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Arakan Army displays racism towards the Rohingya

Guest contributor

Maung Zarni

On March 26, the Arakan Army Commander-in-Chief Twan Mrat Naing gave away the genocidal character of his increasingly powerful armed Rakhine nationalist movement. 

His post on the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter), which has had over 83,000 views, stated:

“Nothing is wrong with calling Bengalis “Bengalis.” They have been our neighbours, our friends and fellow citizens for centuries. Let’s be honest and embrace this reality to build a better future.”  

It was accompanied by two photographs containing a distorted image and description of “Bengalis.” The AA leader did not add the source of the photos.  

His tweet followed an AA statement inviting foreign investors to Arakan (Rakhine) State, as more swathes of territory increasingly come under its, and his, control.

As a matter of fact, Twan Mrat Naing is oblivious to the fact that Bengali is the constitutional name of the citizens of the Republic of Bangladesh, a nation born out of the ashes of the civil war between East and West Pakistan in 1971.  

The name encompasses any citizen irrespective of their faith, ancestry or ethnic background, including Rakhine Buddhists with their roots going back to the British colonial period, when Bangladesh was known as the British protectorate of East Bengal.  

In fact, when I led a small delegation of international lawyers, genocide scholars and human rights activists, including Rohingya, we met a Bangladeshi assistant to the Speaker of the Parliament Dr. Shirin Sharman Chaudury, who is an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist.    

While the leadership of Bangladesh has advanced to the cultural and ideological space where they embrace any citizen of their relatively new republic as Bengali, the Rakhine nationalist AA leadership, and its political wing the United League of Arakan (ULA), evidently base policies and collective outlook in the antiquated thinking which refuses to recognize the Rohingya for who they say they are: Rohingya.   

Aside from any minority groups’’ rights to self-identify – outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – the Rohingya are self-consciously and empirically not Bengali.   

The Rohingya language is known to have roughly a 60 percent overlap with the Bengali language of Chittagong, and the majority of both Bengali and Rohingya share Islam as their common faith. However, they certainly do not consider themselves Bengali, either ethno-linguistically or citizenship-wise.   

Of all the ethnic groups of Myanmar, Rakhine nationalists and the Rakhine public alike are best positioned to know that language affinity, shared religion and ever overlapping political histories do not make them Burmese.   

Burmese and Rakhine languages have so much overlap, in script and colloquialism. Buddhism is their common faith. Throughout the British colonial period, ethnic Rakhine and Burmese forged a common oppositional identity against their oppressor – the alien colonial British – under the single banner of Burmese.  

There have been alot of Rakhine-Burmese interracial marriage and internal migration since Arakan was annexed into the ethnic Burmese-dominated old political system in 1785.   

After Burma’s independence in 1948, Rakhine nationalists re-established their ancestral identity as Rakhine and pushed for “internal sovereignty” and state autonomy.    

In seeking to understand why Twan Mrat Naing’s tweet – and the AA’s invitation to foreign investors – is fundamentally genocidal in character, a word about the rich conception of genocide is necessary.   

A chilling parallel between the way the Zionists construct their group identity, initially as “Palestinians.”  

A best-known case in point: the late Prime Minister Golda Meir, a Ukrainian Jew who migrated first to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and subsequently to the British Protectorate of Palestine in the early 1920s, never tired of claiming herself “Palestinian,” while dismissing and denying that the native Arabs were Palestinians.   

In her communications with the Burmese governments (both U Nu and General Ne Win’s regime), she had urged them how to vote on any U.N. resolution on Palestine while telling the latter not to call indigenous Palestinians Palestinians.     

On the streets of Israel over the last decade, the chilling echoes of Golda Meir’s racism towards actual Palestinians can still be heard, in the chant made by Israeli settlers on Palestinian land in the West Bank and Gaza – “Death to the Arabs.”   

Likewise, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the semi-democratic and popular National League for Democracy (NLD) government, had officially and infamously, urged the U.N. agencies and other foreign diplomatic missions in Yangon “not to use the term ‘Rohingya’.”  

When I chaired the Rule of Law Roundtable at the London School of Economics on June 18, 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi chose not to say a word about the Myanmar military’s violence against the Rohingya. 

She wanted to keep her mouth shut on this emerging policy crisis. I was assigned by the panel chair Professor Mary Kaldor to handle any question from the audience regarding the violence against Rohingya.   

Again, in December 2019, Phillipe Sands, the renowned British lawyer who represented The Gambia in its case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), called out Aung San Suu Kyi for her refusal to even mention the name Rohingya when she made her statements at the ICJ. She defended the Myanmar military against the allegations of genocide and denied that such a crime was committed.  

Sands is the world’s leading scholar of the life and work of Raphael Lemkin, so he must have appreciated the multiple ways in which perpetrators of genocide seek to destroy their victims, not only physically but also culturally and symbolically.  

Public understanding of genocide – the intentional destruction of a human group, or population, rests on the legal text of the Genocide Convention of 1948.   

Emphatically, the legal definition of genocide was a severely watered down version of the originally multi-layered and multi-faceted conception of genocide.   

In other words, the survivor population will be allowed to live only under the name chosen by the genocidal perpetrator. Again, chilling parallels can be drawn between ongoing genocides by Israel against Gaza’s Palestinians and Myanmar against the Rohingya.   

A commentary written by James M. Dorsey, a Middle East specialist and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, calls attention to one major reason as to why Israel opposes the continuing existence of UNRWA (the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees created in 1949) because it “contribute(s) to Palestinians’ national identity.” 

