Burmese educator, academic, and human rights activist, Maung Zarni, spoke to Green Left’s Chloe DS ahead of his participation in the Ecosocialism 2023 conference, on July 1–2.
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Can you start by describing the state of the struggle in Burma [Myanmar] right now?
We are in the third year of the anti-coup resistance and civil disobedience movement, joined by the overwhelming majority of Burmese public servants, teachers, doctors, nurses, accountants … [as well as] some members of the armed forces [and] police.
At the moment, the earlier predictions … that the Burmese armed forces — whose commander in chief staged a coup in February 2021 — were too powerful for the democratic resistance to be able to topple, have to be radically revised. The resistance movement — despite not having any meaningful support from any neighbouring countries or democratic countries … including Australia — is gaining serious ground.
Generation Z, which has become so unhappy with the whole racist, sexist, homophobic and other regressive values and other cultural practices that the Burmese society as a whole has perpetuated … are now pursuing a new type of inclusive and humane social relations, among different communities, as well as within the activist and revolutionary communities.
Two things are going on here: one is armed resistance, supplemented by a civil disobedience movement of civil servants. Then, a cultural boycott of the military and its economic products. And the other — in my view equally important — is the social revolution that attempts to build a different type of society that is worthy of a democratic system.
Can you speak about the importance of unity between the different minority groups when fighting against the military? Has there been a recognition among other groups of the need to include the Rohingyas in the struggle?
Burma, like many other post-World War II or post-colonial countries, is made up of multiple ethnic nations, so it's not necessarily a majority versus minority, as is generally understood. The different ethnic communities coming together, as the groups that are worthy of equal rights, entitled to group equality, not simply basic human rights. The coup galvanised the different ethnic nations to come and oppose the universally, unpopular coup.
For the past 10 years before the coup, the country was opening up, both politically and economically. The political opening was not entirely satisfactory, because the military wrote itself into the constitution, claiming that it is essentially the guardian of the sovereignty and the protector of the nation … and legalised any military coup against democratically elected governments.
The coup has brought together a disparaged cluster of different ethnic nations. That is positive. Just about every single, major ethnic population has established armed resistance organisations we call EAO [Ethnic Armed Organisations]. If they are more actively involved in engaging militarily, against the military, we call them ethnic resistance or revolutionary organisations, [or EROs].
The negative is on the Rohingya issue and the need for both the mainstream Buddhist Burmese majority society and non-majoritarian ethnic nations or national communities inside Burma to come together and embrace the Rohingya, not simply as victims of the genocide but as an equal ethnic nation or ethnic community.
That is not really taking place as of today. It is outrageous that a society that has been subject to a series of multiple atrocities by the current military regime, has not really come to terms with the fact that they were involved in the genocide led by the military … and this society needs to take a step back and say we need to apologise to the Rohingyas.
As a society, we need to re-embrace them, we need to stand up for them, we need to integrate them into the mainstream political and armed revolution. So that has not happened, to my dismay, as a Burmese, Buddhist and genocide scholar and campaigner against the racially-motivated, state-directed violence that we call genocide.
Previously, you have been critical of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, saying that if she had spoken out in 2012, she could have stopped the genocide against the Rohingya. What are your thoughts about this today?
Back in 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was feted around world as this “Asian Mandela” … she has been likened to Martin Luther King jnr, Mahatma Gandhi — all these iconic and non-violent and armed revolutionary leaders of the past. The world thought she could walk on water and the overwhelming majority of the Burmese public called her “Mother of the people”.
That kind of moral authority — granted she was not in charge of the Burmese state, she was not in charge of the armed forces, but nonetheless — what came out of her mouth was treated biblically by both the international community at the time and particularly the Buddhist majority in the country.
She could have re-directed public frustrations and the sentiments of discontent over the economic hardships and also the ongoing denial of freedom and other basic rights in the country [away from the military-mobilised Islamophobia]. Instead, initially, she kept silent. Then later when she opened her mouth, she started essentially approving the violence against Muslims.
