Myanmar – the fine line between tolerance and embrace

When you visit Myanmar, the elephant in the room is whether or not you should be there. Should you be spending your money in a country that is reportedly committing genocide? The Chinese of course don’t care, Myanmar is possibly on its way to being a Chinese economic colony, owing debt it may not be able to pay off. China itself does not have a stellar human rights record, according to entities that report on such things. I have been to China multiple times, and I imagine many other business people have been there as a well. I’ve also been to Saudi Arabia a few times, Qatar, Egypt, I grew up in Australia that has been cited a couple of times for human rights offenses, even the country I live in, the USA, is not without mention when it comes to human rights violations, and of course there was that whole western expansion thing. So Myanmar, what’s going on, and should people be there?

There are at least two ways of approaching this, does tourism decline make an impact and what is actually going on. On the former, Travel and Tourism peaked at 7% of GDP in 2015 and is probably somewhere around 6% today. It is for sure not the biggest part of the economy, though it was expected to be a fast growing part of the economy. The decline in tourism is definitely noticed by tour operators, is definitely hurting people in the tourism industry, but beyond the symbolic message sent by declining tourism, Myanmar has other sources of income. That said, I don’t think declining to travel to Myanmar is an empty gesture. I am sure it is noticed by the government, and it is a hit to the economy, even if only a small hit relative to other industries and directed investment from other ASEAN countries, especially China.

In terms of what is going on, well you all know the international headlines: “Myanmar’s military has been accused of genocide against the Rohingya in Rakhine state in a damning UN report that alleged the army was responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity against minorities across the country.” It would be beyond arrogant to believe I could even start to understand the truth on such a short trip, but it is perhaps also true that the international press does not have all the information as well, even if that is the fault of the Myanmar government for preventing them from having it.

What I can say is that everyone I spoke to in Myanmar believes the International press has got it wrong, that it is not genocide, it is a response to domestic terrorism; a response to a protest of an independent state that started peacefully but then escalated to terrorism. Myanmar people also believe that the Rohingya people have raped and assaulted local people from the area, who have been driven out from the area by the Rohingya. Myanmar people believe that some portion of the Rohingya people are in Myanmar legally, but it is hard to tell which ones / how many, because of the porous border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Myanmar people believe that Myanmar politicians have exploited Rohingya people over the years, some times offering them voting rights, other times not, as was convenient to domestic political ends. It is also important to know that Myanmar is not one homogenous country. It is the core Burma occupied by the British plus numerous federated tribes. There are 135 ethnic groups recognized by the Myanmar government. Some states have their own military today, though the Myanmar government is trying to transition that to a single federal military. There is a history of civil wars over statehood in Myanmar, so the demands by the Rohingya for their own state, is not the first of its kind in Myanmar. Myanmar received independence in 1948, but is still, IMO, in the process of becoming a nation.

In the large cities, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus appear to walk the streets together without much fuss, and I would guess that the majority of Buddhists in the country are tolerant of Muslims. But is there an embrace?

Just when I had concluded there were no significant issues between Buddhists and Muslims, a young Myanmar man who had told me he has Muslim friends came out with this beauty “My mother told me I can marry anyone except a Muslim.” Shocked, I asked why, to which the response was “No one wants anything to do with those people.” I kept pushing, and the further clarification I got was that because Muslims require you to convert to Islam, and are prescriptive about how you live your life, Mother’s don’t want their children marrying Muslims. Which raises the uncomfortable question of whether people who insist on others converting to their faith when they marry, are expressing a kind of intolerance that disqualifies them from tolerance in return (not genocide); and the same question could be asked of conservative Jews, Catholics, or anyone else who insists on conversion to their faith. None of which justifies genocide of course, but it does touch on an insight as to why strict believers don’t always come first in the popularity polls; and the costs of protecting the faith, whatever that faith might be.

So I would conclude, Islam is tolerated in Myanmar, but Muslims may lack a complete embrace by the culture, and a complete integration, because of their beliefs. Islam requires conversion, Islam is highly prescriptive (in its conservative forms), whereas, in theory, Buddhism does not and is not. My own five cents on Buddhism in Myanmar is it is so entwined in ritual and local traditions, that it is not the opt-in, faithless, philosophy, that many in the West view it as. As a result, the consequences of forced conversion to Islam in the case of marriage, may actually be more consequential to the family of the person getting married, than people in the West might imagine – it might be a real shock to the system.

As I write this, a caravan of immigrants, some are calling refugees, are headed to the border of Mexico and the USA. Over the last few years there have be strains put on European governments, and the EU itself, as a result of Syrian refugees. The Middle East is full of people requesting and/or fighting for a homeland/statehood. To think that the growth of an Ethnic group not native to a country, causing border and statehood disputes, is unique to Myanmar would be naive, at best. As in other places, the situation in Myanmar has been framed as the right to life vs the right to defend national sovereignty (who gets to live there or not). Defense of sovereignty has also been rejected as a justification for genocide.

Some of the young people I spoke to believe that Myanmar is essentially losing a marketing war, Myanmar is not effectively telling their side of the story, that they are unskilled at dealing with this kind of international scrutiny.

I am glad I have had the opportunity to hear the Myanmar side of the story, and understand the position of the people. I am glad I understand the history of how Rohingya people have been used as political pawns for domestic politics. I am glad I have heard the beliefs of the Myanmar people that where people did step over the line, the government held them accountable. I will be gladder still when the international press has had the opportunity to fully investigate both sides of the story, and provide a holistic perspective on what is going on.

I have come to realize there is a fine line between tolerance and total embrace, especially when the other party in question does not totally embrace your faith, or even the efficacy of you practicing your faith. If the people seeking tolerance towards themselves, continue to insist there is one way, and one way only, that position is may continue to create a barrier to a full embrace, especially in a country that has been historically almost entirely Buddhist. The Rohingya people are not “native” to Myanmar, even if some subset of them have been in Myanmar for a few generations. The Rohingya people are not Buddhists. The border between Myanmar and Bangladesh has historically not been well managed, and the Rohingya people have been asking for their own state, in an area where a “native” tribe has traditionally lived. Most of what I just said does not apply to the big cities, but one area of Myanmar. This does not smell and feel like an issue that is just about faith, though faith is a variable. This smells like a border dispute, this smells like a people looking for their own state. If I had to guess, there probably was some domestic terrorism by the Rohingya people in the pursuit of autonomy. None of that justifies genocide, but it also means it is not as simple as Buddhists cleansing the country of Muslims, as some sound bite reporting might leave the impression.

Should I have gone to Myanmar, or should I have made my voice heard by spending my tourist dollars somewhere else? I would love to hear your view.



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