Myanmar and Israel, founded in the same year, once had “a love affair,” to borrow Golda Meir’s own characterisation of military, ideological and technical ties (see My Life: Golda Meir, The Orion Books, 2023). 

Both nations ended up before the ICJ for their breaches of the Genocide Convention. The ICJ has officially declared both Rohingya and Palestinians as “protected groups” under the convention. It addresses them as Rohingyas and Palestinians, despite each respective state’s attempts to deny, erase and destroy both groups’ identities. 

Against this conceptual and legal backdrop, the official tweets and policy statements issued by the AA/ULA leadership ought to be taken seriously – as an integral part of the on-going genocidal process – from which Rohingya have continued to flee, taking dangerous boat journeys across the Adaman and South China seas.  

Importantly, a silver lining for the Rohingya is the majoritarian public opinion has shifted. Many ethnic Bamar activists have screamed foul at the Rakhine nationalists for continuing to hold on – and express publicly – genocidal views toward the Rohingya.  

Even Myanmar’s genocidal military leadership are now resorting to forcibly conscripting Rohingya men into its ranks, promising full citizenship, and organizing Rohingya “anti-war” protests in the predominantly Rohingya neighbourhoods of Arakan.   

No doubt the military’s latest moves are sinister in that it seeks to replenish its lost troop strength in the face of a series of military defeats at the hands of the Rakhine nationalists, and to reignite the bilateral tensions between them and the Rohingya.   

After all Rakhine nationalists have consistently collaborated with the successive military regimes since the late 1970s (General Ne Win’s era), in the military-orchestrated slow-burning genocide of the Rohingya.    

Finally, as a Burmese from the ethnic Bamar heartland of Myanmar, with three generations of ties to the genocidal military, and a scholar who has specialised in the study of genocide over the last 15 years, I take the continuing genocidal treatment of the Rohingya personally.  

I knew some of the architects and key players of my country’s triangular genocide. My late great-uncle was the deputy commander of what was then known as All Rakhine Command headquartered in Sittwe, the state capital, from 1961-63.  

Besides the minorities’ internal legal right to self-identify, the authenticity of the Rohingya identity is beyond dispute, if one is to base one’s assessment on primary historical records, official documentation by Myanmar governments and oral histories.   

As a matter of fact, I keep on my blog a type-written letter my relative, Major Ant Kywe, signed on behalf of his commander Lt-Colonel Ye Gaung, and sent to all the Rohingya community leaders, teachers, and other civil servants who assisted him in successfully holding a surrender ceremony of armed “insurgents,” known as Mujahideen, in 1961.    

The faculty adviser of the Burmese Association at the University of California at Davis, where I started my studies in the late 1980s was a Rakhine-American atmospheric scientist named Kyaw Tha Paw Oo, whose grandfather was the best-known Rakhine politician who introduced the idea of “internal sovereignty” for Arakan in the national parliament during the first decade of Myanmar’s independence.   

As fellow exiles in the U.S. in the 1990s, I was friends with the late Rakhine nationalist historian Aye Kyaw, who was a drafter of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Act, designed primarily to strip Rohingya of citizenship.   

The early Rakhine nationalists of Aye Kyaw’s generation pushed, without success, the Citizenship Act drafting committing, to make 1795, the year Arakan lost its independent kingdom to the ethnic Bamar, the cut-off year for “natural/ancestral” citizenship.  

Through my interactions and conversations with these pioneering nationalists and their descendants, I know the strength of Rakhine ethno-nationalism.     

Twan Mrat Naing and the AA leadership have been militarily successful in attempts to repel what they rightly consider the occupying Bamar military troops from their ancestral land.  

Though an ethnic Bamar, I unequivocally support their quest for the end of Bamar control of their ancestral land, exploitation of their natural resources, and the politically autonomous or even independent sovereignty.  

The extreme racism that Rakhine nationalists have, over the generations, displayed – their sense of racial and religious superiority vis-à-vis the state’s largest minority population of Rohingya, largely Muslims, dogged attempts to deny and destroy Rohingya identity – appears to be their weakness.   

In spite of the business-friendly tone the AA/ULA leadership display, there’s a lack of adherence to any human rights and/or democratic principles.  

Absent principles and any ideals, they change their tune depending on the situation. Several years ago, the same Twan Mrat Naing was heard calling Rohingya Rohingya.

Rakhine nationalist leaders now want foreign investment and international businesses to strike deals with their new revolutionary government (as opposed to Myanmar’s military regime in Naypyidaw), and “vow to safeguard their projects and operations, as well as the security and safety of their personnel.”      

But they threaten to crush any “Bengalis” who collaborate with the “terrorist” and “fascist” Myanmar military, in spite of the fact that Rohingya have been caught between the two genocidal forces – Rakhine nationalists and a genocidal military.   

We live in an age where the world’s public opinion is increasingly and widely aware of the death and devastation caused by genocidal states, particularly Israel and Myanmar.   

It is decidedly against genocide. Owing to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement worldwide, many foreign investors are aware of sever business and reputational risks in situations of genocide.     

They would be unlikely keen on pouring investment into another troubled part of the world – in Arakan State, which I call the “triangle of death” or  “a genocidal triangle.”

Maung Zarni is a UK-exiled scholar and revolutionary from Burma with 35 years of direct political involvement in Burmese affairs.  

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]


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