The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Xenophobia as – fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign. Thus, one need not necessarily be a foreigner or newcomer to a territory to be a target or an object of this crime. Even an indigenous people who are a minority that look or behave differently than the majority can be victims of xenophobia.
In recent years, xenophobia has become a powerful political factor in many parts of our world, especially in Europe, emboldening the far right, extremist and fascist forces. In India, despite their existence for more than a thousand years, Muslim and Christian minorities are viewed as intruders, outsiders or foreigners. Under the fascist Hindutvadi BJP government scores of Muslim-sounding names of towns, cities and places are being replaced with Hindu-sounding names to revise history and delink Muslims from those places as if they don’t belong there any longer in Modi’s India. Under the pretext of saving cows (Gau-rakhsha), Muslims are lynched to death. Mosques and churches are also routinely attacked and demolished to make ways for building Hindu temples or other development projects.
But nowhere is this intolerance more acute than in Burma (officially called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar), a country in Southeast Asia that borders India and Bangladesh to its west, Thailand and Laos to its east and China to its north and northeast.
The Rakhine state (formerly called Arakan) is Burma’s western most state. Historically, the Arakan littoral of the Bay of Bengal, sandwiched between the Muslim-majority Bengal and the Buddhist-majority Burma, was an independent state. It had a typical frontier culture where Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus lived together. The territory was annexed by Bodaw Paya, a Burmese king in 1784 C.E. His savage forces massacred many of the conquered people of Arakan and forced hundreds of thousands of survivors to flee and take refuge inside East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh), which was then administered by the East India Company (of Great Britain). In 1824, Arakan was conquered by the East India Company, thus, putting an end to the brutal occupation by the Burman race, and encouraging resettlement of the refugee families.
For the most of its independent years since 1948 when Burma gained independence from the Great Britain, contrary to the aspirations of the non-Burman people living along the frontier states that make up most of the religious and ethnic/racial minorities, the country has been ruled (irrespective of whether the government was military or civil) solely by people from the dominant Burman race. Their power is essentially rooted in Buddhist religio-racism that has permeated Burmese society for centuries. This racism is not limited to the racial supremacy complex alone, but also plays the card of ethnic racism of one against the other. Thus, we see the racism of the Burmans against the Karen and the Shan, the Karen against the Burmans, the Shan against the Wa, the Wa against the Shan, the Rakhine against the Rohingyas, the Mon against the Burmans, the Burmans against the Chinese, the Christians against the Buddhists, the Buddhists against the Muslims, etc. This list is by no means a comprehensive one, but the bottom line is: the ruling power has always exploited this ‘divide-and-rule’ policy to turn people against each other and thereby increase its hold onto power in this artificially glued country of many races, ethnicities and religions.
For decades, the military regime’s propaganda, therefore, encouraged a blind racist nationalism that was full of references to ‘protecting the race’ – meaning that if Burmans do not oppress other nationalities then they will themselves be oppressed, ‘national reconsolidation’ – meaning assimilation, and preventing ‘disintegration of the Union’ – meaning that if the Army falls then some kind of ethnic chaos would engulf the divided nation. Sadly, that toxic strategy to justify violence against ‘others’ that are considered racially and/or religiously different has not changed an iota under the new civil administration of Suu Kyi.
Race, religion and ethnicity have been exploited to justify the genocidal crimes, brutal oppression and subjugation of non-Buddhists inside Burma. As a result, the country has been engrossed in rampant ethnic and religious strife, and its myriad ethnic groups have been involved in one of the world’s longest-running ongoing guerilla wars to restore their fundamental rights that were snatched away from them.
In 2011, the military junta, which had ruled the country for half a century since 1962, was officially dissolved following a 2010 general election, and a quasi-civilian government was installed under an ex-general Thein Sein. Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of country’s founding father Aung San), then touted – rather falsely – as a democracy icon, and some political prisoners were released ushering hope of a new beginning and improved human rights record and foreign relations for the country that had hitherto been looked down as a pariah state. The transition led to the easing of trade and other economic sanctions. In the landmark 2015 election, Suu Kyi’s party won a majority in both houses of the parliament. However, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) remains a powerful force in politics.
Of all the minorities, the worst sufferers have been the Rohingya people who live in the Arakan state. They are vilified, maligned and persecuted. Denied citizenship and every one of the thirty rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they became the target of elimination in a highly sinister national project that enjoys wide support from all sections of the Buddhist society inside Myanmar. The rationale behind such heinous crimes is the fearmongering myth that if Muslims are not eliminated, Myanmar will become a Muslim country. Consider, for instance, the remarks of Maung Thway Chun, the editor of a newsweekly for hardline Buddhist ultra-nationalists. He told Joe Freeman, a journalist based in Rangoon: “[W]e don’t want Muslims to swallow our country … Then this country will be a Muslim country. It is such a shame for us that the land we inherited from our former generations will be lost in our time.”
For most westerners, it is difficult, if not incredible, to imagine this dreadful side of Buddhist fascism – known as Myanmarism – that has defined the country in recent decades. Myanmarism is a toxic apartheid ideology in which race and religion, much like Nazism, defines identity and legitimacy to Myanmar. The non-Buddhists who are viewed as outsiders or intruders by the Buddhist majority have no place or legitimacy; they are made the targets of elimination inside Burma to make the land pure for the Buddhists and free of the non-Buddhists.
