How I came to find myself in Mawgyun, a small town in the Ayeyarwady Region of Myanmar, was something of an accident. To be more precise, it was a consequence of my inability to speak Burmese coupled with the madness of Yangon’s chaotic wharf. In other words, I got lost.
Myanmar is a country that fascinates me, mostly because it’s so different from anywhere else in the region. While Southeast Asia has, for better or for worse, embraced consumerism, the Burmese have retained much of their cultural identity. This is, of course, changing as the country open’s itself up to the rest of the world and incomes slowly rise. But for now, it is a small island of uniqueness in a globalized world that at times can seem a bit bland.
It is also full of exceptionally warm people. From morning alms of rice collected by local monks to the barrels of water left outside for thirsty travelers, Burmese culture emphasizes generosity. And this may have been my strongest impression of the country had I not woken up in the middle of the Ayeyarwady Delta to find that there is also a dark side to Myanmar culture. One that I had heard about but whose pervasiveness I had failed to grasp.
Today, Myanmar is in the headlines for what the United Nations has described as a genocide. The Rohingya, who live in Rakhine State that runs along the country’s west coast and borders Bangladesh, are being forcefully displaced by Myanmar security forces. The Rohingya are Muslims.
According to the government, the Rohingya are not Burmese, which in a certain sense is true. The term Rohingya is a political construct, and most Rohingya trace their roots to Bangladesh. But the Rohingya are the inhabitants of Rakhine State, many having lived in the region for centuries, others immigrating during the British Raj.
It is also true that the Rohingya have had a history of insurgency and agitation, feeding into fears by Buddhist Rakhine of a Muslim takeover. In the past, Muslims and Buddhists villages have been destroyed in communal conflicts. Both are victims; both are culpable.
There isn’t much to do in Mawgyun. There is only one main street lined with a few colonial era houses that somehow survived the devastation of Cyclone Nargis among the buildings constructed out of aluminum siding. Closer to the center, a garbage-strewn dirt road serves as an outdoor market where women, thanaka artfully applied to their cheeks, sit selling produce. On the corner is a café, really nothing more than a small room with an old fan and a few plastic chairs.
I spent my time in Mawgyun waiting for my return to Yangon, whiling away the hours mostly by talking to the locals at the café. Communication was a bit difficult, but the younger Burmese were eager to have the chance to practice their English with a native speaker, a few were even attending university in Yangon.
Through this chance idleness, I learned some interesting facts about Mawgyun. The town was established by the British in the early 19th century to serve as an outpost in the Ayeyarwady Delta. Along with the British came Muslims from India, attracted by promises of fertile land. What caught me off-guard, though, was the intensity in which the Buddhists disliked the Muslims in the area, so much so that they were waging a low-scale culture war against them.
How exactly? By using the bureaucracy of the state to impact their livelihood. Apparently, in Ayeyarwady, one must obtain a local license to slaughter cattle. Only a finite number of licenses are authorized in any given year. In the past, these licenses were bought by Muslims, who are the primary consumers of beef. However, radical Buddhists groups had begun to outbid their Muslim competitors for these licenses with the expressed purpose of effectively banning the sale of beef (a win for cows, to be sure, but not such good news if you have a hankering for a burger or, in the case of Muslims in Mawgyun, need a sacrifice for Eid al-Adha).
While the crisis in Rakhine State grabs headlines, intolerance to the Muslim minority is a widespread problem in Myanmar that goes beyond communal conflicts, as I learned from my visit to Mawgyun. Burmese society has largely accepted that any act of violence against a Buddhist or any transgression against the Buddhist faith by a Muslim should be met with the collective punishment of the Muslim community. Riots are generally triggered by the individual act of one Muslim, which in any other context would pass unnoticed by society in general.
Moreover, there is a pervasive belief that Muslims are inherently violent or seeking to take over Myanmar. It is part of a larger nationalist trend seeking to differentiate Myanmar from its neighbors, in particularly, Bangladesh. These views are encouraged by many in the Buddhist clergy, including Ashin Wirathu, dubbed by Time Magazine the “Burmese Bin Laden.” This monocular is a bit unfair. He’s more a Burmese Alex Jones (but without the anger). The unassuming monk has gathered a sizeable following by spouting conspiracy theory nonsense and unverifiable antidotes of Muslim “crimes” rather than explicitly calling for violence.
More alarming is the complicity of the state in the targeting of Muslims in Rakhine and elsewhere. The Myanmar government has an obligation to protect the lives and property of all of its citizens. However, Myanmar politics is still heavily influenced by the military, which controls by law 25 percent of parliament. Pitting the Buddhist majority against the Muslim minority allows the military to maintain its relevancy as the country transitions to democracy. The impact of such actions could potentially have disastrous long-term consequences to civil liberties.
But while Western media has placed much of the blame on the government and extremist rhetoric, it is society at-large that is the real problem. People like Ashin Wirathu exist because they espouse views that are widely held. The fact that there is no vocal movement to amend Myanmar’s nationality law that prohibits citizenship to most of the Rohingya is telling. There is no desire on the part of Myanmar society for their inclusion. They are not wanted.
On an individual level, I have found that most Burmese, regardless of the ethnicity or religion, are incredibly kind and welcoming. I have no doubt that the vast majority of Buddhists in Myanmar would come to the aid of a Muslim if they personally found themselves in a situation that required it. Society, though, has coerced individuals to act against their conscience and remain silent about the actions of others.
At the moment, over 300,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh. Whether this constitutes genocide as the United Nations claims is a matter of semantics. There is no doubt, however, that this is a humanitarian crisis, and that Myanmar security forces have been implicated in gross violations of human rights.
While the international community can help alleviate the suffering of Rohingya who find themselves refugees in Bangladesh, it will, ultimately, be the citizens of Myanmar that decide whether their nation is solely for Buddhists or a country that transcends ethnicity and religion. Individual Burmese must find the courage to stand up to discrimination and the use of collective punishment against entire segments of their populations as well as advocate for the inclusion as full citizens those people who have spent their whole lives within the borders of Myanmar. Only then, will societal change be possible. Failing to do so, could find Myanmar heading back down the dark road of tyranny and oppression.