Are the Myanmarese generals learning the art of collective oppression from the Israelis? This is hardly a far-fetched question, considering that Israel had quite an eventful history of cooperating with past South American military dictatorships, while working closely with South Africa’s past apartheid government.
It is no surprise that Palestinians find numerous similarities between South Africa’s apartheid regime and Israel’s unmistakable apartheid practices. But the Myanmarese-Israeli connection is rarely discussed. In Tablet magazine, Joe Freeman, wrote the article: ‘In Israel’s earliest days, the place its leaders felt compelled to visit was Burma.’
High-profile Israeli visitors, who began making their pilgrimage to Myanmar decades ago, included Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. At the time, the Myanmarese government was convinced that “Israel was the quintessential example of the egalitarian social and economic order that he wished to establish”.
The truth, however, lies in how both countries treated, and continue to treat, their minorities. Following the ethnic cleansing of the original inhabitants of Palestine, Israel immediately went on to fashion an alternative and particularly biased narrative about how it was established, and to deny Palestinians any historical link to their homeland. The Myanmarese did just that too.
Both countries became independent in 1948. Resistance in Palestine was mostly confined around border areas. “While the Israelis fought the Palestinians,” wrote Freeman, “[Myanmar’s] leaders faced ethnic insurgencies that immediately sprang up all over the country, while fighting in China spilled over the border.”
The myth that the 1962 military coup in Myanmar (when Ne Win took the reins of power from Israel’s best friend in Asia, U Nu) ended the cooperation between both countries, was just that — a myth. While the new dictator had less interest in Israel than his predecessor, military and intelligence cooperation never truly ceased. Instead, it merely took on a more sinister, secretive form. Even Ben-Gurion himself acknowledged that the new Myanmarese regime had “more loyalty and sympathy to Israel” than any other in the whole of Asia.
This is a truly sordid and secretive history, which is really not too different from Israel’s shady relations with the vilest of dictatorships anywhere. This is why Israel has historically served as a conduit between the West and the least reputable regimes. But what is truly interesting is how these links evolved, over the course of decades, beyond political, military and economic interests, into other fields of ‘cooperation’.
While Myanmar is being congratulated for its latest ‘democratic’ elections, much of that sinful history and equally dismal reality is being swept under the rug. But, the country’s supposed democratic triumph should not blind us to the dark forces that are still at work in Myanmar, nor to why its sham democracy is being rebranded to appear real and sincere.
As well-wishers continued to praise Myanmar’s elections in early November as fair and transparent, Myanmarese authorities arrested five men and declared that “a sixth is still on the run” for simply printing a calendar that referred to the Rohingya minority by their actual name — the Rohingya. This oppressed minority has been savagely persecuted by Myanmar’s majority for many years. In 1982, a citizenship law stripped them of their title and rights altogether and declared them ‘Bengalis’ instead.
The opening up of Myanmarese politics in recent years spelled the doom for the Rohingya, because the burgeoning ‘freedom of speech’ within the region empowered Buddhist nationalist factions that promoted genocide against the defenceless Rohingya. This incitement resulted in the killing of hundreds, the burning of entire villages and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya Muslims in jungles and refugee camps. Hundreds perished at sea as they tried to seek salvation in countries that had no sympathy for poor, stateless people.
The calendar episode, although minor in the greater scheme of things, serves to highlight the insincerity and farcical nature of Myanmarese democracy. A 2014 Printing and Publishing Law was established specifically to silence dissent and to criminalise any recognition of the Rohingya, thus abolishing their collective rights altogether.
All arrested men were charged with “fear or alarm to the public”, encouraging offences against the state and endangering national security.
“We’ve been unable to arrest him yet and he remains on the run,” said a government spokesperson in reference to the publisher of the calendar, 700 copies of which were printed. The ‘criminal phrase’ was featured in Myanmarese, Arabic and English and read: “Rohingya is an ethnic group.”
Those familiar with the onslaught of the Israeli government on Palestinian memory, can fully understand the despicable similarities between the Myanmarese attempts at copying existing Israeli policies. In Israel, not only are peaceful resistance to Israel’s military occupation and discrimination against Palestinians outlawed, but also the mere act of commemorating the Nakba of 1947-48 — the year in which Palestinians were ethnically cleansed. This is just one of numerous laws that were ratified in the past and even recently, including the changing of many street names from Arabic to Hebrew, or the removing of Arabic references to street names altogether.
Few are paying much heed to the Israeli-Myanmarese connection, which was sustained even during the time that the Myanmarese junta was deservingly shunned for crippling democracy and crushing the opposition. But the fact is that the new democratic elections were merely designed to validate the generals — for it fully reserved their power — while presenting an illusion of democracy to enable the economic exploitation of Myanmar for its many natural treasures.
The sweeping, although predictable victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, is unlikely to change the scenario much as far as the dominance of the military goes. Even if the revered democracy icon has, in fact, some serious influence over the country’s affairs, she has proven spineless in defending the rights of the Rohingya and other persecuted minorities, including Christians. Her deafening silence has prompted the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, more than once to urge her to take a stance in defence of the Rohingya. Yet, she has failed to do so.
But this is not simply a matter of intellectual exercise. The consequences of this silence are truly dire. Writing in the Ecologist, Nafeez Ahmad cited alarming new findings. A study conducted last October by the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University in London “found that the Rohingya face ‘the final stages of a genocidal process’”. “Leaked government documents show that plans to inflict ‘mass annihilation’ have been prepared at the highest levels,” he wrote.
Not only did the elections disempower and further alienate the Rohingya, but it has also empowered political groups that have openly sought the ‘mass annihilation’ of the defenceless minority community. They include the Arakan National Party (ANP), which has incited and enacted violent pogroms against the Rohingya for years.
The question is then, why is there all this excitement about Myanmarese democracy? The answer is rather simple: The rivalry between China and the United States, and their respective allies, has reached a point where the massive amount of untapped wealth of oil and natural gas in Myanmar can no longer be ignored.
The US, United Kingdom and other countries are salivating at the limitless potential of economic opportunities in that country, estimated at “3.2 billion barrels of oil and 18 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves”. According to a UK government report under the theme, a ‘hotspot for exploration,” Myanmar’s “unproven resources may be vastly greater”.
With Myanmar climbing among the world’s top five countries in terms of proven oil-and-gas reserves, terms such as genocide, military junta and human rights violations are deliberately and largely omitted from the new discourse.
Indeed, Myanmar is setting the stage to be another Israel, in its ability to label itself democratic, despite every proof to the contrary; in its continued oppression of its minorities and in attempting to whitewash its history — and rebrand its grim reality.
Dr Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books include Searching Jenin, The Second Palestinian Intifada and his latest My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. His website is: ramzybaroud.net.