Nestled between Bangladesh and Thailand, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar continues to undergo policy and governing changes with global impact. From occupation by ethnic-minority city-states or kingdoms through the 19th century, independence from the British Commonwealth in 1948, and the most recent transition from dictatorship to democracy, along with the chairmanship of ASEAN for 2014, Myanmar’s evolution is laudable and serves an example for other countries in the region.
However, in order to fully prosper, the Buddhist-majority country must address the “shrinking democratic space” as noted by the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Myanmar following her first official visit to the country in July of 2014. For Myanmar, part of addressing the changing political, economic, social and human rights landscape will mean responding to the root cause of the ongoing sectarian conflict occurring chiefly in the Western Rakhine state. Myanmar is a country whose identity is very much wrapped up in its religious beliefs and histories; and herein lays the issue: lack of respect for the "other.’’ As Archbishop of Yangon Charles Bo recently stated, “If Burma is to be truly free, peaceful and prosperous, the rights of all ethnicities and religious faiths must be protected. A movement that has grown in volume and influence threatens this: extreme Buddhist nationalism.”
The recent and enduring communal violence sparked in mid-2012, but the plight of the Rohingya dates back well into the 1970’s with main crises taking place in 1978 and 1991. The Rohingya continue to be stripped of various rights: they are not issued birth certificates, excluded from Myanmar’s citizenship law, therefore making them “state-less,” and are denied recognition on the country's census. There is also a lack of access to health services, education and job security. Most recently, draft laws have been unveiled that seek to ban interfaith marriages.According to some of the nationalist Buddhist monks, “it's a matter of protecting race and religion and encouraging peace.”
There are frightening parallels between the policies pushed by Myanmar’s nationalist Buddhist monks and the Nazi Party in Germany during the 1930s and 40s. The above systematic stripping of rights sounds eerily similar to various portions of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws which, among other things, sought to remove Jewish influence from Aryan society just as some Buddhist Monks seek to eliminate the Rohingya. Much like Hitler and the Nazi Party, who captured the minds of the masses convincing them through propaganda that other races and ethnicities were inferior and would threaten the German state, Buddhist monks and the 969 movement, allegedly led by Ashin Wirathu, are likewise capturing the minds of the Burmese masses. Similar to Nazi rhetoric, someBuddhists claim that the Muslim Rohingya “breed rapidly” andtherefore instil fear in somefellow Buddhists that they “are at risk of disappearing” as this rapid Rohingya breeding would “swallow them [the Buddhists]”. Wirathu is quoted saying, “When you leave a seed, from a tree, to grow in a pagoda, it seems so small at first. But you know you must cut it out, before it grows and destroys the building."
We might be living a century later and dealing with a different continent, country, and religious group altogether but we are faced with the same root cause that was present 70 years ago during WWII and the Jewish Holocaust: the failure to live with our deepest differences. When one loses the ability to respect the dignity of someone else and their freedom to live differently, stereotypes set in, are perpetuated by the younger generation that don’t know better, leading to de-humanization, ending in violence.
In his recent New York Times piece, Nicholas Kristof visits Myanmar and reports on the refugee camps the Muslim Rohingya are forced to live in, what he calls “21st Century concentration camps”. The documentary captures raw footage of life in the camps, shut off from the outside world, guarded by Buddhists, such that the cities can be “ethnically cleansed”. Footage also shows a young local boy respond to a question of what he would do if he came across a Muslim boy; his response: “I would kill him.” We see similar patterns in history. Take the Polish town of Jedwabne, for example. In 1941 the Polish neighbors “beat, bludgeoned and knifed 1,600 of their neighbors, Jews with whom until then they had peacefully managed to share their poor existence. The ones who weren't already dead they locked in a barn and burned.”
So what can and should be done in Myanmar?
It is easy to be defined against someone; it isn’t so easy to accept them as they are. As Institute for Global Engagement President Chris Seiple notes, “It is just too easy to manipulate identity, playing on the stereotypes of different identity groups. If identity is to be defined by what it is for—both individually, and as a community of different identities—then society must own a 'Golden Rule' that is also protected and promoted by the state as a function of what it means to be a good citizen.”
As is evident by the current state of affairs in Myanmar, there is a need for training on such topics. Without education one cannot change a mindset or change the behaviors that results. As it stands now, just like it did during the Jewish holocaust, lack of understanding and respect for the “other” justifies extremism detrimental to the country. Myanmar would benefit from training[i] which equips the locals, government, and religious leaders on core ideas such as governance and citizenship such that there is a new common understanding that can serve as a barrier to extremist teachings—like that of Wirathu in Myanmar—so that neighbors can come together, putting aside their differences, and prevent further examples of what we once said would “never happen again”.
-Lindsay Kuntz is the Director of the Office of the President at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE). Prior to joining IGE she interned at the Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning (CAOCL). She is a 2011 graduate from Texas A&M University with a focus on international politics & diplomacy, history, and Spanish. Lindsay tweets on behalf of IGE via @engageyourworld.