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Israel-Palestine: Through a pair of critical Burmese eyes

Guest contributor

Maung Zarni

I was barely four-years-old when the Six Day War broke out between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, namely Syria, Jordan and Egypt in June 1967. 

The end of the war saw Israeli seizure – and what turned out to be permanent occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights, Jordan’s West Bank with East Jerusalem as a part of it, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Egypt and Jordan agreed to a ceasefire on June 8, and Syria on June 9, and it was signed with Israel on June 11. The war resulted in more than 20,000 Arab casualties while Israel suffered 1,000 deaths. 

Three decades after the war, on the ABC News with Ted Koppel, Nelson Mandela – a supporter of Palestinian liberation struggle and by then the iconic anti-apartheid leader – demanded that Israel return the occupied territories to the indigenous population of Palestine.

The war – known as the Six Day War (as it lasted only six days) – was too far away from my hometown of Mandalay, Burma. I was too young to take an interest in matters that did not involve sweets or plays or singing nursery rhymes. I knew absolutely nothing about the war, the context, the immediate trigger, nor the loss of lives from all sides or the territorial annexation. 

But I was 10-years-old when the 1973 war (the fourth such war), between Israel and its Arab neighbors broke out on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur on Oct. 6, 1973 (the tenth day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan).

I already had a rudimentary knowledge of history and current affairs both through my elementary school textbooks, and my extended family with an interest in global affairs. I learned with a deep sense of horror about the Nazi genocide of the Jews, the Second World War, the Burmese liberation struggles against the British rule and the Japanese fascist occupation of my country for a combined total of 124 years. My mother was a trained historian, who picked history books for me to read for leisure, and my paternal step-grandfather was an avid newspaper reader.  

During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Burmese state newspaper outlets, like the Working People’s Daily, would print the Arab-Israel war news and analyses, with pro-Israel spins.

I even remember the news reportage of the visit to Rangoon’s landmark Shwedagon Pagoda of Israeli war hero General Moshe Dayan. Decades later I learned that the celebrated visitor was our dictator’s good friend. 

Bogyoke, or general, and Moshe Dayan were quite close,” recalled the late June Rose Bellamy, the wife of General Ne Win, whom I called Aunty. When I was researching about the general and the military affairs, I would visit Aunty in Florence and we became close friends in the final decade of her life in Italy.

Back to 1973 

With newspapers lying around in our living room after my grandfather had read them, I would leaf through the pages, looking at the infographics filled with troop strengths, casualties, maps, and other usual war-related information.

With my nascent racial consciousness – I must hasten to add, with growing elements of anti-Arab, anti-Indian and anti-Muslim racisms – I would delight in the news of Israeli military victories over the “hooked-nose and deceptive” Arab invaders. My perception and attitude towards “the Arabs”, whom I presumed – obviously falsely – were all Muslims, was beginning to crystalize.  

Based on my own country’s anti-British and anti-colonial history, at least among the Burmese Buddhist majority with deep family ties to our national armed forces – known as the Tatmadaw – I was opposed to any foreign invaders to any sovereign nation. As a 10-year-old beginning to experience nationalism, I thought that Israel, a sovereign state, was great at repelling the “crooked” Arab invaders. I cheered on quietly reading how Israeli troops and the air force had dealt the enemy blow by blow. Reading the war news then was like watching your favorite football team scoring multiple times against their opponents. 

But 50 years had flown by since the Arab-Israel War – and the word Palestine – registered in my Burmese consciousness. I had un-learned a great many things – for better – including my Pavlovian Burmese patriotism, militarism, categorical racism towards Muslims and the Arabs, and, above all, my admiration for Israel and love of all things West. 

And I also learned how to dissect imperialism in all its manifestations, historical, cultural, economic, psychological, military, political and ideological. Now age 60, my heart no longer beats with excitement when Israel is beating back what in the West is designated as Muslim terrorist organizations – namely Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) that effectively breached Israel border walls and launched surprise attacks on Israeli communities and slaughtered 1,400 Israelis and took over 200 hostages. 

It bears pointing out that Israel is unconditionally supported by the U.S. and Europe, including Germany and the U.K., as well as virtually all sectors of the Western Establishment, from corporations and cultural institutions, high education industry, state and corporate media outlets, and so on.   

