Why this outsider’s interest in Myanmar, you may wonder. Bourdain featured it in season 1, episode 1 of Parts Unknown. Myanmar matters because of its rich ancient history including but not limited to the Pagan Kingdom period between the 9th-19th Century, and also because of its location along what the British colonialists saw as potential trade routes between India in the West and China in the East. The biggest mainland country in Southeast Asia, Myanmar formerly known as Burma has an ethnic makeup of over 135 distinct ethnic groups. In 1982, Myanmar’s military government officially recognized almost all the ethnic groups in the country, leaving out the Rohingya, Chinese and Indians among a few others that have lived in the country to this day. As such, the Government gave legitimacy to the nation’s discriminatory sentiments towards the Rohingya. A Muslim minority that first migrated from Bangladesh in the 14th Century and then later in larger numbers in the 18th and 19th Century, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship and basic human rights in both countries. The indigenous Rakhine people among which the Rohingya have lived for centuries treat the Rohingya like animals. They call them derogatory terms like “Kalar pigs” and call for their persecution on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Some Facebook posts have been noted to have stated that the Rohingya be burned and fed to the pigs. They are often cast as perpetrators of crime even in cases where they are the victims. They have also been denied access to schools and medical care yet they are so poor that most of them don’t even know where their next meal is going to come from. It’s in this dehumanizing context that the military launched an assault on the Rohingya villages in the Rakhine State following an attack on two police stations at the Myanmar-Bangladesh border by a Rohingya armed insurgent group that left twelve police officers dead in August 2017. As a result, dozens of Rohingyas were killed, women raped and homes sortched to the ground culminating into a mass exodus of the Rohingya to Bangladesh. Over 700,000 people have fled the country since the military crackdown that International human rights groups have described as forced deportations and crimes against humanity. The UN human rights chief described these atrocities as nothing short of an “ethnic cleansing.” The Rohingya are effectively a stateless community living in some the World’s largest refugee camps, not immune to the inevitable onslaught of disease and distraction from the Monsoon rains. Bangladesh recognizes them as Burmese refugees, and the Myanmar Government amid International pressure have only offered to accept the Rohingya back if they will take Bengali State issued IDs that will effectively grant them residence in an Apartheid Rakhine State. Give Bourdain more credit, between conversations about government press censorship over meals ranging from the fermented tea leaf salad to street chicken curry, he arranged for himself to be smuggled to the unstable Myanmar-Bengali border where no tourist is allowed, to take first hand accounts of the Rohingya victims, documented in his notes on www.explorepartsunknown.com. The atrocities noted from these individual victim accounts are in step with the “crimes against humanity” report that was recently released by Amnesty International. And when Bourdain presented the question of what these victims wanted from the International community, the common response was “We just want to go back to home, the only homeland we’ve known in our lifetime, and be accepted as citizens of Myanmar.” Having read a little bit about the situation, I’m going to do my best to appeal to the Rakhine people formerly known as Ankarans to consider the Rohingya in their Buddhist charity practices that they have come to be well known for. In 2016, Myanmar was recognized as the world’s most generous country for the third time in a row topping America for the proportion of the population that gives. According to research in that year 91% of Myanmar’s then population of 56 million gave to charity, 62% said to have helped a stranger and 55% claimed that they volunteered.
