I have just returned from Rakhine state in western Myanmar, but it feels as if it was a trip to somewhere far more familiar; to Palestine. I know, Rakhine is over five thousand miles away from Jerusalem and it has no particularly significant religious sites within it. The conflict there is not between Jews and the largely Muslim Palestinians, but between Buddhists and Myanmar’s Muslim minority. The imperial powers involved previously were the British and the Japanese, not the British and the Ottomans. Nevertheless, I found striking similarities and not just overlaps.
The experienced international aid workers and UN officials I met during my visit were also making repeated comparisons with Palestine. Is Myanmar the next Palestine? Is it already an almost identical crisis?
Let’s look at the rhetoric. Militant Buddhist monks insist that the whole of Myanmar is a Buddhist state first and foremost; Israel describes itself as a Jewish state. These hardliners, who enjoy considerable political power and can incite anti-Muslim mobs at a moment’s notice, say that non-Buddhists live there only by their grace; this is what Zionist ideologues in Israel say about Gentiles.
Muslims are also accused of “out-breeding” Buddhists, just as hard-line Zionists talk about a “demographic bomb” in Israel, for which read “Palestinians and their higher birth-rate”. One hardliner to whom we spoke in Myanmar called this “jihad with babies.” Laws even exist to limit the number of children that Muslims can have to two per couple, although these are not always enforced. Before marrying however, Muslims must pay a punitive (and often completely unaffordable) fee of $750, and face five years in prison if they do not do so.
A body of literature has also emerged re-writing the history of the Rohingya — Myanmar’s Muslim community — and claiming that they are not a “real” ethnic group, and have no rightful home in the country once known as Burma. So too has the history of the Palestinians been re-written in Israel to eradicate their existence as a distinct people. There is a new narrative in use, an invented truth which underpins slow-burn ethnic cleansing in both Myanmar and Palestine.
Among other things, the Muslim Rohingya are accused, en masse, of being prone to violence. Buddhist monks justify their own violence against them as “self-defence”, just as Israeli politicians put a spin on the disproportionate violence of its modern army against Palestinian civilians as — you guessed — “self-defence”. I heard the hard-line anti-Muslim fanatics in Myanmar talk repeatedly about “Islamification”, which is an allegation reminiscent not just of Israeli right-wingers, but also of far-right parties across Europe. The belief that all Muslims secretly want to “Islamise” the country, and convert others by the sword or other savagery, is palpably endemic.
There is also a constant allusion to shadowy foreign powers. I heard a great deal about the Rohingya being tools of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. In Israel, you hear the same about the Palestinians, except their alleged foreign manipulators are Qatar and Iran. Of course, there is a grain of truth to each of these allegations, but the detractors of Palestinians and Rohingya like to overemphasise foreign involvement in order to denigrate the very real grievances of both.
Those spouting this rhetoric – largely hard-line Buddhist monks and their ultra-nationalist allies in Myanmar — have a curiously similar relationship with the state as the illegal Jewish settlers and the Netanyahu government in Israel. While on the one hand Buddhist monasteries were raided in the week I visited, and vicious anti-Muslim monks were taken away by police officers, we also visited a recently closed Islamic school which had been beset by a crowd of baying monks and nationalists just two weeks before, as the police and even a Member of Parliament looked on and did nothing.
It was the humanitarian situation, however, where the parallels between Myanmar and Palestine were most acute. As Palestinians are in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, Rohingya are effectively stateless and denied freedom of movement, having been herded into various camps after both the 2012 violence, as well as a more recent crackdown in late 2016. As with the Palestinian fishermen in Gaza, their all-important fishing rights have also been taken from them.
Several observers told me that they could foresee a situation in which these camps would be standing for as long as their Palestinian equivalents. “Is this the next Palestine?” one of them asked me, rhetorically. “Are the Rohingya the new Palestinians?”
They have already been stuck in these camps for five years. There is definitely a sense that they could be in them for five more, perhaps even a decade; perhaps even as long as the Palestinians have been.
There is one more, horrifying parallel; the complete indifference of the international community. There is no talk of military intervention. The suggestion of UN peacekeepers is generally scoffed at and brushed aside. “This is not a failed state,” claims the UN as it cites the need to work with the government, the same government which is behind the ethnic cleansing, as a good enough reason for not doing very much to help the Rohingya.
Much of Rakhine state is closed off by the military; if there was more ethnic cleansing or even genocide, nobody would know about it until it is too late. That would suit the Myanmar government very well, of course.
Perhaps the nationalists and their hard-line Buddhist friends see how indifferent the “international community” has been — and remains — to Palestinian Muslims (and Christians, it must be said), and know that they will probably get away with many more atrocities against the Rohingya.
There is a good chance that Zionist colonialism and expansionism – which sees no place for a state of Palestine — has emboldened others involved in or contemplating ethnic cleansing elsewhere, inspired by Israel’s apparent impunity. If that is so — and it certainly looks like it — what a legacy that would be for the Zionist state, which was founded allegedly to protect a minority, the Jews, but has along the way become the inspiration for oppressors to destroy other minorities. The irony is rich, but will no doubt be lost among those responsible in Tel Aviv and their Western supporters.