Unlike the 10-year-old Burmese boy, with rabid anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments half-of-a-century ago, I now see Israel as the Zionist implant by the British, and subsequently armed and financed by the U.S. “in the sea of (anti-imperialist?) Arabs” for their own geopolitical and economic interests.  

In these ensuing decades I nod along reading the letters critically of the “terrorist organizations” – and “their misled and criminal people” – that founded the independent state of Israel, published in the year the Zionist state was founded, by the likes of Albert Einstein and other Jewish intellectual leaders and thinkers like Hannah Arendt.  

With or without any “likes”, I use social media to break taboos about the Holocaust, where non-Jews are made to feel they must take extreme care before they say or write anything critical of Israel, its permanent and colonial annexation of the land, the homes, the orchards, the business, which originally belonged to the residents of Palestine.  

I now feel extremely repulsed by both Israel’s all-too-obvious sinister manipulation of the memories and tales of the Holocaust, and equally, the systematic attempt to stigmatize and criminalize any critics and criticism of Israel’s Zionist policies of Palestinian displacement and group destruction as “anti-Semitism.”

Since I became fully occupied with my own concern, study and activism around the Burmese genocide of our own national minority, the Rohingya, in Myanmar over a decade ago, I have sought to deepen my understanding of genocide anywhere in the world.  

My work has taken me to Cambodia multiple times, Bosnia’s Srebrenica and other sites of mass killings, including Nazi death and slave labor camps in Poland and Germany. I even led the study tour of Auschwitz, taking with me a group of 20 Burmese, Rohingya, British and American activists and genocide scholars on the eve of Poland’s COVID-19 lock-down in 2020.

This resulted in an educational film “Auschwitz: Lessons Never Learned,” directed by my Uzbek-Jewish director friend Shahida. Genocides are a crime against humanity, an affront to all of us, who take genocide seriously.   My stance on genocide is straightforward, uncomplicated and solely morally driven.  

I hold the uncompromising view: genocidal destruction of one human community is the destruction of a piece of us. “An attack on one is an attack on all” so to speak. Like NATO’s strategic paradigm except it is not based on military or ideological or geopolitical self-interests. It is based on the love of and concern for fellow humans as a part of a single family, whatever the perpetrators’ names, or the victims’.

I visited Auschwitz four times in the last six years, for a variety of reasons, including educational discussion with the museum experts and officials and as a genocide-concerned “consumer” of “dark tourism.” I have heard tales of genocide victims, set foot on the soils they perished at the hands of their monstrous – and typically sadistic – executioners, seen the material remains of millions of victims, and read the curatorial lines in these killing field exhibits, and gravestones at Ravensbrück, Dachau, Sachsenhause, Neuengamme, Auschwitz, Srebrenica or Phnom Penh’s Choeung Ek Killing Fields. 

My heart feels this piercing pain every time I step into these dark sites. 

Touching the bunk beds covered in layers of dust at Auschwitz-Birkenau’s barracks where 1.5 million Jews and other victims of the Holocaust were mass-exterminated, or seeing the very visible marks on the tropical trees against which Khmer Rouge’s teenage executioners smashed the tender heads of their baby-victims whom they held by the latter’s feet, induces exactly the same humanly sensations of indescribable pain, sorrow, incredulity and disdain (towards the killers). 

To my deep dismay, I see many of my fellow Myanmar cheer gleefully on in multiple social media sites – particularly Facebook – when Israel launched its vicious “revenge” attack on the residents of Gaza, killing over 3,600 Gaza children – at the rate of roughly one child every 10 minutes, in 25 days, dropping over 12,000 tons of U.S. manufactured bombs over densely populated Gaza, and subjecting the population to textbook genocide of creating conditions deliberately designed to destroy physical existence of the 2.3 Palestinians – half of whom are children. 

I see on social media my fellow Myanmar invite others to pray for Israel.  All this genocide cheerleading makes my blood boil. Aren’t they capable of humanity? Or of hearing the cry of despair and pain coming from beneath the rubble of over nearly 4,000 Palestinian children?

