The Myanmar that’s advertised in travel brochures doesn’t match up with the heartbreaking reality we’re witnessing in daily news reports. The country is often marketed as the “golden land of a thousand smiles”, a place of majestic Buddhist monuments and peace-loving monks and pilgrims.
As someone who lived there for almost five years, I can attest there is a different and disturbing side to the mostly Buddhist Burmese society. It’s the side playing out in Rakhine State right now against Rohingya Muslims, but it’s not something that is confined to that area – casual racism and religious bigotry (including towards people from neighbouring Muslim-majority Bangladesh) is commonplace even in urban hubs such as Yangon.
Aung San Suu Kyi addresses Rohingya crisis
Addressing the tensions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that erupted last month, Aung San Suu Kyi defended the country’s security forces, saying she felt the suffering of “all people” in the conflict.
My Bangladeshi husband, and myself by extension, were frequently subjected to it. This time last year, we had to abruptly leave the country for good because Myanmar refused to allow my husband to apply for a new business visa from the Burmese Embassy in Thailand.
When Sherpa pleaded with the visa officer, explaining that his wife was in Myanmar and waiting for him to return, the visa officer sneered and offered a racist jibe.
An ambassador in Yangon tried to put in a good word for my husband and was told that Myanmar had recently become “very strict with Bangladeshis”.
The truth is, it’s always been strict. We’d moved to Myanmar in 2012 when I got a job at The Myanmar Times and it was so difficult getting Sherpa a visa that we’d joked about simply swimming across Naf River, where Rohingyas recently have poured into Bangladesh from the other direction.
Sherpa was the editor-in-chief of a business newspaper and he never got the chance to say goodbye to his colleagues and a country he was immensely fond of. I packed up our home on my own and left two weeks later.
We’d known other Bangladeshis who had also faced visa hurdles, such as a lawyer called Alvi, who had left Myanmar voluntarily when the increasing hassles surrounding his paperwork had become too much.
During the years we spent in Yangon, Sherpa and I found it difficult to secure rental properties and were frequently asked by real estate agents if we were Muslims. We were told it was lucky we weren’t, because landlords would not wish to have us as tenants. And when we did sign a rental agreement, the owners of one particular property brought us snacks made of pork that we were made to consume in front of them.
After my husband was thrown out of a taxi when he told the driver he was from Bangladesh, he took to telling curious strangers that he was Sri Lankan, as it too is a majority Buddhist nation. When I told a colleague that my husband’s father (a Muslim) had died when my husband was 14, she replied, “That’s lucky for you”.
I had a Burmese Muslim colleague who was taunted by her co-workers – they’d ask if she’d brought a bomb to the newsroom in her backpack.
Although I no longer find it surprising, the steady stream of posts and comments on my Facebook feed suggesting the current treatment of the “Bengali terrorists” is justified still alarms and saddens me.
Why is Myanmar so virulently, militantly pro-Buddhist? Much of the answer lies in its history. In short, it’s due to half a century of isolation and strict military rule, which began in 1962 when General Ne Win ousted a democratically elected government. He was a deeply superstitious man and expelled all foreigners and foreign businesses and his ideology was one of extreme nationalism, Marxism, and Buddhism. This was indoctrinated into the Burmese people at all levels of society and not a great deal has changed, despite the country opening itself up for international business opportunities.
As the British-based Burmese scholar and activist Maung Zarni writes in a 2012 blog post about the treatment of Rohingyas titled Growing up a Proud Racist in Burma: “For nationalists, the cliche ‘to be Burmese is to be Buddhist’ is still a given, especially those in the ruling military clique. While having deep roots in our turbulent history, the current resurgence of Burmese racism, both official and popular, is, no doubt, a direct result of half a century of racist military rule.”
The international community was shocked and disappointed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s English-language address last Tuesday, as she failed to criticise her country’s security forces for what the United Nations has described as “textbook ethnic cleansing”, or to even mention the Rohingya people by name. However the majority of Burmese applauded their devout Buddhist de facto leader.
There’s a magazine here beside me with an ad for a $10,000, two-week tour of Myanmar that entices potential travellers with the following blurb, “With a history that evokes all the romance of the East … Burma has much to teach us”.
Yes, Myanmar has something to teach us. It can teach us of the mortal dangers that isolation and xenophobia pose. Right now, it can teach us nothing about peace.
Jessica Mudditt is a freelance journalist.
SOURCE: The Sydney Morning Herald