Myanmar’s 2014 census counted the population to be 51 million people. As of 2018, the population is about 55 million. Rohingyas were not counted in that census and were not allowed to field their candidates in the 2015 election. Based on the estimates from international NGOs and rights group, it is, however, believed that Rohingyas numbered at least two million, thus, making up at least 4 percent of the total population inside Myanmar or about 40 percent of population in the Rakhine state. More than three million Rohingyas are now settled or forced to live as legal or illegal refugees outside their ancestral home in Arakan.
Since the so-called democratic transition that began in 2011, thousands of Muslims, esp. Rohingyas living in the Rakhine state, have been killed in targeted pogroms by both the government security forces and armed Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes. Thousands of Rohingya females were raped by Buddhists as a weapon of war to terrorize this most persecuted community of our time. The latest of such criminal activities in 2016 and 2017 have been recognized by the world community, including the UN, as a genocide that has forced the exodus of nearly a million to Bangladesh. Before the latest crisis hit them, some 140,000 Rohingyas were already internally displaced and living in concentration camps inside Arakan. Since 2017, tens of thousands are living along the no-man’s land, bordering Bangladesh. Since August 2017 Doctors Without Borders have treated thousands of Rohingya refugee females for sexual assault (i.e., rape).
Genocidal crimes don’t happen in a vacuum and require hate provocateurs to prepare the ground for such a ‘final solution’ of the targeted group. In the context of Myanmar, this evil task was jointly carried out by the various propaganda outlets (including the Facebook) at the disposal of the central and local (Rakhine) state governments, Buddhist monks (e.g., Wirathu and his fascist 969 Movement), ultra-nationalist politicians and intellectuals (esp. Rakhine) like Aye Chan, Aye Kyaw, Khin Maung Saw and others. Thanks to their willful distortion, the Rohingyas whose origin to the Arakan littoral predates those of the Rakhine Buddhist community were portrayed as outsiders or infiltrators to Arakan and as a virus that needed to be eradicated.
There is no doubt that xenophobia against the Muslims, esp. the Rohingyas, provided the necessary backdrop for their “Final Solution” (genocide) in 2016-17. Without those hate provocateurs we may have been spared of this latest human tragedy. As we have seen with the Nazi hate provocateur Julius Streicher preparing and mobilizing the Germans to bring about the Jewish Holocaust in Germany so is the case with evil Buddhist fascist ideologues like Aye Kyaw, Khin Maung Saw and Aye Chan (author of xenophobic works like the “Who are the Rohingyas?”, “The Development of Muslim Enclave in Arakan” and “The Influx Viruses”) among the Rakhaings (the majority Buddhist race inside the Rakhine state, also called the Rakhine), steering the wheel of xenophobia against the Rohingyas of Burma.
Xenophobia in Arakan has also been abused by powerful Buddhists for political and economic gains. In their victimization of Rohingyas today, the Rakhaings see and find themselves as benefactors the same way the Nazi Germans saw and found themselves in their xenophobia against the German Jews. They possess what once belonged to the ‘other’ race.
Can xenophobia be defeated or tackled? I like to believe that with proper upbringing, education, and enactment and strict enforcement of laws, it can surely be tackled to minimize its harmful effects. However, xenophobia cannot be defeated easily without understanding its underlying causes, the roles the society, politics and economics play. The second step will involve challenging the ultra-nationalist views concerning xenophobia. The third step will involve accepting xenophobia as a crime against humanity and thereby stopping it at any cost both at local and international level. Harsh punishments must be meted out to the preachers and practitioners of xenophobia. Lastly, the latter groups must learn from history that xenophobia has not benefited any nation and will surely not benefit theirs either. Hopefully, a greater dissemination of knowledge right from childhood and deeper appreciation of human diversity will spur us to stop xenophobia once and for all time.
It is worth mentioning here that on May 23, 1945, two weeks after Germany’s surrender, Julius Streicher was captured by the Americans. Chief Justice Jackson, chief counsel for the prosecution, spoke to the tribunal and said that the prosecution did not wish to incriminate the whole German race for the crimes they committed, but only the planners and designers of those crimes, the inciters and leaders without whose evil architecture the world would not have been for so long scourged with the violence and lawlessness of this terrible war.
Julius Streicher was included in that short list. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial and sentenced to death on October 1, 1946.
What is important here to stress is that Julius Streicher was not a member of the military. He was not a typical person prosecuted for international war crimes, given his civilian profession. He was not part of planning the Holocaust, the invasion of Poland, or the Soviet invasion. Yet his role in inciting the extermination of Jews was significant enough, in the prosecutors’ judgment, to include him in the indictment.
I earnestly hope that one day the Buddhist hate provocateurs like Wirathu, Aye Chan and Khin Maung Saw and others would be tried in the International Criminal Court for inciting genocide against the Rohingyas of Myanmar. Surely, they know and understand what they are doing and the consequences thereof.
I hope that world community will demand not only the restoration of the ethnic and citizenship rights of the Rohingya community in Myanmar by repealing discriminatory xenophobic laws that are at odds with international and UN laws but also demand for protective status for them as an endangered community in the northern Arakan, their ancestral homeland. Anything short of these remedial measures will simply make them an extinct community.