In 2013, she was on the flagship BBC radio and TV program, Radio 4, basically normalising the violence against Muslims, by saying the Burmese people fear what they perceive as the rise of global Muslim power — that kind of language which reinforced the pre-existing Islamophobia and the military perspective that the growth of the Muslim population in western Myanmar posed a threat to national security.
Instead of steering public opinion along the lines of liberal humanist values and perspectives, human rights, democratisation, she allowed the military and the ultranationalist Buddhist organisations and demagogues to frame the Muslims — particularly the Rohingyas, who are only about 2.5 million out of a 55 million total population.
She ended up, in fact, flying to the Hague in the Netherlands to defend the armed forces of Myanmar [in the International Court of Justice] and its conduct, which included mass rape and a scorched-earth genocidal destruction of Rohingya communities [where] hundreds of villages were raised to the ground.
She never travelled to the Rohingya refugee camps along Burmese and Bangladesh border, which would have been one hour of flight from the new capital Naypyidaw. Instead, she travelled thousands of miles to the Netherlands to defend and deny genocide. What she has done is completely unconscionable and indefensible.
How are genocides created?
Genocides are crimes that are organised, premeditated. Public opinion has to be mobilised against a target[ed] community. The infrastructure of hatred and racism has to be established.
Genocides are crimes designed to attack a targeted population solely because of their identity — racial, ethnic, religious and national. Often genocides are targeted against the most vulnerable members of a society.
As some of the most iconic South African anti-Apartheid leaders like Mandela or the late Bishop Desmond Tutu said: “We are taught to hate certain groups or we are taught to love other groups.” All this racism, hatred, homophobia, all these really damaging attitudes and sentiments — we learn.
But having prejudices does not necessarily lead a population to participate in large scale destruction, including killing, because genocides are not simply about killing a large number of the population.
What distinguishes genocides from other types of crime is that genocides can take place in peace time or during a war.
In the case of Rohingyas, they had never been armed in any significant way to fight back against their oppressor, the Myanmar military or the Buddhist majority. So in the case of Rohingya genocide, it was planned in a very cold-blooded manner by the military commanders and their highest level of general staff including the current coup leader Min Aung Hlaing.
Genocidal crimes have been found to have been committed throughout different historical periods, using all kinds of religious or racial ideologies … the Holocaust is the most systematic and the most horrific [example] because of the gas chambers and transportation of millions of marked populations to different death and forced-labour camps across Nazi occupied Europe.
But no two genocides look alike. As long as the killers, the perpetrators, plan and design a course of action that is meant to destroy in whole or in significant part, the target population on whatever ideological grounds [that would be tantamount to genocide].
Finally, although the perpetrators are the ones who are carrying out mass destruction, including mass killings, like in Rwanda, they see their killings and destruction as self defence … as morally justified because they say we are defending our nation, our race, or our faith or territory or population.
So this is a rather psychologically warped type of crime, when killers and the population of perpetrators feel that all their atrocious behaviour is justified morally, because they are mounting a defensive action.
[It is] the same all across genocidal cases from the Nazis,to the Armenian genocide or the Rohingya genocide committed by my own country, the military,Aung San Suu Kyi's party and the majoritarian public.
Do you have any final comments?
We are living in a world where the dominant, economic and political forces are shaping global, public opinions of different national populations along far-right values or perspectives.
The country I'm a citizen of, Great Britain, has an extremely vile and fascist regime ... Philippe Sands, one of the leading scholars of genocides and crimes against humanity in London, recently tweeted that the national conservatismthat the government of [Prime Minister] Rishi Sunak and [Home Secretary] Suella Bravermanis promoting, resembles or sounds like the national socialism of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
We need to be working together across national, ethnic and religious lines and we need to realise that this kind of far-right ideology, the mobilisation of hatred and racism based on our colours, our faith or god, poses one of the greatest threats to human existence.
[This is an edited and abridged transcript of the full interview, which aired on the Green Left Radio Show on Community Radio 3CR on May 26.]