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Burmese barnacle
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 07 - 2012

Gamal Nkrumah laments the threat to democracy in Myanmar posed by religious conflict with the world now watching the slaughter of the Burmese Arakan Muslims instead of the rising star of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi
Today, Myanmar is again in the public eye. Ethnic Buddhist Rakhine are butchering their Muslim Rohingya compatriots. The numbers game in Burma, or Myanmar if you will, means that Muslims must succumb to the Buddhist majority. It is a sign of how far perceptions of Myanmar have changed that all eyes are not focussed on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
I personally always assumed that with its military rulers, Myanmar was the paradox that will paralyse Southeast Asian politics. In most African nations, like Ghana for instance, there happens to be a military encampment deferentially named "Burma Camp" in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, in honour of the fallen West African soldiers who fought alongside the British during World War II. Many lost their lives in the Burmese jungle, but then that is another story altogether.
As an African, however, I was outraged to learn that the pejorative term "kala" -- or black-skinned -- was a generic racist slur used by the Burmese to denigrate Myanmar's Muslims, most of whom hail originally from neighbouring India and Bangladesh. But the history of Muslims in Myanmar is exceedingly long, complex and convoluted.
Thanks to their traditional mistrust of their own people, the mediaeval rulers of Burma enlisted Muslims in their armies. The Muslims served as archers and artillery men. So as soldiers of fortune and sailors of the kings of Burma's navies, the locals did not particularly like them, and that is an understatement. Something of that mediaeval ill-feeling was there when the Buddhist Burmese slaughters the Muslims of Myanmar.
Bengalis, of course, are far darker in complexion than the ethnic Burmese who moved into what is Myanmar in antiquity from southern China. Most of the contemporary Muslims of Myanmar are ethnically akin to the Bengalis. So, there was a racist element in the massacre of the Muslims, as well as a religious factor to reckon with. The vast majority of the people of Burma are Buddhist, adherents of Theravada Buddhism, to be precise. Muslims, however, constitute the largest religious minority in the country that also has a sprinkling of Christians and Hindus.
Race or religion, whichever it is, something is very wrong with the militaristic mould of Myanmar politics. That something is a combination of decades of faltering growth and the newfound relative prosperity of a potentially very wealthy country.
The Burmese military elite recently permitted a large measure of democracy, and appeared committed to economic and political reform. Foreign investors, Asian and Western, are propping up the lobbies of the plush Chinese-constructed hotels of the capital Rangoon. The cityscape is fast changing.
Burmese President Thein Sein condemned the massacre of Muslims in Myanmar, but what he failed to mention is that this is not the first time that the Muslims of Myanmar had been targeted for retribution.
On 16 March 1997 a most barbaric anti-Muslim rioting erupted in the mediaeval capital of Myanmar Mandalay. I could not help remembering the racist colonial mentality that ridiculed the Burmese and disparaged their rich cultural heritage. The 1926 American silent dramatic film directed by Tod Browning, The Road to Mandalay, was one such derogatory showmanship with some substance, I presume.
Rudyard Kipling long before Browning had found a fine formula for spectacle with colonial content in his celebrated poetry that made Mandalay a household name in the West. The repertoire is familiar -- racist and religiously bigoted.
By the old Moulmein Pagoda looking
eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin',
and I know she thinks of me,
For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple bells they say: "Come you back, you British soldier; Come you back to Mandalay"
That is one poetic accomplishment of which Myanmar's contemporary generals would never be capable.
Bloomin' idol made of mud
Wot they call the Great Gawd Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed her where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay
Yet the Burmese themselves do not seem to harbour any hatred towards their colonial masters. The opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi herself, daughter of the legendary Burmese nationalist leader Aung San, herself, married a British businessman, the late Michael Aris.
As Chairperson of the National League for Democracy and as the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, one hopes that she will attend to the plight of her Muslim compatriots.
