Challenging Supremacy: BLM, Palestine and the Struggle for Equal Rights in Burma

The recent outbreak of violence between Israel and Gaza in May, which resulted in 248 Palestinian and 12 Israeli lives lost, may just seem like the latest in a series of tragedies in that region. Yet this clash may actually mark a turning point in the long-running conflict. What set it apart is not the scale and severity of the Israeli bombardment of civilian areas, but the dramatic change in the public response in many Western countries to what was happening.

Approximately three years ago, during the Great March of Return, thousands of Palestinians peacefully marched to Gaza-Israeli border fences demanding an end to their illegal blockade. Thousands of peaceful protesters were subsequently injured and several killed after being fired upon by live ammunition and tear gas grenades. Yet there was hardly much fuss in the Western press nor did it register much on the public radar during these events.

This time, however, the public engagement on this issue was surprisingly high, with large scale Palestinian solidarity protests in most Western capitals. Pro-Israeli advocates in the American media were frequently found on the defense. Representatives in the US Congress, most notably Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, spoke passionately against the atrocities happening. Polls taken during and after the violence show a sharp drop for support for Israel in all demographics except the most loyal Republican base.

What caused this shift in public sentiment? After the Palestinian cause had been moribund for over a decade, now it has been given a fresh lease on life. A major reason is the changing racial consciousness in this Western context and how it has caused the conflict to be viewed through a new lens.

The Black Lives Matters protests, following the killing of George Floyd last year, spread like wildfire to over 2,000 cities in 60 countries worldwide. The movement brought front and center issues of racial supremacy, systemic discrimination and the struggle for equal rights to a global audience. Millennials and Generation Z especially responded to BLM as the movement of our times.

The Palestinian struggle was taken out of its previous stale context and seen through a more sensitized perspective. Less relevant now were considerations of self-sovereignty, the two-state solution, political dialogue and the Oslo Accords. More importance now is the struggle for equal rights of Palestinians inside an apartheid regime against the supremacy of a particular ethnic group, claims that are backed by recent reports from leading human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem. The Palestinian cause now resonates as an extension of the cry against injustice that last year’s protests stood for.

While the dust settles on this conflict for now, there are valuable lessons to be learned for how to revitalize activism against persecution in other regions. The mistreatment of various ethnic communities in Burma, particularly the Rohingya, is one such context which can serve to be relooked at through the lens of supremacy and a systematized regime of discrimination.

Burma has endured a long history of struggle over the last half century of political oppression enforced by the military junta since their coup in 1962. Under their dictatorship, the country quickly fell into severe impoverishment while racking up a notorious reputation of extreme human rights violations, including violent crackdowns on anti-government protests throughout their rule. A glimmer of hope materialized when the National League for Democracy (NLD) Party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won the 2015 elections- but was subsequently extinguished when the following 2020 election results, which led to another NLD victory, was quashed and followed by a coup staged by the Tatmadaw earlier this year.

With a year-long state of emergency in place, a devastating flurry of civilian deaths and arrests of NLD party members ensued, along with banks pressured to close and communications shut down. As the death toll reached past the 800-mark last month, a global spotlight shines on these coup-related injustices, but the relentlessness of the Tatmadaw goes way beyond the brutal events of this recent year.

Burma’s long history of political struggles against persecution

 The genocide of the ethnic Rohingyas in the Rakhine state which was catalyzed between 2016 to the present time can be traced further back to persecutions against the group since the 1970s. With over two million Rohingyas seeking refuge abroad as a result of decades of extreme violence of ravaged villages, murders and rapes, this has become known today as one of the worst genocides of modern history.

However, to understand the true might of brutality of the oppressors against equality and democracy in Burma, requires another expansion of view beyond the injustices against the Rohingya. As one of the top five highest refugee-producing countries in the world, the country is laden with a myriad of conflicts, violence and systemic discrimination towards its various ethnic groups.

For one, the longest running civil unrest in the world today is set in the Kayin state of Burma, where ethnic Karens have fought for independence since 1949, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced and seeking refuge.

Naw Dar Dar* is one of the many affected by these instances of violence in the Kayin state. The 37-years old, now a mother of two and a refugee for the last eight years, left Myanmar in 2008, living at the Thai border for over five years before making the journey to Malaysia to seek asylum.

