A new look at Myanmar’s diverse society and its enemies

Ahead of Myanmar’s landmark poll, a book argues that diversity is the country's greatest strength - but was anti-Muslim violence orchestrated by the military in a bid to keep hold of power?

Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy rally in Naypyidaw before the general elections. Aung Shine Oo / AP Photo
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While reading a new history of Myanmar, I was interrupted by the noise of a procession passing through a small street in central Yangon where a bare-chested man in a gold and green skirt danced before a trail of three floats to an Indian tune played on a trumpet.

The carts bore, in order: a Buddha statue; a sculpture of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh; and an effigy of a large horse, which may have represented one of the animistic Burmese spirits known as Nats.

A devoutly Buddhist neighbour – a retiree from the country’s notorious secret police – dashed out to drop a kyat bill in the Hindu dancer’s silver donation bowl. On the other side of the road a middle aged woman in a hijab walked past, giving the procession a series of curious glances.

Few countries boast the ethnic diversity of Myanmar – 135 officially-recognised ethnic groups, as well as the stateless Rohingya Muslims. Despite fevered attempts in October to reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement before the November 8 election, one of the world’s longest civil wars is still ongoing.

Buddhist nationalist fervour is spreading, threatening to derail opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from what was once predicted to be a landslide victory, and the military still effectively retain control of any constitutional change. Yet no one can argue that in the last four years, Myanmar has not undergone a dramatic and remarkable change.

But ethnic and religious tensions have found an expanded and sinister expression in the past three years that threatens to derail Burma’s new democratic process.

A hardline Buddhist nationalism has emerged, led by an extremist monk movement known as Ma Ba Tha movement, who preach anti-Muslim rhetoric and are campaigning against the country’s opposition leader, Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy. Muslims make up about 5 per cent of Myanmar’s population, but none will appear on any ballots because of this hardline campaign.

The origins of the movement and just who is behind it, are subjects of much debate, among those interested in Myanmar politics. For anyone turning their attention to Myanmar for the first time at this historic moment, Richard Cockett's new history, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma, will be a useful and insightful guide in getting a grip on the issues that have led to this divisive point on the eve of this election..

A former Economist correspondent for the region, he has drawn on personal interviews and wider research to produce a colourful, if at times slightly haphazard, history of modern Myanmar or Burma – Cockett uses the country's former name before it was changed by the ruling military junta in 1989.

He begins with evocative descriptions of the country’s former capital and still-largest city Yangon (formerly Rangoon), and ends with a surprisingly – given the lighter tones with which the book begins – hard-hitting and insightful analysis of growing religious intolerance in 2015.

With vivid depictions of Rangoon’s streets, Cockett take readers from colonial times, when Burma was one of Asia’s wealthiest trade centres, through to the country’s submersion into poverty, neglect and rights abuses under military rule. Finally, he looks at its reemergence under a reformed, or perhaps not-so-reformed, regime.

Running throughout it is the concept of “the plural society” – a term coined by the British colonial civil servant and academic John Furnivall – of whom Cockett is clearly a devotee. This describes the vast cultural diversity of Rangoon that grew out of the European, Chinese and Indian influx and other incomers who arrived – often encouraged by the British – to live in the city on the back of colonialism.

To Furnivall, the fascinating aspect of these groups was that they did not merge but frequently existed peacefully side by side, along with the Burmese, each group playing a specific role in boosting the country’s economy.

But, as Cockett goes on to illustrate, the divisions that remained between these groups and the powerful resentments that developed among the Bamar majority Burmese – who were often excluded from the upper echelons of this plural society and the more lucrative opportunities it presented – would also sow the seeds of Bamar nationalism and decades of ethnic and racial violence.

“Being placed under Indian rule [as part of Britain’s Indian empire at the end of the 19th century] created some, at least, of the deadly tensions and fissures in Burmese society that still govern the country’s politics to this day,” he writes.

The potential benefits that ethnic and cultural diversity could bring to Myanmar still remain, Cockett suggests, and continue to play out in peaceful coexistence on a daily basis.

With a conviction that is likely to provoke some controversy among those who see the government led by president Thein Sein as genuinely reformist, Cockett points to attempts by Myanmar’s military intelligence to use psychological warfare. This is designed to provoke anti-Muslim sentiment to reinforce the influence of the Bamar ethnic majority and Cockett claims that this is still happening.

“From its very beginnings in the mid-1950s, psy-war work was explicitly political, designed to buttress the legitimacy of the Burman-dominated Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] by any means,” he writes.

Ultimately, he argues, recent reforms and the easing of western sanctions, have allowed Myanmar to disengage from the overwhelming Chinese economic domination that rose in the decades when few other countries would deal with Myanmar.

But when it comes to further democratic progress the military, which has a guaranteed 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and an effective veto over constitutional change, has little desire to give up its power.

As such, Cockett declares, it is paramount to the military to ensure that Suu Kyi and her democratic movement do not come to power. This he says, is the reason behind the surge in anti-Muslim tension.

The military has successfully depicted Suu Kyi as “pro-Muslim” – despite the fact she has been internationally criticised for failing to speak out against the rights abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya.

Therefore, the military has undermined a foe who once would have seemed unimpeachable, by implying she is disloyal to “race and religion”.

And while such views of deliberate intervention might have been more widely challenged even a few months ago, increasing evidence is emerging that the intercommunal violence in Myanmar – particularly in western Rakhine State in 2012 and that of the following years – was carefully orchestrated.

Documents obtained by Al Jazeera and the group, Fortify Rights, from a report by Yale Law School and researchers at the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University, London reveal what they claim is “strong evidence of a genocide perpetrated in Myanmar against the Rohingya people by the government”.

In Mandalay and other parts of the country where outbreaks of violence have occurred, witnesses have repeatedly described the instigators as being “strangers” arriving from outside the communities involved.

It is clear from speaking to people in communities throughout Myanmar, particularly in rural areas, that also now believe the influence of Ma Ba Tha will cost Suu Kyi precious votes, particularly among poorer rural voters.

This further underlines Cockett’s point that religious conflict is set to benefit the ruling party in this election. At party rallies throughout the country, Suu Kyi has repeatedly had to answer questions from the public about whether the country will “become Muslim” if she comes to power.

Finally, he suggests that attempts to create a federal Myanmar – an ambition held by many of the country’s armed ethnic groups – will fail.

The historic discrimination and oppression of all the “non-Burman” ethnic groups, he suggests, makes a future based around such divides unlikely to work The only way to ensure a stable and secure future is for “Burma to embrace its extraordinary diversity”.

In some ways, Blood, Dreams and Gold could have benefited from an introduction for readers new to the country. Yet such is the colour of Cockett's writing and anecdotes, and the historic details and analysis he presents, that the book should provoke interesting debates.

Fiona MacGregor is a freelance journalist and columnist based in Yangon.