The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) strongly objected to the massacre of some 80 Muslims in Myanmar over the weekend -- and the number has escalated sharply since. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which Burma belongs, includes several predominantly Muslim nations such as Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, Malaysia and Brunei. There are Muslim minorities in virtually all Southeast Asian countries. ASEAN member states such as Thailand and the Philippines have sizeable Muslim minorities.
Outside Myanmar, the consensus has developed on what the Burmese must do to preserve peace and security in the country. Myanmar is strategically located between South Asia and Southeast Asia. The Muslims of Myanmar must be protected from the bigotry of their Buddhist brethren.
But don't get too sympathetic. To begin with, past atrocities against Muslims in Myanmar and other predominantly Buddhist or Christian ASEAN countries such as the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines or the overwhelming Buddhist Thailand are festering conflicts that the Islamist extremists feed on to fuel terrorism and religious wars. The people of Southeast Asia will suffer hugely if this frenetic problem is not resolved. Half-baked rescue plans will not do.
Why haven't ASEAN's canniest politicians sprung into action? The reason is the volatile religious factor in Southeast Asian politics. This is an extremely sensitive subject, a prickly topic that might spread from Myanmar to neighbouring countries if not contained. ASEAN could act quickly to save the day.
As for Myanmar's ruling generals' notion that it could all be solved at the last minute. That looks increasingly risky. Race-cum-religious riots have erupted in Indonesia and Malaysia before. Bengal, Myanmar's immediate neighbour, was divided into West Bengal and Bangladesh based on religious, and not ethnic or linguistic lines, when the British colonialists departed from the Indian Sub-Continent. The uncertainty generated by the muddle-through approach by the Myanmar authorities is draining investors' confidence in the newly emerging market of Myanmar. It is not so long ago when Al-Qaeda militants bombed a discotheque in the paradise island resort of Bali, Indonesia.
Addressing a Friday congregation in the Mansoura Mosque of Lahore, Pakistan, a leader of the Islamist militant Jamat-i-Islami ominously observed that "No one is taking note of the bloodshed of Muslims". Mynamar's leaders ought to take note.
The time-honoured rivalry and animosity between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya who inhabit the Arakanese coastal region of Myanmar must be brought to a halt. Rakhine, incidentally, literally means "Those who maintain their own race". The Rakhine Chroniclers maintain that the Buddha himself visited their country, the ancient Dhayawadi (Land Blessed with Grain). The celebrated visit was narrated in the ancient Arakanese language.
In the past, Burmese kings confined their Muslim merchants and soldiers in special quarters, presumably to protect them from Buddhist Burmese.
Long viewed with suspicion as fifth columnists and agents provocateurs, the Muslims of Myanmar must be granted full citizenship rights. They cannot live in ghettoes like in the past. The part of Myanmar where the massacre of Muslims took place this week is so to speak a sacred land. Archaeological evidence unearthed traces of a highly sophisticated civilisation that dates to 3325 BC. It is a shame that religious intolerance today reduces this remote region to rubble. It must once again be Dhanyawadi, Land of Abundant Grain.
Muslims and Buddhists must learn to live in peace together in Myanmar and Southeast and South Asia. The human cost will be immense if religious strife is not contained.
Al-Qaeda is active in Southeast Asia. ASEAN leaders have cautioned that the predicament of Myanmar's Muslims must be attended to. Nobody wants to test the doomsday disaster scenarios that will only engender terrorism, religious extremism and suffering for the people of Southeast Asia.
Pragmatism fuelled Southeast Asia's drive to prosperity. Economically, the region is doing rather well. Politically, too, the region appears to be somewhat stable. The firebrand ideologies of Islamist extremism are in retreat. However, massacres such as the one in Myanmar might inflame the fanatics. Huge challenges remain simmering just below the surface. Abject poverty may be down, but it is still prevalent in countries such as Myanmar. Moreover, income inequality has not fallen. This in turn fuels social instability and Myanmar's poor education and health systems, and creaking infrastructure especially in rural backwaters does not help. ASEAN can no longer survey the rest of the world with much smugness.


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