“Since I can remember, Burmese soldiers would come and terrorize my village two to three times a week. I watched them beat an old woman mercilessly till she was bruised and injured, after she begged them not to take away her little pig, her only possession- she passed away a month after that. My father was also beaten up badly by soldiers, when they accused us of supporting the Karen armed group. They stepped on his throat and slapped me when I begged for mercy,” she shares of her many firsthand accounts of encountering Tatmadaw soldiers.

This narrative of struggle for independence is similar for countless other groups, such as the ethnic Arakanese, Chin and Karenni communities, who have fought for self-determination for decades. No stranger to this same battle theme are the ethnic Shan and Kachin, who additionally bear the struggle of resistance against the Tatmadaw, who eyes the prize of quality jade from these regions, while seizing millions of acres of land for both large scale agriculture and military development projects.

What links all these groups from the Rohingya to the Kachin on a common thread is the severe persecution and violence enforced upon them by a supremacist regime. Regular accounts of Tatmadaw soldiers terrorizing and destroying villages, raping women and girls, and kidnapping men as human shields and porters are shared from displaced persons and refugees alike across the various groups. If not destroyed, villages are terrorized, forced to surrender their harvests and livestock to feed soldiers. For many living in these regions, the sound of gunshot and exploding landmines become something they have grown up being accustomed to hearing, constantly cautious and vigilant for the day their village is targeted.

For many of these groups, even their core ethnic identities have been challenged and suppressed, with policies over history having prohibited their freedom to practice their cultures and traditions, including bans on teaching their native dialects in schools and singing their traditional songs – later eased to be allowed only after regular school hours. The country’s national education as a whole comprises Burman-centered syllabus, devoid of anything relative to other cultural groups, as another part of its Burmanization program.

State-enforced political disparities transcends into Barmar society

The discrimination against these various groups are not just confined to the regions which they originate from, for even those from these ethnic communities who have migrated into the central region of Yangon experience frequent bullying and ostracization from their Barmar peers. With a political system so deeply rooted in a racial hierarchy, discrimination extends beyond policy, into the everyday perceptions and treatment of non-Barmar ethnic groups by general society.

James Bawi Thang Bik is a 27-year old Chin refugee activist, who has served as a community leader for the Alliance of Chin Refugees in Malaysia for the last three years. He shares his own personal experiences of bullying and discrimination. “I attended school in Yangon as a child and grew up with my teachers referring to me as ‘Chin Soke’ instead of using my name, which is a term used to compare us with rubbish. Naturally, my classmates would follow this example and bullied all of us minority ethnic students.”

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated event, with countless others sharing identical accounts of bullying, especially by teachers, who would use derogatory labels rooted in their ethnic identities. However, to say that this view of superiority is only based on the ethnic factor would not be entirely correct to say. Another much lesser-known group who faces discrimination and violence are the Myanmar Muslims, who are ethnically Barmar, but persecuted on various grounds, including one linked to their practiced faith.

Nonetheless, to a certain extent many of these injustices can be linked to a manifestation of Barmar supremacy, and those who fall out of the norms of being Barmar as dictated by the Tatmadaw are frequently marginalized.

Beyond the military-enforced violence and social prejudices, systemic discrimination can also be found in the challenges faced by some of these groups when attempting to obtain their national identifications and travel documentations. Without sensitivity to the contexts to which these communities have endured throughout history, complicated and taxing application procedures have created challenging outcomes of acquiring these documents. In some instances, national identification cards list the ethnicity and religion details of the cardholder incorrectly as Barmar Buddhists.

Historically, some of these groups came close to self-determination when a pledge was made through the Panglong Agreement in 1947 by General Aung San with ethnic leaders from the Chin, Kachin and Shan communities. This agreement would have led to the formation of a united state with full autonomy for the ethnic groups, with established equalities across the various groups. However, this never came to fruition after Aung San’s assassination, leaving ethnic leaders and communities scarred at this failed chapter.

Paul, 39, is a nonpartisan who originates from the Kachin state and shares his insight based on his political observations, “There is no clear-cut definition of federalism [nor an understanding of] what tailor-made federal system would be most ideal to address these ethnic conflicts. After the Burmans secured power by imposing the racial hierarchical system and state religion in the constitution, many disenfranchised ethnic minorities catalyzed armed struggle.”

In Myanmar’s constitution, it ‘recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens’. While religious pluralism is included within the constitution, recognizing ‘Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as the religions existing in the Union’, the application of law, in reality leads to a more ethnocratic rule.

