Myanmar's future must be peace

The country has an identity crisis; this is the heart of the failure to bring decades of civil war to an end
Myanmar's future must be peace

A boy rides a bicycle near the Maungdaw town market in the restive Myanmar’s Rakhine State on Jan. 24. Maungdaw was the epicentre of a brutal military crackdown in 2017 that forced some 720,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee over the border to Bangladesh. (Photo by Richard Sargent/AFP)

Myanmar has an identity crisis. At the very heart of its conflict, which has stretched over 70 years since independence, is a conflict over identity.

That is reflected in the political conflict over the very name of the country. Should we call it Myanmar, the name the military regime changed to in 1989, a year after slaughtering thousands of pro-democracy protestors in the streets? Or should we keep using Burma, in defiance of the military, even though the person who for years asked us to do so, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now in government and uses both terms interchangeably?

But the identity crisis goes far, far deeper than simply the name of the country. It lies at the heart of the failure to bring decades of civil war to an end. It has fueled a rise in religious nationalism and resulting hatred and intolerance. And it has been a driver of genocide. It poses the fundamental question about what kind of country Myanmar wishes to be — a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country in which everyone, of every race and religion, has an equal stake in the country’s future, or a Burman, Buddhist society in which, at best, non-Burmans and non-Buddhists are second-class citizens, tolerated but patronized, and at worst raped, tortured, bombed, enslaved, jailed, displaced, killed or driven out.

A new report has been released this week by the human rights organization CSW which aims to bring together the different strands of religious intolerance in Myanmar. The report, aptly titled Burma’s Identity Crisis: How ethno-religious nationalism has led to religious intolerance, crimes against humanity and genocide, is the work of at least three years of first-hand front-line research combined with supplementary research drawing on others’ reports.

The idea came from a realization that while there are many excellent and vitally important reports on the horrific crimes against humanity and persecution of the Rohingyas in Rakhine, some reports that document the wider anti-Muslim persecution in other parts of Myanmar, a few reports on the persecution of Christians, particularly in Kachin and Chin, there are actually very few — if any — that draw the different strands together. So, this was an attempt to weave together the different pieces of the jigsaw of Myanmar, to provide as comprehensive as possible a picture of religious intolerance, violations of religious freedom, and religious persecution in their different forms throughout the country.

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It is motivated by, and indeed dedicated to, the many people, of different ethnicities and faiths, whom I have had the privilege of meeting throughout Myanmar over the past 20 years. People like 16-year-old Khalida, a Rohingya woman whom I met in a refugee camp on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border during Holy Week last year, just a few days before Easter. As I entered her bamboo hut, she lay paralysed on the floor, unable to sit up. When the Myanmar army attacked her village in August 2017, they killed — she claims — about 300 villagers, including her father, two sisters and one brother. Khalida was shot multiple times and lay among the corpses. Her 18-year-old brother Mohammed, who sat with us recounting this tragedy, had been able to escape before the army came. When he returned, he found a scene of utter carnage. Amidst the dead bodies he found his sister, and with the help of villagers he carried Khalida to Bangladesh, where she was able to receive some medical treatment but is now confined in a refugee camp. She can’t even receive daily rations because she missed registration while she was receiving medical treatment, so she survives hand-to-mouth on whatever people will share. I left a small amount to keep her going for a few days, and I did so discretely. I knew it was a mere drop in the ocean, but I couldn’t go without leaving something. As I left, she lifted her head for the first time and gave me a beautiful smile. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for caring enough to come all the way from your country to visit us. Please come and see us again.”

But the report was equally motivated by the wives of three Kachin prisoners, who are Christians. Six years ago I met them and they described how their husbands were subjected to forms of torture that included beatings, rubbing an iron bar along their legs, forcing them to engage in homosexual sex, forcing them to dance the traditional Kachin Manau dance, and forcing them to kneel, for many hours, on sharp stones, with their arms outstretched, in a depiction of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. Each act a deliberate, cruel, calculated insult to their ethnic and religious identity.

And the report is just as motivated by the dream which the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi espoused, a dream of a Myanmar where there are no political prisoners and where democracy includes all. It is inspired by the example of the Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who uncovered a massacre and went to jail for doing their job. It is inspired by Buddhist monks such as Asia Alin Sayadaw, who visited Muslim communities during Ramdan; it is inspired by others who brought white roses to Muslims in Myanmar during Ramadan; it is inspired by Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, who has been a tireless defender of religious freedom for all and who washed the feet of Muslims and Buddhists on Holy Thursday last year in a symbolic gesture of human unity; and it is inspired by Pope Francis, who told a gathering in Naypyidaw on his visit in December 2017 that “the arduous process of peacebuilding and national reconciliation can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights.

The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group — none excluded — to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.”

That is the basis of this new report. Yes, it calls for accountability for crimes committed, because peace without justice is impossible. But justice is not the same as revenge and must never be the same.

Yes, it calls for pressure on the military, because it is the military that is at the core of the problem — that prevents further constitutional reform, that has a hold on Aung San Suu Kyi, that sows and feeds and fuels the religious nationalist movement that spreads hatred, intolerance and conflict. Yes, the report calls for international action on these fronts.

But the heart of this new report is a heartfelt appeal to the Myanmar government, Myanmar civil society and every democracy-promoting, peace-loving person in Myanmar, to put aside hatred and prejudice, and to work for a Myanmar that is truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious, enshrining “Unity in Diversity” in practice. A Myanmar that respects the identity of every Buddhist, every Muslim, every Christian, every Hindu, every Animist, every Burman, every Shan, every Kachin, every Karen, every Karenni, every Chin, every Mon, every Rakhine, every Rohingya, every person born on Myanmar soil among the multitude of other ethnicities and sub-groups — and, ultimately, respects human dignity and human identity.

Only then can Myanmar’s identity crisis be solved.


Benedict Rogers is the East Asia Team Leader at CSW, the author of three books on Myanmar including ‘From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church’, and of the new report Burma’s Identity Crisis: How Ethno-religious nationalism has led to religious intolerance, crimes against humanity and genocide.

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