Myanmar has emerged as one of the newest young democracies on the scene. Having been a pariah State under two dictatorships where repression of basic human freedoms and press censorship were the order of the day, the country is in a rush to rewrite its history. First the Generals changed the name from Burma to Myanmar. Then they opened the borders to the outside world, a move that preceded the biggest tourism boom the country has seen. Some of the notable tourist attractions are Yangon the capital city which is known as the “Garden of the East” and the Plain of Bagan on which over 30,000 Buddhist temples were built during the Pagan kingdom era, with about 3000 of them still standing today. It’s quite a sight in Parts Unknown. According to Boudain the Myanmar government designated a tourist triangle to which foreigners’ movements are restricted. They are not allowed to venture out of the triangle which is mostly in the middle of the country. “There is some sh*t the government doesn’t want you to see,” Boudain said. Among other things, the atrocities committed against the Rohingya particularly in August 2017 have been an ongoing topic of investigation by the Human Rights Watch, and have now caught the attention Trump’s administration in the US which has responded by slapping sanctions on Myanmar police and army commanders, including two full military units. In its defense the Myanmar Government has claimed that their actions were a crackdown on an armed rebel group that attacked their police stations. The attack on the police is true, but it should be noted that the killings, rape and arson orchestrated by the Government on innocent civilians is a far cry from the Government’s claim. And when two Reuters reporters released an account of a dozen Rohingya men that were killed and dumped in a mass grave, they got arrested on the trumped up charge of obtaining secret government documents that are a so-called threat to national security. They were held without bail for over 100 days before they faced a judge recently. This infringement on press freedoms comes at the heels of the Government’s promise to end press censorship in a time when the likes of Newspaper editor, U Thitha Saw who was jailed several times for allegedly publishing coded seditious messages declared to Bourdain that he was cautiously optimistic that the Government’s promises would hold up. Bourdain met several Myanmar ex-cons who served time for just having an opinion about public policy. The Myanmars are a resilient people as acknowledged by Zarni Bo, activist, astrologer and three time convict. “We have been through a lot of suffering, two dictatorships, discrimination, all of it. But we move on because love. The Buddhist Monks say, that’s in the past now. Do something today and your next life will be a little better,” Bo responds to Bourdain’s question of hope. Buddhism is Myanmar’s national religion. The Buddhist Monks have played a custodianship role to the national culture for centuries. As such I would like to appeal to the Buddhist principle of love and good Karma to change attitudes towards the Rohingya who represent a distinct otherness to most ethnic groups in Myanmar.
But first let me make the case for the Rakhine nationalist sentiment of separatism from those that represent the other. Long before Myanmar caught the interest of the British East India company, the then Pagan kingdom had largely kept to itself. The British in the region had stayed clear of the mysterious vast mainland, limiting their trade dealings to the outskirts of the country. However starting in the 17th century the Kingdom acquired a taste for expansionism and annexed most of the neighboring communities. The kingdom maintained a centralized system of government with Governors of different States reporting directly to the King. A Theravada style of Buddhism was widely practised. The Monarchy provided patronage to the Buddhist Monks and the Monks in turn legitimized the Monarchy. The Monarchy was growing strong and expanding rapidly until it met the British. The British who had been reluctant to venture into Burma started to see the Kingdom as a strategic territory along trade routes, and they also feared that it would catch the attention of the French. Thus the British-Burma war ensued ending in just two weeks. Burma became a British colony. Largely seen as a “backwater” the British disrupted the structure of the Pagan administration and sent the King to exile. They replaced the Governors with more sympathetic Burmese from the Bangladeshi border. They also brought in Indian workers who by and large worked for less money and effectively displaced the Burmese workers. Indian businessmen ran the commerce and the Chinese were encouraged to migrate into the country. The growing and export of rice became the main economy. Rice prices were set by the British, disregarding the demand and supply market forces. As such the Burmese could no longer sustain a subsistence farming model. Most of them moved to the Delta region where the rice farms were. They took out high interest loans from the Indian businessmen who foreclosed on them unfairly quickly especially after the Great depression hit in the 1930s. Having lost their livelihood the indigenous Burmese led by the equally disenfranchised Buddhist Monks, resorted to frequent rebellious attacks on the British administration outposts, making Burma one of the most hostile colonies. This is the context in which the then Burma gained independence after helping the British fight off the Japanese in World war II.
Fast forward to today, It makes sense that a good number of Myanmars would grow to hate any sector of the population that gained from the colonial times at their expense. Although the Rohingya mass migration to Myanmar in the 18th and 19th century was considered internal migration, it’snatural that the Myanmars would frown upon their continued settlement in Myanmar long after the country gained independence. But like the Monks would say, that’s in the past now. Do a good thing for your neighbor now, and your next life will be a little better. I call upon the people of the Rakhine State to remember their Buddhist charity values and accept the Rohingya as one of their own. My hope is that the Myanmar Government continues to cultivate the fundamental pillars of a healthy democracy, including supporting a free press. Those two Reuters journalists should at the very least be given a fair trial, and those trumped up charges dropped. Myanmar needs an environment where this article would be translated to the people without the fear of being reprimanded by the Government.