Myanmar has several different ethnic groups, but most of this cheerleading comes from either Buddhist of Christian backgrounds, judging by their profiles. I also realize that this is the same Myanmar crowd who partook, as cheerleaders and supporters of Myanmar’s Rohingya genocide seven years ago. Their continual lack of knowledge, reflection, and their own anti-Muslim racism makes it even worse. For they continue to be misled by the pro-Israeli imperialist Western mass media which portrays Israel as the one defending its own people, existence, civilization.  

And conversely, the same western media, with global influence, portrays Hamas militants – and by extension – all Palestinians – as “savages” “terrorists” “invaders.” As a people from a former British colony where our ancestors were terrorized – “pacified” – into submission and subjugation and subsequently lived as subject peoples for over 120 years, aren’t these Myanmar capable of seeing the parallel colonial British narrative of Myanmar resistors as “dacoits and robbers” and the colonizers as “civilizers”?  As George Orwell summarized it bluntly, the British rule in Burma was an act of theft, governed by the colonial officials sitting behind desks, armed with one million bayonets.

Little do they know all genocides are perpetrated on the logic – and pretext – of self-defense. All colonial narratives are anchored in the threat and acts of genocidal pacification. As such, they are inherently Orwellian. That’s what Israel is doing – except it has declared its genocidal intent, unequivocally, and most despicably in the year 2023.  

When Hitler and Nazis were building death camps and gas chambers, and inducing the forced mass displacement and forced migration of the Jews in the 1930-40s,  they justified the heinous racial acts as defending the Aryan nation against “racial contamination” by inferior races, especially the Jews, which Kaiser Wilhelm II dubbed, in writing in 1919, “mushrooms (that is, parasites) which grew on the German Oaktree.”  

When my own country Myanmar was carrying out its slow-burning genocide, with its final wave of genocidal destruction against the Rohingya in 2017, we were told that the military was conducting “security clearance operations” against Muslim terrorists supported by two million “illegal Bengali” who don’t belong in Myanmar, but belong across the border in Muslim Bangladesh. 

As a Burmese, I for one will continue, out of a felt sense of universal fellowship of humans, to oppose the colonizer, occupier and genocidal killers, whatever their name is. When U.S. President Joe Biden told Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Your country and ours share a set of principles” – unlike the terrorists of Palestine.

Biden was nothing short of Orwellian. Neither Israel nor the U.S. is in a position to tout any humanistic or civilizational values when both are in a genocidal symbiosis, breaching all international law, criminal and humanitarian. One is openly perpetrating genocide against the entire population of Gaza as a Nazi-esque “collective punishment”. Israel’s “moderate” President Isaac Herzog declared: “There is no one in Gaza that is innocent.”  

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is touted as “the world’s most moral military.” It is slaughtering children, bombing refugee camps and hospitals.   For in the eyes of the genocidal regimes, no member of the population marked for wholesale destruction is “innocent.” From the Khmer Rouge and Nazi SS, from ethnonationalist Myanmar to Zionist Israel, these regimes don’t spare babies, pregnant women, children, the sick and the elderly.  

Israel has exploited the Holocaust since the closure of Auschwitz in January 1945. Instead Israelis have proceeded to commit a full-blown genocide, while crying out loud “Never again! is now!” as Netanyahu did in his last press conference. There is little wonder that Albert Einstein refused to associate himself with “the misled and criminal people” who were building Israel with their “terrorist organizations.” For the great scientist and pacifist foresaw “the fascist character” of the state that was then in its foundational year.   

This coming Saturday I am teaming up other fellow rights defenders and anti-genocide campaigners to host a marathon rally and concert for a Free Palestine on YouTube Live – entitled “A Warning to Humanity: A Twenty-Nation Solidarity Rally against Israel’s Gaza Genocide.” 

It will be kicked off by Palestinians themselves in the occupied territories. We will be joined by our brothers and sisters from over 20 countries, including Myanmar and neighbors such as Bangladesh, India, Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, and Indonesia.

Maung Zarni is the co-author of Essays on Myanmar’s Genocide of Rohingyas (2012-18). He is a UK-based Burmese exile with over 30-years of first-hand involvement and scholarship in Burma 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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