and nuns and monks. The group’s name has changed from 969 to Ma Ba Tha and others. But the core players – funders, lay supporters, protectors within the military, propagandists in the Burmese language media, etc. – remain the same.
What makes them Nazi-sh is their core belief that Muslims – all Muslims – and Islam – are a major threat to the world in general and to Burma as the predominantly Buddhist country.
It’s like Hitler and Nazi ideology that scapegoated the Jewish peoples as the source of all evils – the Russian Revolution, the international banking system, etc. It is this extreme-racist ideology that compels the Burmese anti-Muslim racists organized themselves as 969, Ma Ba Tha, Patriotic Monks Association, Wunthanu Philanthropy – that’s the latest banner of 969, after its name is declared “illegal” by the national governing body of monks a month ago – to target all Muslim communities.
The crucial point I want to emphasise here is the role of the military-controlled government and governmental institutions in propping up these racist groups. The most powerful generals including the Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and still influentially networked ex-Chief of Intelligence and ex-General Khin Nyunt are known patrons of individual leaders of these neo-Nazi groups such as Sitagu monk and Wirathu monk.
Q.What are the threats to ethnic minorities in this region or according to you in the Buddhist Triangle( Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand) – How did it originate ?
Of the three Theravada Buddhist countries, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are former British colonies. The threat they have posed to ethnic and religious minorities – in the case of Sri Lanka, the autonomy-seeking Eelam Tamils and Muslims and Christians – stems from the fact that the countries’ post-colonial governments, their respective ideologies, and constitutive institutions have enshrined “Buddhist racism” – an oxymoron – towards non-believers.
Over the last 50 years at least, these two states have crystalized unitary state structures that rest on this majoritarian Buddhist racism. In a warped way, although the Buddhists in these two countries are the majorities, they seem themselves in global terms – Buddhists are minorities in the sea of 1.7 billion Muslims in 57 Muslim countries. They look at the history of the spread Islam in places like the Malay World, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, etc. – through the Sword, in the historical understanding or misunderstanding in these predominantly Buddhist societies. They look at the violence that has engulfed the Middle East and terrorist attacks in USA and Europe and conclude that Islam is “a virus of violence” and Muslims are “carriers”.
The popular Burmese discourses in the social media – and in face to face conversations – are informed by this fear and perception of Muslims as an existential threat to Buddhists and other non-Muslims. In the case of Thailand, the Thai kingdom has never been colonized by a Christian European power. So, the Thai state has been the patron of Buddhism and Buddhist clergy.
Q. Your forthcoming book on Burma is going to be published this year. Any details you could share?
My book is a commissioned work by Yale University Press. It is a history and analysis of my own society, where I deviate from the typical court- or state-centred narrative. In other words, I am writing a mini-version of a “people’s history” of Burma, marginalizing the century-old elite voices. I am in fact struggling with it in terms of time. I am an activist through and through. I can’t sit down and simply focus on writing this long form of analysis and story-telling. I feel I need to respond to the deeply disturbing developments “at home” – like the rise of violence, the lies of Aung San Suu Kyi and the generals, the popularization of Islamophobia.