“Non-Buddhist faiths groups are often questioned by authorities when holding religious events and the paperwork process for building and renovations of churches and mosques is a long tedious process, costly, and almost infeasible,” says Paul, who shares that in high school in Burma, he was forced to chant Buddhist religious mantras. This is expressed with frustration due to the bans which, during his time in Burma, were placed on other non-Buddhist and non-Barmar practices, languages and cultures.

Buddhist nationalism is a significant force in Burma, exemplified by strong anti-Muslim sentiments and violence by Buddhist nationalist groups. While these groups such as the MaBaTha (The Patriotic Association of Myanmar) and the 969 movement have not been officially supported by both the junta and NLD governments alike, officials from both sides have been linked to these groups. In fact, if not the justifications from some of these officials, including former president Thein Sein towards these groups, the silence and ambiguity of speech when addressing these anti-Muslim movements by leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, allows for a perpetuation of these sentiments, upholding the authority and status of Buddhism in the country.

While ethnic groups had initially welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership with the hopes that she could bridge these persecuted groups to the majority Burmans, many were left feeling betrayed as the years progressed.

“Suu Kyi’s national reconciliation seemed to be just to reconcile the NLD party’s relationship with the Tatmadaw. During her time, ethnic leaders who were appointed into office were those who did not represent their respective ethnic groups based on struggle,” says Paul, illustrating the loss of this hope over time. “The power sharing deal with the junta without true representation of ethnic minorities was just a power struggle within the Burman ethnic group, and these ethnic groups felt betrayed when Aung San Suu Kyi gave in to the power sharing deal with the junta.”

James Bawi echoes this doubt and mistrust from a historical angle, “They didn’t even keep their promise that was pledged to those three first of all [in the Panglong Agreement], so how then would the others be considered? For the Chins, Kachins and Shans, General Aung San, who is the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, is not a hero, unlike how Burmans think of him.”

Back to the context of Burma’s 2021’s post-coup period, the country’s fight for democracy is not the only thing hindered by the coup, but collectively with the struggle of many of its various minority groups, in being recognized in their basic human right for a life of dignity and respect.

While for the major part, the Tatmadaw junta is the biggest obstructer of these rights for Burma’s minority groups, even with an NLD-led government, a significant setback may also come from the deep-seated sense of supremacy extended from the hardline junta brutality into an influenced prejudice mindset for many of the Barmar people.

However, if anything, the coup this year has had a small victory in progressively changing this mindset, with more Barmars now being able to empathize with minority groups as they themselves now fall victim to the brutality of the junta dictatorship, growingly expressing solidarity with their non-Barmar counterparts.

“Before the coup, many people would accuse refugees of lying or trying to cheat the system when they were sharing their experiences which led to their displacement,” observes James Bawi, who believes that the coup is the main reason for this increased support. “They didn’t believe how we were treated and persecuted by the military in our own land, but now they understand.”

Paul additionally feels that beyond that, “Burman exiles who are now in ethnic minority territories have now started to understand the struggle of ethnic minorities and speak out against the racial hierarchy system. The Burmans demanding federalism are now on the rise.”

Seeking Democracy with Equality

The international condemnation following the coup declared in Burma earlier this year was swift and merited. The US, UK and the EU have instituted sanctions on entities and individuals involved in the coup. Till date, though, the military government has seemed to successfully manage to resist this international pressure and shows little signs of releasing their hold on power.

Yet, in the long term, there is no guarantee that the regime will be able to stabilize its rule, given the tremendous internal resistance it faces from civil society and its own economic challenges. The question of what will emerge post-coup is an especially pertinent one.

Perhaps now is the time to mobilize international actors towards a call for a wider change in the Burmese political system beyond just a democratic veneer. With a newly resurfaced sensitivity against racial supremacist narratives inspired by movements such as Black Lives Matter, solidarity with the people of Burma in their democratic struggle should be married with the call for equal rights by persecuted communities in the country. The goal then would not be to just reinstitute a fair electoral process of representation but to seek an end to a Barmar supremacist order that has systematically marginalized minorities for decades.

Viewing the Burmese issue through a lens of an end to systemic discrimination and as a call for equal rights can be a catalyst for a wider level of activism and solidarity globally. The international community should widen their demands for change in the country to a new order in which democratic values apply for all citizens.

Saqib Sheikh serves as project director of the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya worldwide, as well as adviser/co-founder for the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, a network of 14 refugee communities based in Malaysia. Elise Arya Chen is a human rights advocate who is currently based in Malaysia, working primarily with refugee leaders and communities.